When I was a child I loved the cuddliness and innocence of animals, and I wished they could talk. A grownup and activist now, I look for ways to use art to awaken our empathy with the natural world and to increase our climate-change consciousness. As an artist and writer, I know what fun it can be to combine pictures and text. So when my Friends Meeting in Santa Cruz put out a call for adults to share their skills with children in the First Day School, I offered a project called “If Animals Could Talk.”
The boys and girls range in age from three to nine. We first looked together at an illustrated book, The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming, by Laurie David and Cambria Gordon. We learned about endangered species and the issues that animals face, such as dwindling food sources, changing habitat, and adverse mating conditions. Then the children wrote, illustrated and assembled their own book in response to this query: “If animals could talk, what would they tell humans about climate change?”
The children took to the concept and went ahead full steam. Their creativity required very little prompting. The older ones helped younger ones, and they all praised each other and cooperated beautifully. Out of a concern that I might upset the children with the enormity of our environmental problems, I made sure to emphasize global conservation, innovative efforts, and solutions in progress. The children were enthusiastic about the project, whether they were already knowledgeable about these subjects or were coming instead from an unknowing childhood state of grace.
Several aspects of this project helped feed the children’s enthusiasm. One was the way that sensual forms of expression like drawing and painting can help children to focus. Another was the way that fantasy taps into children’s natural instincts to play. Also, I think the children feel very much loved by the adults in Santa Cruz Meeting, and the opportunity to create a gift for them may well have been part of the energy. The children presented their finished book to the whole community at the end of Meeting for Worship on the last day of the project. Their book went into the meeting’s library collection, and the clerk of our Unity with Nature committee, Jean Harrison Siegler, wrote a review for our meeting’s newsletter:
We have a new book in the library, If Animals Could Talk. The theme of the book is conservation on land and sea, especially not polluting, not littering, not over-warming, and not over-harvesting. There are fourteen pages, including the back cover, each with a picture of one or more animals and a quote from the animal, mostly a single sentence but sometimes two or three. Every illustration is charming, done in watercolor and crayon. The messages are important statements and pleas from the animals. ... This book can be read in less than a minute or studied at length. I highly recommend it. A five-minute perusal might tug at your heartstrings more than a long brain-stimulating book or movie. You will want to help these animals.
The idea to conduct this activity with the children felt like an inescapable calling to me. As I worship in our meetinghouse, I hear the traffic roar on Highway One, and I think of the carbon-laden fumes produced right on the doorstep of our sacred space. Knowing as I do what is at stake when we burn fossil fuels, I wonder what George Fox would do or say if he knew the situation and were alive today? I think he would be a fiery and energetic activist for the Earth. He would express himself in no uncertain terms, without fear, and feeling a divine spirit, as he did in the 1600s.
When I first learned about global warming, I was deeply saddened by this reality, especially by the harm we are doing to our world’s beautiful animals whose habitats and food sources we are compromising and destroying. I have always lived near oceans and rivers, and a kinship, especially with water creatures, rises up in my soul. This feeling of love for life on earth gives me strength to fight for a better future. My love for my daughter does too.
Creating our book, If Animals Could Talk, was an inexpensive project. It took five one-hour sessions to complete, and it offered a chance for several adults in our meeting to work with the children on a fun project that allowed everyone to excel. While producing the book, I imagined the children having dinner conversations with their families and playground conversations with their friends about ways they could help to heal our planet. Also, I imagined the children’s pride upon finishing the book and seeing the adults’ positive responses, which proved true.
For anyone who wants to conduct a similar activity with children in their own meeting, here is how we did it in Santa Cruz:
First, we assembled art materials and I obtained a book by Laurie David and Cambria Gordon, The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming (although any good children’s book on this subject would do). The art materials we used were: file folders, pictures of animals from calendars and magazines, card stock cut in a uniform size (We used 5 inches x 5 inches.), watercolors and crayons, paper clips, lined paper for captions, glue, and a stapler.
The five sessions of the project divided out like this:
Week 1 – We read excerpts from The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming together and discussed it. This gave us foundation knowledge to work from. (Again, any good children’s book on this subject would do.) Each child chose one picture of an animal from a pile of old calendars and magazines, and they wrote or dictated what that animal might want to let us know about climate change, habitat destruction, plastic pollution, and so forth. We got to know each other during this session.
Week 2 – The children came into a room that had a table set up for creativity. They seemed to get excited just seeing all the art materials. I demonstrated the resist technique by making a drawing of a tiger with wax crayons and then painting over it with watercolors. Each child then drew an animal. Some referred to a picture from a publication and some just used their imaginations. Because class attendance varied from session to session, we had to be flexible and let the children proceed as their hearts dictated to a certain extent. At the end of the second session we had a nice array of drying pictures. Clean up came a little later, after worship was done.
Week 3 – We continued the activities from Week 2.
Week 4 –To assemble the pictures, we stapled file folders together to form a book. We glued the pictures into the book, each with its own page. The captions for their animals were glued underneath the pictures. We saved one page for giving credit to all the artists and authors. The book began to take shape.
Week 5 – We improved the appearance of the text throughout the book. We made sure to list all authors and artists on the page of credits. The children presented the book to Santa Cruz Meeting after Meeting after Worship.
This project lends itself very well to exploring some important Quaker testimonies, including simplicity, integrity, peace, and of course, stewardship. Our consumer lifestyle compromises the natural world and violates our testimony of simplicity. The lack of integrity and justice is seen in excess consumption by the wealthy few, which deprives poor nations, poor people, and future generations from having enough resources to survive. Climate change incites wars, which destroy people, animals, and habitats, offending our peace testimony. Our testimony of stewardship reminds us that when we ignore the harm we are doing to Creation, we disregard our God-given intellect and betray a sacred trust.
Thanks to Mimi Edgar, Heather Elrick, and David Forbes for their assistance with this project. Readers should feel free to contact Tyger Wright at [email protected]. Please include “IACT” in the subject line of your message. ~~~
Tyger Wright is a member of Storrs Friend Meeting, Storrs, CT, now attending Santa Cruz Friends Meeting. She writes fiction and articles to raise awareness and promote solutions to climate change.