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In Praise of Messy

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In Praise of Messy

By Wendy Priesnitz

messyI have begun work on a new book. It all started this past week with my pollen allergy, which seems worse this year than in the past. I remembered an article I wrote in 2002 about the fact that most people and cities plant just male clone trees because they are “litter-free,” meaning they do not drop messy seeds, seed-pods, or fruit on lawns and sidewalks. However, we pay for being neat freaks because these male plants all produce large amounts of allergenic pollen. Same too, with the price our health and environment pay for the plethora of chemicals with which we feed our obsession with personal hygiene and household cleanliness.

Then I read an article about how conventional farming shares with conventional gardening that love affair with order and neatness: straight lines, clipped hedges, uniform crops, and pasture that looks like a golf course. And no weeds – i.e. “messy” plants growing in the “wrong” place!

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This morning, I wandered about the house picking up clutter, thinking about how it doesn’t take as long as it used to when our daughters lived and learned at home. That got me sitting down with a cup of tea reminiscing about those wonderfully messier times…and missing my messy granddaughters who live half a continent away.

Many of Life’s Best Things are Messy and Disruptive

Many of the best things in life are messy – and disruptive (uncomfortably so, for some people). Making art is mostly messy. I am a messy writer, with books, references, and papers strewn across my office when I’m in the thick of it. Creativity and other intellectual challenges can, in general, be mentally messy and chaotic. Gardening – the process if not the end result – is inevitably messy. Nature itself, in all its diversity and complexities, its soft edges and muddy middles, is messy.

Most certainly, learning is messy. Schools try to organize, plan, label, and regiment information. But that’s just memorization and regurgitation, and any real learning that happens is incidental to that tidy process. Learning is about trial and error, muddling about, questioning, guessing, exploring, investigating, following passions rather than schedules. (It is often disruptive, too.) Unschooling / life learning is, well, messy learning.

Messy: Out of Control In a Good Way

I think this could be the beginning of an important new trend, like the Slow Movement! In fact, young people may have already started it; one of the meanings of the word “messy” in the Urban Dictionary is: “out of control in a good way.” The sooner we learn to relinquish our attempts to control children and Nature, and, instead, assist them to unfold in their own messy ways, the stronger, more resilient, happier, and healthier we’ll all be.

Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of Life Learning and Natural Life magazines, a journalist, the author of ten books, and a contributor to many others. She is also the mother of two adult daughters who learned without school and has been an advocate of home-based education since the 1970s. Her website is
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