Sunday, February 15, 2009

Wild at Heart

From the bean of Green Bean.

When I read the latest topic for the February APLS Carnival, my heart dropped. A "Carnival of Nature" to be hosted here at The Green Phone Booth by fellow eco-hero, Green Raven, aka The Purloined Letter.

I read on. The topic was inspired by Raven's enjoyment of Last Child in the Woods, a groundbreaking and, to me, heart-breaking book about the current generation's disconnection with nature. The author, Robert Louv, argues that many of the "syndromes" we see in our children today - ADD, ADHD, autism, OCD, obesity - stem from the fact that our children spend so little unstructured time out in the wild. He terms it "nature deficit disorder." I mostly read the book last year. I say mostly because I couldn't finish it. Part of the reason was because it was dense and, in my opinion, longer than it needed to be. And part of the reason was because it struck such a chord in me, such fear, such anxiety, that I simply couldn't face it.

Without a doubt, we are raising a generation of "denatured children." Our kids spend most of their time inside because "that's where the electric outlets are." Of course, that's also where mom spends her time. More of it typing on this computer than she should.

But we are also raising our kids in a different environment than we were raised or than our parents and their parents were raised. Not just because of the paranoia regarding stranger abductions and the like, the rates of such seem to be holding steady for the last several generations. Not simply because there are more cars on the road, though there are.

No, we are in a different environment because, at least where I live, there is no nature left.

I make my home on the edge of Silicon Valley. We live tucked between neighbors with neat sidewalks and crisp green lawns separating the homes and the street. Street trees are efficiently lopped off or replaced with trim little varieties that don't drop a colorful show of leaves in the fall. Our downtown is a mix of shops and restaurants that perches only a short walk from home.

Technically, it is called a suburb but it is nothing like those suburbs featured in documentaries and news articles. I cannot remember the last time I saw a vacant lot. Open space does border our town but it is a good ten minute drive and fifteen minute hike through a beer bottle littered park to access.

Do I think nature makes a difference? Does just looking at a wild place cool the blood and calm the heart? Would my overly active, impulsive and inattentive six year old benefit from hours of free time constructing dams and clambering up trees in some mystical forest inhabited by more than some overfed squirrels? Of course.

Do I make valiant efforts to reconnect with those wild places? Sometimes. Sometimes, we get out in nature or what's left of it. Sometimes, we ogle brochures for summer camps set on a farm or in open space. Sometimes, we plan vacations and revel in nature's unruly magnificence. Sometimes, we work to regenerate nature in our yard. And sometimes, like when I'm trying to write on a topic for a carnival hosted at my own blog, I have to admit that reconnecting our children with nature is harder than it should be.

It is harder than is ecologically appropriate as well. Most environmentalists will tell you that dense populations, living in close proximity to shops, jobs and public transportation produce a slimmer carbon footprint. But such a lifestyle also sets our children apart from that the all purpose tonic of nature. It removes them, makes them more susceptible to consumerism and places "where the electrical outlets are". It tries to tame those who are wild at heart.

I'm not sure what the answer is. Whether "growing nature" in our urban parks and yards is enough for our children. Whether the yearly trip to a national park or a summer camp adventure can heal. Whether my exhausted effort to squeeze in a hike once a month can regenerate. Whether the planetary benefits of a more urban lifestyle offset the sacrifice. I don't know. But, for my kids' sake, I hope someone does.

This is The Green Phone Booth's submission for the February APLS Carnival to be hosted here, at The Green Phone Booth, on Friday, February 20th by The Green Raven. If you would like to participate in the carnival, please send a link to your "nature" post to aplscarnival(at)gmail(dot)com by Wednesday, February 18.


Electronic Goose said...

This is heartbreakingly true. From my own childhood experience, every bit of nature counts.

FOO said...

Great post! I read an interview with Louv in the Sun several years ago and it prompted an informal survey of my friends - all of my friends over 30 spent all their free time outside, all my friends under 30 spent most of it at computers or watching tv. The under-30 set are great folks, no deficits that I can see, but I am so grateful for my memories of running like a pack of wild animals with my friends. The interview and some other sources also inspired a children's story I wrote and you can read it by clicking here:
We have a little creek in a park near our home and my almost-4-year-old son loves to poke around in it, but we don't go often - after reading your post I'm going to lace up our shoes and get out there now. Thanks for the inspiration!

Deb G said...

I've just started reading this book. It's making me sad to realize I may be part of the last generation that will have had the freedom to be outdoors in an unstructured and free way.

I think I am lucky enough to live in a community that has fringe areas and wonderful access to outdoors. That just made me sadder because I think so many children don't get to take advantage of it. And that's a societal pressure or a part of our culture of today.

I think this is going to be a painful read....

Stephanie said...

I grew up in the Bay Area, so I definitely know how hard it is to find "nature" to play in. Then again, I was lucky: until I was ten I lived on the side of a hill surrounded by an eucalyptus forest, where I and a neighbor about my age could run around and play all day. Still, more and more I realize that even that wasn't a whole lot of nature, and I find myself longing to go out and play, but as a self-proclaimed "city person" I don't know where to find nature. It's hard to figure out, most definitely. I think, though, that you're on the right track, since you sound like you have a big enough yard to garden and discover new things in. I can't believe I spent the last few years trying so hard to stay away from the garden and having to help my dad in it, then suddenly found out that I really like hanging out outside.

I make no sense. Obviously.

Farmer's Daughter said...

I'm happy you wrote this post. It is difficult for people living in urban areas to reconnect with nature, I assume. I see so many people come to our farm, where the kids don't know what kind of animals the sheep or goats are (ok, not like confusing a sheep with a goat, more like calling it a bull.) It's really sad, and the same is true for food. When I ask my students what they want to grow this semester from seeds, they want to grow apples. And I'm just like, okay... let's back up a minute and talk about perennials and annuals...

Anyway, I think that recognizing the problem is part of the solution. Making the effort to allow your children time in nature is part of it. Letting (making?) them help in the garden is important, too. The weeds, bugs, frogs all have an important role to play in educating children about nature.

Donna said...

Growing up pretty near to where you live ;) I can tell you that as a child, I didn't have many more opportunties for daily nature play than your boys. My parents took us on lots of camping trips, though, and when I was about 12 we spent a week on a farm. Those experiences, especially the farm, were so powerful that they made a permanent impact on me. I think you're doing what you can, and it will be enough.

kale for sale said...

I know it's not the same but don't forget you have a vegetable garden in the front yard. It's not a tree to climb but what a great natural education steps from the living room. And I know a six year old who spends hours in a self dug hole in the bag yard with the hose and a couple of boats building islands, canals, ditches. It's not a creek but once he gets to one he already understands water. I just want to acknowledge the half full part of the glass and that sometimes we can find nature in the most unexpected places; under a tomato plant, in a muddy hole or in the scamperings of a pair of over fed squirrels on the backyard fence.

Green Bean said...

Goose: I guess we take it where we can get it as it is so very important.

Food: How wonderful that you have such a creek! Hope that you had a wonderful time with your son.

Deb G: It is a tough read but a worthwhile one for sure.

Stephanie: Funny! I was like you. When a child, I shied from camping and gardening. Now I yearn for it and look for nature in every aspect of my life. I guess it involves growing up and appreciating what really matters.

Abbie: You are right. We city-folk really appreciate farms like yours where we can get our kids out a bit more into "the wild." I have found that, with my edible and pollinator gardens, there is more "nature" there than when it was just lawn and a few ornamentals. It attracts much more in the way of birds, bees and other insects. Last year, we were even lucky enough to host a toad for a few months. We never saw him but heard him a few evenings. To my kids, and especially to me, it was magical.

Donna: Good point! And you turned out ok. :) And I'm so totally taking the boys to a week on a farm.

Katrina: Right you are! And this is one of those instances where we have to think of the glass being half full. We have to make do and I do and I have. But darn it! I wish it were a bit easier. And I wish that apple tree would grow a bit faster - and turn into a nice climbing tree!

Steph @ Greening Families said...

After reading this and your earlier post (Bringing the Mountain to Mohammad), I wanted to recommend the book Bringing Nature Home by Dr. Douglas W. Tallamy. The book discusses the importance of native plants to local insects and animals.

The book helped me to see that there is a great deal I can do, even in a city, to foster connections to nature for my family. I agree with Electronic Goose - every bit counts!


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