I didn’t grow up in the country. I didn’t grow up in the city. Like millions of children, in fact, most children in this country now, I spent my childhood in what would be described as suburban neighborhoods. From age five to almost ten, I lived in a subdivision just off a busy main road, near what eventually became the Beltway around Washington D.C.
While I would not say I was an outdoorsy kind of kid, in fact, more the kind, if given free choice, would have stayed inside, lying across my bed reading books about pioneer girls and their adventures on the prairie, it was not a free choice kind of time in this country for non-adults. Unless it was undeniably stormy — thunder and lightning kind of stormy — or the Wonderful World of Disney was on our black and white television — we were pretty much tossed outdoors, only allowed back in for meals and bedtime.
We mostly played on the street, or in the small crabgrass-infested front yards of our nearly-identical brick bungalows, or we bicycled around the narrow confines of a few permitted streets. Not exactly the wilds, but there were lightening bugs and Japanese beetles (which we were paid small amounts to capture in glass jars).
And there was what I thought of as a woods just behind the houses across the street, really just thickly treed un-landscaped backyards. But woods enough for me, a sometimes wondrous and sometimes scary place, with enough unfamiliar flora and fauna, and the rumor of a crazy man up the hill who occasionally shot his pellet gun at children who got too near his property.
But that, and periodic visits to local parks and the zoo, were as close as I got to the Great Out of Doors or Pure Nature, until the summer I turned eight years old and my parents decided to take advantage of my father’s accumulated unspent vacation from the public health service to cross the country and see America.
They were convinced to do so, as my father wrote, by a number of dear friends who proselytized for a form of outdoor sport called camping. Their arguments ran from the low cost to the extreme mobility, and included the avoidance of ordinary restaurants and the glory — my father pointed out — of sleeping under the God-given stars (in retrospect, he would later observe, very hard to see with the eyes closed, as they usually are, by sleep).
The trip from D.C. westward was to take no more than 45 days. We started off in a rather aged but good car, with a limited budget, my parents, as they confessed to any and all who would listen, knowing nothing about camping, without even the experience of dry runs, ignorant of the territory West of Harper’s Ferry, with some trepidations, with a great many illusions, and some great misinformation.
My mother kept a journal she later typed up and titled And All That We Could See, based on the popular song of the era about the bear that climbed over the mountain, the mountain, the mountain, and all that he could see was the other side of the mountain.
We did see mountains, starting with the modest Poconos, and then the majestic Grand Tetons, and the Rockies. We saw great wonders and tourist traps, the dunes in Indiana, the Wisconsin Dells, the Corn Palace in South Dakota, Old Faithful in Yellowstone.
Much of the trip was benign — if you didn’t count mosquitoes and miserable restrooms — but some of it was frightening, even dangerous. Like the afternoon on a secluded road in the Big Horns when our car and hooked-on trailer jack-knifed, and we were held there captive by a large, stubborn, even aggressive, herd of cows.
Or the nightmarish evening when my parents were sure they had finally lost one of us in a campground, my youngest brother Russ, who they found quite a few horrifying minutes later sacked out in his sleeping bag in the corner of our tent. Or the bear in the bathroom, or the flash flood that nearly swallowed up our small car. The raw cold and the extreme heat.
Still, this first grand experiment and experience in the American Wild (or almost wild) — first of many by the way — was also a great gift, even an essential part of my development. As one scientist put it years later, we can now assume that just as children need good nutrition and adequate sleep, they may very well need contact with nature.
My husband knew this, but not based on his own mostly-sheltered childhood. Because while he lived in Arizona close to wide open desert spaces and not far from stunning pine forests and famous canyons, his parents had a hands-off relationship to such settings. Vacations were spent in motels with swimming pools, preferably near a beach. He knew about nature from Boy Scout camps, and then only late in his growing years.
So, from the time our son was born, it had been important to Richard to expose him to the natural world. An ordinarily uneventful and happy experience.
Except the time when Ben was three years old, a great day for a hike in the woods near our then-home in Marin County, California. The spot chosen was only a ten-minute drive from our house, the trail beginning next to a creek and then winding its way through the woods and surrounding countryside.
Father and son stayed on the trails, but Richard got turned around somewhere and the path began to take them deeper and deeper in the woods.
Halfway into the hike, my husband realized they were lost, and since it was a weekday, there was no one else on the trail.
After trying to find a way out, he started yelling for help, but no one answered. These were the days, of course, before cell phones, and he had not remembered to let me know where they were going.
It was his Boy Scout training that turned a horrible and horrifying experience around, something he remembered about water flowing from its point of origin in a mountain downward into the flatlands. If they followed the flow of water they ought to come back where they started.
So into the water he went, carrying our son. It seemed, he remembers, like it took forever, but it was only about 30 minutes until they got back to the familiar trailhead.
Fortunately, they were safe, and even more fortunately, this was not their last hike in a woods. Not by a long shot. Fear did not stop him from making sure his child spent time outside in wilder places.
Fear, according to journalist Richard Louv, is what causes many parents to keep their children inside, even on their own streets and in their own neighborhoods.
Not only the fear of things that go bump, or growl, in the night in campgrounds, or the fear of getting lost or injured, but what he calls irrational (or at least disproportionate) fears that dangers — or abductors — lurk at every corner.
The underbelly of this issue, he believes, is that parents are terrified, frightened that some stranger is going to take their kid at the corner. He blames the national media for taking a handful of terrible crimes against children, magnifying and repeating them over and over, creating a national state of alarm. Confessing that when he raised his own boys, he had the same fear. That they did not have the same free rein as he had in nature as a child tramping through the Nebraska cottonwoods, exploring the countryside. But still more than most.
And then there are the health fears about West Nile Disease and Lyme Disease, air quality and toxic UV rays, all causing parents and other caregivers to even discourage outdoor play.
In his landmark book: Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature–Deficit Disorder published in 2005, Louv observed that, besides fear for our children’s health and safety, computers, televisions, and video games keep children almost exclusively inside these days, asserting that the children of Boomer Parents were the first generation to grow up in the electronic bubble, the first for whom nature was often an abstraction, rather than a reality.
In fact, the idea for this book was sparked, he told one reporter, during an interview with a fourth grader years before who told Louv that he preferred to play indoors because that was where all the electrical outlets are located.
He is quick to point out that with his own sons he does not see electronics as the enemy, he told one reporter after the book came out. He didn’t ban computer games for his kids, he said.
But, he said, I don’t think it’s easy to have a sense of wonder when you’re playing Grand Theft Auto. You need to offer your kids something more.
Louv talked with nearly three thousand children and parents across the country, in urban, suburban, and rural areas, in classrooms and in living rooms. Some who told him that computers were more important than nature because that’s where the jobs are, or that they were simply too busy to go outside. Some said they have to sneak away into the woods so as not to alarm their parents. Others had seen favorite playing places destroyed by new developments.
His anecdotal reporting is backed up by some studies about what is being called the de-naturing of childhood that would support his theory that children have fewer places to roam outdoors, less opportunity and less inclination.
In this country, children are spending less time playing outdoors or in any unstructured way. From 1997 to 2003, there was a 50 percent decline in the proportion of children nine to 12 who spent time outdoors in such activities such as hiking, walking, fishing, beach play, and gardening.
They spend far less time out of doors than their mothers did — with 71 percent of the mothers recalling that they played outdoors for part of each day, but only 26 percent of them saying their own children did.
Our children’s lives are out of balance, spending less time outside than any generation in human history, say authors of The Moving Outdoors in Nature Act, a proposed federal initiative to increase green spaces, educate parents and other caregivers, and provide more opportunities for outdoor recreation.
They tell us that children today spend just four to seven minutes a day on average simply playing outside.
Louv calls this nature deficit. And the resulting phenomenon, Nature-Deficit Disorder, a term that describes what he sees as the human costs of alienation from nature, among them diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses. In his book and in articles, he cites evidence that unstructured playtime in the woods or on the beach helps kids become healthy creative adults, and can also help kids who suffer from depression, hyperactivity disorder, and obesity.
He writes that “as the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings… this reduces the richness of human experience. Yet, at the very moment that the bond is breaking between the young and the natural world, a growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our associations with nature — in positive ways.”
He tells stories of witnessed transformation, like the camp counselor who recalled the night she showed a nine-year-old city girl the stars. The girl’s first reaction was to gasp and grab for her counselor. She’d never seen the stars before, the counselor said. That night I saw the power of nature on a child. She was a changed person. From that moment on she saw everything, the camouflaged lizard that everyone skipped by. She used her senses. She was awake.
Being awake. Feeling awe and wonder. Regarding a woods, a meadow, a mountain vista, as deserving special respect or reverence. All of these are spiritually healthy responses to the natural world. The sense that everything, everything is holy.
On his own religious journey, singer and composer Peter Mayer found himself moving from the assumption that the holy was only to be found inside the walls of a church, under the direction of a priest. That whatever miracles there were had been in the long ago past and all of them recorded in the Bible.
Holy water was rare, at best, barely wet his finger tips.
In his song, Everything is a Holy Now, his changed understanding of what is sacred, what is divine, can be found, as well, in the power, mystery, and beauty of the universe.
This morning, I stood and saw a little red-winged bird
Shining like a burning bush,
Singing like a scripture verse.
It made me want to bow my head
And I remember when church let out,
How things have changed since then,
Everything is holy now.
When Richard Louv’s son Matthew was just four, he was already trying to sort out the spirituality of nature, or what Louv would rather call the spirituality in nature, when he asked his father, “Are God and Nature married or just good friends?”
The belief that the universe and nature are numinous, worthy of reverence, emerges in all human spiritual traditions, including the ones we have been exploring all this year. Called pantheism (God as nature)or panentheism (the world as part, but not all of, God), it can be found in the Upanishads, the Tao te Ching, in the Hebrew prophets, in early Christian mysticism.
Children, we are told, are born with a sense of the interconnectedness and unity of nature, which gets lost, as it did for Peter Mayer, when we separate children from Creation, from radical amazement, from the spirit-nature connection.
In Last Child in the Woods, our author relates a tale told by a ninth grader about The Spot, as he called it:
As long as I can remember, every time I heard the word “nature,” I thought of a forest surrounded by mountain peaks seen off in the distance.
I never thought too much about this until one year when I was on family vacation at Mammoth Mountain. I decided I would try to find a place similar to the place I thought about since I was a kid. So I told my parents I was going on a walk.
To my surprise, it only took about five or ten minutes to find The Spot. I stood there in awe: it was exactly as I imagined it. Dozens of massive pine trees were visible. Out in the distance was a breathtaking view of a mountain top. To my side was a small creek. I was in a star-struck daze for what seemed to be five or ten minutes, but it turned out to be two-and-a-half hours.
My parents had been looking for me because it was getting dark. When we finally met up, I told them I had gotten lost, for how could I share such an experience, such an overwhelming religious experience? This experience made me think about the real meaning of nature. I have come to the conclusion that one’s idea of nature is their idea of a paradise or a heaven on Earth…
Here in our own congregation, we are intentional in keeping alive the sacred bond between child and nature. Even as we now live in the shadow of a freeway, on a noisy frontage road, we care for and clean a creek, plant butterfly gardens, and cherish our trees, so that all, children and adults alike, may experience this connection.
A teacher in our Atlanta Progressive Preschool came in this week to tell me the story of her Prairie class, who were 18 months old when school began last fall. At first, she remembered, they were having to adjust, crying from the newness and from separation. When they were outside, she noticed, they seemed so much happier. The liked the woods by the creek, gathering leaves — big piles of them.
They liked to hold their afternoon meeting underneath a particular tree, decorating it with sticks and nuts, feeding the birds and other animals who lived in and around it. The tree was their friend.
One day, the tree was gone, and in its place, just a pile of wood chips. It had been diseased, you see, and needed to come down.
The head of our school wrote a letter from the tree thanking them for its care and placed it where the tree had once lived.
The children found the letter, and without direction, picked up the wood chips, put them in a bucket and carried them to a new tree, to keep it warm.
Every afternoon, they now gather by their new friend, and life and nature and love and nurture go on.
We are, in our own way, fulfilling the most important goal that Richard Louv has for insuring that No Child is Left Inside, that we will not live to see the last child in the woods, that our children and grandchildren will know joy and wonder, create their own nature experiences, and, as they grow up, expand the boundaries of their exploration.
None of us can solve the nature deficit disorder by ourselves. But here are a few things we all might do:
- Get dirt. A truckload of dirt is the same price as a video game. Invite flora and fauna into your life — get a bird bath. Build a bat house. Make your yard a backyard habitat.
- Tell your children and/or other children stories about your special childhood places in nature and help them find their own. Go camping in your backyard. Take a hike. Plant a tree. Go birding.
- Read a book outside.
- Become an interfaith partner in taking inner-city children on nature explorations, reclaiming vacant lots, redesigning playgrounds, as we are, in more organic ways. There’s a Catholic Church just down the street from us that may very well welcome our partnership.
Biologist Rachel Carson once wrote:
Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth will find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.
May it be so this day.