Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Earth Day, Plus One

Happy Earth Day, plus one.

From the “It’s a new book to me” category, I am currently reading Last Child in the Woods—Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. The book was published in 2005 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill and has since received enormous attention from educators, environmentalists, children’s advocates, and the popular media. If I understand correctly, Mr. Louv coined the term Nature-Deficit Disorder. I was relieved to find while reading the book that Mr. Louv’s intention is not to give the pharmaceutical industry yet another niche illness from which to profit.

Mr. Louv’s Nature-Deficit Disorder is just a simple descriptive term for the many ill effects that seem to affect children who are growing up completely desensitized to nature. It’s pretty basic. Kids don’t know where their water comes from. They don’t know where their food comes from. Their understanding of the world is compartmentalized (into TV channels and websites largely). They are disconnected from a genuine understanding of the world—big and small—in which they live. In addition, they are not getting the fresh air, exercise, and learning by doing experiences that they need and that come from being in the woods, mountains, or at the shore. They are also missing out on fully developing their creative and analytical thinking skills, as well as their senses of self-confidence and sensible caution. And for many, they are just simply missing out.

My wife and I have two youngsters, ages five and three. We want them to be safe, healthy, happy, and curious. We want them to grow up to be good people, discerning, responsible, unhurried, unharried (new word?), respectful, grateful, active, self-confident, and not materialistic. We want them to be self-confident. We think that nature will have a lot to do with us (and them) achieving these things.

Louv touches on many topics in his book, covering traditional environmental and conservation topics, parental worries and supporting studies about the harm of too much television and too much dependence upon technology (computers, video games, etc.), worries about physical fitness and emotional health, and education policy, all within the context of how real and regular contact with nature is good for kids.

One subject really sticks out in my mind. My wife and I talk about this often. It concerns the freedom for kids to roam, to just explore. Nowadays, it seems more about the parents’ willingness to allow their children to even get out of their sight. Louv discusses these issues thoughtfully and honestly. Still, I was a little sad with his final stance on the matter, though I agree with him completely.

I remember roaming the Southeast Atlanta suburbs where I grew up. Even on camping trips, I often was out of sight and out of earshot for hours, roaming the woods, exploring and cooking up adventures. Maybe I exaggerate a little. I do recall that, on the rare occasions where I did get into a fix, mom or dad seemed to appear at just the right time. Of course, no matter how “out of sight” I might have thought I was, when I got seriously out of line (like going out into a boat by myself and without a life jacket) the long arm of parental justice would swiftly appear and my free ranging would be limited to the family tent for the remainder of the outing. And that after a seat-warming.

I don’t think that my wife and I will worry so much about our kids being alone in nature, when the time comes. We will, regretfully, worry about whom else might be out there with them.

But for now, we want to get them outside.

Strongly recommended: Last Child in the Woods—Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv.

Louv also makes an excellent case for fishing.

Speaking of which, my three-year-old son cast his first line this past weekend while down at his grandfather’s small lake south of Atlanta. After repeated attempts, he finally succeeded in getting down the eye-arm-thumb-rod coordination properly. And, MAN, was he proud. Me too. Of course, his five-year-old sister has had it down for several years, now. Her satisfaction comes from her ever improving distance and aim, both of which she lords over her younger brother.

And my son fired his first BB gun. Actually, it was my old BB gun, and I was, of course, holding it for him while he squeezed off a few BB’s. His sister showed no interest, too busy, I suppose, reeling in a nice bream.

A plug for the Daisy air rifle company: the BB gun that we were shooting is (oh, Lord) nearly forty years old. It still works. I remember the very first BB I ever fired with it. I had begged and begged my mother to let me shoot it, swearing on everything that an (eight? nine?) year-old-boy could think of to swear on. When she finally relented, I went down to our dirt basement and set up several large, plastic native-American figures that I had gotten at Zaire’s department store as targets. I paced off about ten feet, took aim at one of the indigenous peoples and fired.

This next bit will mean something to the people who have seen the movie, A Christmas Story. The very first BB that I ever fired, bounced back and hit me in the face, just below my right eye. OH, GOD! I SHOT MY EYE OUT! Just like mom said that I would. Crap! I am going to be in SO much trouble. They’ll take away my BB gun.

I dropped the BB gun and made certain that I hadn’t shot my eye out. I hadn’t, and I don’t mean to make light of what might have been. I actually had a childhood friend who nearly lost an eye to a BB.

I never, ever, told my mother about that incident in the basement. Maybe this goes back to the Louv book, too, now that I think about it. He writes about controlled risk. We can’t protect our kids from everything, and imagine their lives if we try to sanitize everything around them. It’s a scary and fine balance, this business of parenting.

One last note on the worth of the outdoors: I agree with Louv’s thoughts on nature’s role where family is concerned, that it is something that a family can share and experience togehter, that it is a wonderful teaching venue for parents, and that it can be a generational experience. I know how much my father enjoys the time by the lake with the grandkids.

If exposure to nature will help my kids develop their own unique senses of adventure, fancifulness, mystery, or even contribute to whatever spiritual directions they might choose to follow as they get older, well, so much the better. It makes perfect sense. And on that score, if my mom is reading my blog (and I like to think that she is), I’m certain that she is getting a big chuckle about my stressing over boats and BB guns. She passed away two years ago today. I see retelling—and retelling—all of the family camping and fishing trips to my little ones as a great way of remembering their grandmother.

Recommended reads:

An Outdoor Journal by former Georgia Governor and US President Jimmy Carter.

Deliverance by James Dickey. Perhaps the best literary example of the trouble that people with Nature-Deficit Disorder can get into.

Deep Enough for Ivorybills, Inheritance of Horses, and The Colors of Africa by James Kilgo.

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood and Pinhook: Finding Wholeness in a Fragmented Land by Janisse Ray.


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