I heard an interesting discussion on Wisconsin Public Radio this morning with Richard Louv, the author of “Last Child in the Woods”. Having hardly any time for books unrelated to my profession, I probably won’t get around to reading it, but its theme seems important: the notion that children, particularly city-dwellers, are losing all personal connection with non-human nature. Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the situation of kids who rarely see any wild, natural space, and who may partly as a result of this develop a host of increasingly common problems, including obesity, depression, and attention deficit disorder.
This happened to tie in closely with a discussion I had a couple of nights ago with several friends. We were sharing what we do to cope when times are tough. Many of us mentioned getting outside, particularly into wilderness of some sort, on land or on water, as one of the most reliable methods of improving our mood. My guess is that this works primarily for people who had a childhood in which non-human nature figured prominently.
In my own case, I spent my first twelve years on the outskirts of Gainesville, Florida, smack-dab in the middle of one of the most complex ecosystems in the world. Beyond my backyard was a big field, behind which was what seemed an endless stretch of moss-covered deciduous and pine-needle-floored coniferous forests, lakes, meandering streams, swamps (complete with quicksand), even a huge labyrinth of a bamboo forest. These habitats were overflowing with fauna: minnows, tadpoles, frogs, turtles, snakes, alligators, spiders, worms, caterpillars, centipedes, millipedes, beetles, birds, squirrels, armadillos, possums, raccoons… Sometimes with friends, but just as often alone, I’d explore these wild places with a wary eye, always careful not to step on a coral snake or blunder into the web of a huge spider. It was always an adventure. There was always a new stretch of trail to explore, and when the trails gave out, the explorer’s instinct would kick in.
Thinking back on it, I’m amazed that my parents permitted me – even as an 8 or 9-year-old – to traipse about in these environs, all by myself, for however long I cared to… All I had to do was to show up at the dinner table before sunset, and no questions were asked. Maybe it was because they had no interest in hiking through these wild places themselves, having been raised in big cities, and so had no idea of the potential dangers. But this freedom I was given, and the appreciation of the natural world it allowed me to develop, marked me indelibly. To this day, nature brings out the child in me. Maybe that’s why I always feel driven to return to it.