Teaching children about the natural world should be seen as one of the most important events in their lives.
~Thomas Berry (The Dream of the Earth)
In late August, early September, we went to Maine for a week. I didn’t really blog much about it at the time; but, more on that later. While on that trip, at the base of Mount Washington, actually, I came across a book called, Last Child in the Woods. Though I didn’t end up buying it, I did thumb through it a bit, and added it to my “to read” list. It caught my attention because it draws on a point I make to myself, and worry over, frequently as a parent; particularly as a parent raising children in a condo in the most densely populated state of the United States. That point is: Are our children, and are WE, as humans, getting so far removed from nature, and so dependent on technology, that we’re… damaging ourselves?
(my kids, digging by the lake in Maine)
I don’t mean just physical damage like carpel tunnel syndrome or losing muscle tone or gaining weight from so many hours in front of the computer (though those are important, too). I mean more that we’ve evolved WITH nature – for thousands, millions of years – and it’s only been in the last couple of centuries – particularly the last couple of decades where we’ve left our codependency with nature in favor of codependency with technology. Televisions, video games, computers, cars, smartphones... Our food is techno-fied, our travel is techno-fied, even our books are techno-fied. I feel like in our day-to-day lives, we’re really losing touch with our earth; we’re emotionally disconnected from nature; that must have an effect on how we ARE.
I’m not anti-technology. Far from it, being that I’m here writing this on my laptop, to be published on my blog, which I’ll read on my iPhone, which is up on the internet; which is also the home of our retail websites (which are our livelihood as a family). And, once finished writing this, I will very likely hop on my treadmill, to be followed by viewing a movie on Netflix. Heck, I’m far from being anti-technology; I love technology.
But I also love the earth. I vividly remember playing in the grass and the sand and the trees and the dirt as a kid. Hours spent in the garden, and just being outside in the summertime, the Spring, the Fall, and even the Winter. As a young kid, we were outside all. the. time. (Until, of course, my parents caved, and finally bought a Nintendo. I spent a lot more time indoors after, say, 1986 or so. Still, I rode my bike to school.)
It’s different for my children. Of course, I want to believe they too love the earth. In the Spring, Summer, and Fall, we go hiking as much as we can, and we tend towards nature-loving vacations, when we take them. We container garden in the Summer, and visit the Farmer’s Market on the weekends. But, in spite of that, the reality for my children is that there has never been Life Without Cellphones. They know how to turn on their computer, open a browser and surf the internet. They know how many “friends” I have on Facebook. (And how many their dad and grandmother have, too). We’ve never had a newspaper delivered. I’m not sure they’ve ever seen a payphone in person, nor had to wait for film to be developed. Email, online, download, Twitter, blog – all of these words are seamlessly part of their lexicon.
I think it’s easy as adults who have grown up with a mix of nature & technology, to feel okay about our own children having simple access to technology. Afterall, we grew up on Sesame Street and Walkmen, and Ataris, and we’re okay, right? At times, I find it effortless – and fascinating – as adults, who are ourselves immersed in technology, to watch our children so easily adapt to computers, internet, iPhones. But I am afraid in that ease, we forget that as kids ourselves, we really were outside. A LOT. And when we were outside, we were out there without cellphones. That outside time, that meshing with and growing up in nature, was important. Feeling grass on our feet, dirt under our nails, sun on our shoulders (without even sunscreen, OMG), tree bark against our legs as we climbed… that was necessary. All that time outside wasn’t useless, wasn’t just getting us out from under our mothers’ feet, it was teaching us about this earth from where we came, and where we’ll return. The smells of the earth, the rain, the plants, helped to develop our senses. The sun helped set our internal clock (not to mention made sure our vitamin D levels were on the right track – without supplements, OMG). Getting lost, then finding our way home, without GPS, helped us learn to rely on ourselves, to pay attention to our surroundings in order to orient ourselves. “Going out to play” helped us meet people, learn how to make friends, play games, share, make up rules, win, lose. I knew where food came from because we had a garden, and we got any produce we didn’t grow from the local farm; the grocery store was a much less-frequented destination. It’s just different for our kids.
(my kids, exploring the trees in the woods in New Jersey)
Anyhow, back to Maine, for a moment, and then, I’ll close up my thoughts. We drove up to Maine in the wake of Hurricane Irene. It was the clearest I’ve ever seen 95 – there was hardly a soul on the road – it was the fastest we’ve made it through New York City, ever. Upon arriving at our cabin, we realized that Irene had taken out the electricity on our road. We spent the next five days of our vacation without electricity or running water. Which also meant: No lights. And… no computers. Also, no alarm clocks (though I woke with the sunrise every morning). No microwaves. No movies. We bathed in the lake water and cooked over a fire. We read books and played board games in the evening by candlelight. We sang and roasted marshmallows around the campfire before bed. And during the day, we went swimming, canoeing, hiking, exploring, and just playing outside. All day. Until the sun went down. While I can’t say I wasn’t grateful when the electricity finally came back on the day before we were set to leave, it was mostly because I got to actually flush the toilet and wash my face with hot water, NOT because I could turn on my computer and update my blog (okay, though I did do that). Adam and I, and the kids, say this was our best vacation yet. I can’t help but believe it’s because we all FELT SOMETHING we’d been missing – that full-on connection with nature, that we don’t really ever get anymore in our technology-dependent lives, at least not in such large doses as we experienced that week.
Richard Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods, says, “biologically we are still hunters and gatherers and we need, at some level we don't fully understand, direct involvement in nature. We need to see natural shapes in the horizon. And when we don't get that, we don't do so well.”
I want my children to have that direct involvement in nature. I want to get back to that myself. I think it’s imperative.
In the neighborhood where we are, and in this climate of high-technology, it’s just. so. tempting. (and easy) to occupy ourselves virtually. But the more I read about so-called nature deficit disorder (I just recently read a great article about it this past week in Newsweek), the more time I spend away from nature, the more I realize we NEED to get back to the natural world. We ALL need to take more hikes. We ALL need to plant more gardens. We ALL need to take the more challenging route, and close our laptops for a while, put our cellphones down, and get out in the woods. It isn’t just to avoid turning into Wall-E-type humans living just for the next techo-fied meal and virtual shopping experience, it’s to continue to BE human. We’re a part of nature, we always have been, and need to keep that bond alive, in order to survive, and thrive.
Do you find yourself connected with nature? How do you – and your children – stay in touch with the natural world?