The blast of droning buzz saws woke me up. It took a few minutes to connect the noise with a dispiriting idea. When I opened the shutters, branches of the large tree in a courtyard two doors down were juddering under the assault. The workers took it down, branch by leafy branch, in a practiced system that prevented any errant limbs from falling on the neighboring concrete slabs, clusters of lawn furniture and massive barbecue machines. Urban tree removal. Doubtless, the owners of the rental brownstone were planning their own pave-over of a postage-stamp garden plot to simplify maintenance and create a recreational feature as a selling point for a former “garden apartment.”
Last Child in the Woods describes the shrinking of nature and of children’s encounters with it. Natural habitats are disappearing from our cities, suburbs and even rural areas. Kids sit in front of screens, getting fatter and stupider by the decade, completely oblivious to the natural world around them. Our children do not know much about animals, plants, eco-systems or seasons first-hand. And Richard Louv cites plenty of research to show they are poorer for it.
Time spent in nature has been shown to relieve symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), stress and depression, and increase student performance on tests. Nature is a cure for what ails us. Green architecture and urban/suburban planning not only preserve species but enhance the lives of the people who live in those forward-thinking places. It probably helps property values, too, but that’s not the point. “Nature-deficit disorder” is Louv’s point, a condition that impoverishes the soul, the imagination, the brain, the body and the planet.
We need nature, Louv argues, and we will not thrive or progress without it. Children are increasingly alienated from dirt, danger and discovery—and there are ways to expose them productively to all of those things so that they develop a delight in the natural world, the skills to protect themselves and the confidence to handle challenges. Kids who grow up isolated from nature have no affinity for the planet and its creatures and that is a profound deprivation.
Louv was preaching to a choir of one in this reader. I was the homeschool mama who organized pond scum parties, horseshoe crab spawning surveys and nesting sea turtle tracking for small groups of excited city kids. We took our mini-sketchbooks and watercolor kits to parks as well as museums; we picnicked at sunset on the banks of the Hudson River. It wasn’t enough. Raising hermit crabs and swallowtail butterflies in the bedroom and caring for domestic pets isn’t enough either—but it’s something. A pale thing. Not all that intensely green but a little green. The electronic screens are going full-bore around here all the time–we need so much more.
Swimming in a sea of cortisol is the encounter with the natural world most available to me these days. A walk down the unused bridal trail through the scarred old trees of the park is a calming antidote to that but it’s far too temporary. A vegetable garden, an old fruit tree, uninvited rabbits and deer, encouraged butterflies and birds might be a better life. A view through green or bare branches is surely an improvement over the stark vista of metal, plastic, concrete and the backs of buildings we have now.
I used to wake to loud birdsong in the morning. Our apartment is next to Central Park, on an important East Coast flyover for migrating birds. We had butterflies along with the birds, visiting the courtyard gardens below and the plants on our wide window ledges. There was a pair of cardinals that made their nest every year in the lost tree or one of the other trees to fall victim to the passion for concrete and dollars. We saw orioles, blue jays, finches—and a sprinkling of more exotic birds all spring, summer and fall. No more.
The tree that was ripped into chunks, wood-chipped and carted away had a big nest in it, visible from our window. Its leafy branches provided us with shade and some privacy from the windows of apartments opposite. In the winter, it held glittering strands of snow. And now it’s gone. We are diminished. The ideas and examples of greening detailed in Last Child in the Woods are hopeful. They provide the rational excuse for what should need no explanation. If we don’t value nature and turn our children loose to encounter nature, they never experience what it is like to fully live.
Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder Richard Louv | Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 2005
Related post: The Tree by John Fowles