Wednesday, June 18, 2014

DOWN ON DIRTY KNEES – How a Generation’s Yearning Saves the World

During my children’s generation, kids have grown apart from Nature at an alarming rate. Now, as my grandchildren grow up, the cultural forces driving that alienation have only intensified. It’s only due to parents and grandparents with extraordinarily wise values and priorities—and, I’m sure, a few lucky rolls of the dice—that my grandkids are at least as close to Nature as I was as a child.

But fewer and fewer youngsters are so lucky.

There are lots of us out here working to stem the tide of this children-nature alienation—what best-selling author Richard Louv has so aptly dubbed “Nature deficit disorder.” Many wield voices more articulate and influential than mine.

Louv, in particular, and the international organization he co-founded, The Children and Nature Network, has been most eloquent in dispelling the often-unwarranted fears that cause childcare-givers to rein in their charges’ curiosity and sense of adventure. More importantly, rather than sound yet another gloom-and-doom alarm about the future, Louv and C&NN paint a clear, compelling, positive picture of a world in which Nature is once again an integral part of our everyday lives, whether we live in the woods, on a farm or in the inner-city.

More than words and images alone, the movement has given rise to a groundswell of scientific research documenting both the extent of Nature deficit disorder and its effects on kids’ physical and mental health, happiness, depth of character, ability to learn and many other qualities.

    This hunger of the soul is every bit as real...
    as our hunger for food or our thirst for water.

Louv’s and C&NN’s vision—of Nature beautifully and practically reintegrated into education, health care, architecture and city planning, religion, technology and a dozen other aspects of life—is catching on. How do I know this? First of all, the numbers show it.

C&NN has grown from a handful of campaigns in 2006 to 115 campaigns in North America alone. In the past two years, some 3,000 new Nature- and place-based opportunities for kids to connect with the out-of-doors—things like kids’ community gardens, nature clubs for families, natural play areas, neighborhood parks, school gardens, and trails—have sprouted in areas served by C&NN grassroots initiatives. The number of children engaged in these programs has more than tripled in just two years, to approximately 3,000,000 children annually.

And, with C&NN far from the only organization working to reclaim Nature for coming generations of kids, the movement continues to grow exponentially.

I also know the Children and Nature movement is for real for one less empirical, yet more personally compelling reason.

Every generation has its own aspirations, its own signature yearnings. For my grandparents, it was to find their place and make their mark in the new world; for my parents, to weather the Great Depression and World War II, return to peace and see that their children had the educational and career opportunities that may have eluded them; for me and my wife, to embrace sweeping social changes, raise thoughtful kids and then remain relevant in an ever-faster-moving, technology-driven culture.

    Perhaps the epiphany will come when folks 
    realize how vital to life that sense of belonging 
    is…and how quickly we are losing it.

And here’s where there seems to be a departure. It looks like our children’s generation, while certainly practical and ambitious, may prove to be the first in a very long time to not find themselves better off financially than their parents. While this is troubling, it is far less so than the fact that these young adults and their children may also be less well-off physically, cognitively, socially, emotionally and, I dare say, spiritually, than their parents—in ways research is showing are closely linked with their increasing alienation from Nature.

For this generation the yearning is one they may not yet even realize. Indeed, they feel something; perhaps it’s started with a bit of disappointment that all the miracles of efficiency, speed and connection which technology has availed them somehow haven’t delivered the genuine prosperity they expected. It may be realizing that all this virtual experience parceled out to us by corporations teaches them impatience and engages only one or two of their senses—and those with sadly little nuance or challenge. Or maybe it’s the promise of “connectness” which the Internet and social media have failed to provide in any but the most superficial of ways.

Whether we realize it now or not, these shortcomings are starving us parents and grandparents, as well as our youngsters. These two or three current generations are witness to the first-ever mass disconnect of kids from the out-of-doors, their God-given natural state, at a rate unprecedented since the age of homo erectus some 1.8 million years ago. For all that time, we’ve enjoyed—and usually taken for granted—a deep sense of belonging to special places, ecosystems and climates. Perhaps the epiphany will come when folks realize how vital to life that sense of belonging is…and how quickly we are losing it.

So what? What if we are becoming independent of, and indifferent to, Nature? Is that so bad? The answer lies not just in the kind of research championed by C&NN, but also deep in our hearts and souls.

Everyone yearns for something. Some experience it deeply and allow themselves to be moved by it; others may spurn it as impractical, not to be trusted. I suggest that this hunger of the soul is every bit as real, and serves every bit as vital a role in our survival, as both individuals and as a species, as our hunger for food or our thirst for water.

Like a child’s deep emotional ache for a departed parent, it is not casually soothed or wished away.

When we lack those physical requisites of life, our bodies—in fact, our hard-wired instincts—tell us we should act. If we don’t or can’t, the body amps up the message from Should act to Must act! If we still don’t get the message, the body takes matters into its own hands and begins shutting down non-essential systems.

The same process has been playing out with our craving for Nature, a need that starts, like corporal hungers, deep inside. For those more accustomed to listening deeply, it’s heard as a clarion call, that Must act! admonition, a charge that’s validated every day by conditions and events we can see and hear and feel.

So the reason our longing for Nature is so much more profound is that, unlike some ideal we can only imagine, it is something my generation once knew intimately, but have since lost. Like a child’s deep emotional ache for a departed parent, it is not casually soothed or wished away. We ignore it at our peril.

     We may well be the last to remember what it 
      was like to have Nature be our companion, 
      our teacher our counselor…our world.

Why is it so critical for you and me and others in our generations to recognize that deep yearning we’re all feeling at some level, and to act on it? Because if we don’t, we may well be the last generation to remember what it was like to have Nature be our companion, our teacher, our counselor…our world. The last to whom one’s natural state was playing outdoors, in the warmth of sunlight; in fresh, moist, moving air; in rain and snow and the other miraculous manifestations of water; in the knowing, healing chemistry of rich soil; in the company of other growing, breathing organisms which still know primordial truths.

We’re the ones who have to tell those stories and describe what it was like to spend most of our free time, every day, outdoors in that richly instructive, nurturing, healthy, carefree—not to mention breathtakingly beautiful—realm.

Those sublime places and properties made us smarter, healthier, more thoughtful, more self-aware, more socially adept and a host of other qualities we absorbed naturally and automatically, and that today’s kids enjoy only with considerable extra effort by us, their parents, grandparents and others entrusted with their welfare.

Join me in inspiring more such families, institutions and communities to make that effort. Here's how you can do it:
  • Share this and other endorsements of the Children and Nature movement with your family and friends.
  • Commit to regular connections with Nature for yourself and your family.
  • Start a neighborhood Nature club.
  • Propose integrating Nature into not just your family, but your workplace, your church and other community institutions.
  • Support the Children and Nature Network, where there are links to information and resources to help you, or other children-and-nature organizations.
  • And imagine what a world once again whole with its very heart and soul would look like.


jean said...

If I had not roamed in nature as a child, I would not be a poet and an artist today. I am so glad that there are people getting kids out into the natural world. Marghanita Huges is doing a great job! Are you familiar with her work?

Jeffrey Willius said...

Jean -- where could I see your art and poetry?
Yes, Marganita's a bright light in the Children & Nature movement. She's a good friend and a real inspiration.

jean said...

Jeffery, google the McGuffey Art Center website and I have a page there. For the poetry. I was one of 4 poets featured in the first on-line edition of the Streetlight Magazine. I have 3 poems there. If I had better computer skills, I could actually give you a link :)

Jeffrey Willius said...

Jean -- I've spent ten-plus minutes trying to find you at McGuffey website -- no luck. What am I not doing right?

jean said...

Dang, Jeffrey, I don't know. Did you try the classes? I don't have "office" so I can't even get in to the classes. Maybe "members"? I wish I knew. Sorry about that. I know there is a page with pics :(

Vishnu said...

Hi Jeff, it is very easy for us to forget about nature now a days. you almost have to drive to parks and reserves in most cities to see a park even! that was my experience living in Los Angeles which has given me more inspiration to seek and spend more time in nature. Nature is a connection to our emotional and spiritual selves. Something big will be missing if we don't give today's generation an opportunity to get to know nature better and spend more time outside

I've noticed that there's more connection to nature in countries around the world, like central America and Asia and there's a similarly more spiritual connection in those countries as well.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Vishnu -- I know what you mean about our tendency to forget about Nature. But, even if there isn't a park or wild place nearby, one can still experience it. It's in the grass, the trees, the air and water, even on and in our own bodies. I know there's no substitute for the spaces those wild places afford us, but there's a big movement afoot to weave at least some small aspects of Nature into every human endeavor, from education to city planning, from early childhood development to senior care and hospice.
I agree that many other parts of the world seem to have retained their essential connections with Nature better than we have in the US; we can learn a lot from them.

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