Thursday, May 24, 2007

Last Child in the Woods

When I'm flung all over the state for work purposes, I reward myself on the trip home with a hike in Missouri's vast wilderness, Hawn State Park. I can literally lose myself in the far reaches of the park, lulled into false security by the thick stands of whispering pines which offer all the comforts of my college-era landscape. I fled my thesis in pine forests. I cut my teeth on Louisiana's natural history in pine forests. I spent afternoons identifying trees, skinks, and wildflowers while eating sandwiches with my dearest friend, Nathan, in pine forests. When I want to feel comforted, I want to go home. So I go to Hawn.

I don't go to parks on weekends. While I think I need human contact and social interaction, I don't want it when I'm in the woods. Today's visit was unlike any other: I followed an igneous creekbed for about a mile and stumbled across another person, a 7 year old boy. He was looking not only for the same solitude I was looking for, but for crayfish.

The boy was crouched in the creek, jeans soaking wet, knees covered in mud. He asked me if I had ever seen a crayfish. Had I seen the one had just caught? I had actually only seen it in books. He asked if I wanted to help him find more. He didn't want them for bait, he didn't want to take them home to an aquarium, he just wanted to see what he could find. Naturally, I joined him. We flipped a few rocks, caught a few more crayfish, talked about how cool they are, and then let them go. It dawned on me as I was leaving him to his afternoon that I literally could not remember the last time I saw a kid in the woods without parental supervision, doing whatever he wanted to do.

Richard Louv's new book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, describes a crisis. American children are suffering from emotionally crippling mental and physical disorders because they're not given the chance to play outside in nature anymore. Studies have shown that overscheduled children spend their precious "free time" watching television (on average, over 1,300 hours a year) or playing on the computer. Children spend twenty four hours a year playing outside in unstructured activities. Now, Louv says, children are suffering from a nature deficiency and it's manifesting itself in epidemic proportions of childhood allergies, depression and unnameable fears. Because today's children lack important emotional connections to the natural world, they will be unable to make ecologically responsible choices as they mature.

Oddly enough, Louv points out that children who live in rural America suffer from this deficiency more than kids in urban areas. Rural kids are no longer exposed to family farming and turn to satellite television before going out into wild places. A study by a state conservation agency discovered that 65% of children in rural Central Missouri, an area rich in creeks, streams, and other natural resources, have never been fishing. 95% of children in St. Louis and Kansas City go fishing at least once a year.

Some argue that kids spend plenty of time outside playing sports. A recent study shows that while green spaces provide some healthy benefits, areas rich in biodiversity provide exponentially more benefits. The higher the biodiversity, the healthier the environment and its impacts. The 7 year old I flipped rocks with today is probably feeling pretty good tonight; Hawn is considered one of Missouri's most biologically diverse landscapes with a plant list over 400 species long.

Many children learn about nature from television and likely know more about South American rainforests than their own backyard. Last summer, I pointed out a yellow bellied water snake on a log to a 4th grader. She asked if we had anacondas or boa constrictors in the park. When I told her no, but we have 6 other kinds of snakes including the one right in front of us, she kept walking, not even glancing at the water snake. For every kid who leaves his parents at the campground to look for crayfish, there's one who refuses to enter the woods because his parents told him there were monsters in the trees. It's the responsibility of the parents to make sure children get outside to participate in nature, not just activities that end in -ball.

Louv ends his book on a positive note. Unlike incurable disease or global warming, where problems are complex and solutions are difficult to find, nature deficit disorder can be easily cured. The problem has been identified, the solution is simple and well within our grasp. Let kids explore nature like our generation did. Let them build forts out of cedar branches, flip logs looking for amphibians, let them get back to nature. It doesn't really matter if they get dirty.

I didn't sleep well these past few days and my diet has been dreck since Tuesday, but I left Hawn revitalized. I wanted to return to the rich bottomland forest, to hear green treefrogs and screech owls. I left the solitude of the pine forests, the place I find warmth and comfort, eager to get back to my own wild woods.

No comments: