Here we have a new reviewer discussing a book that has been the subject of considerable attention since it was published in 2008. I wrote about the book a couple of times in op-ed columns for the Winston-Salem Journal back then, when I was the editorial-page editor. Its subject is near and dear to my heart, since my husband and I raised our children deep in the briar patch in Stokes County. Our boys fell in the creek countless times, “hunted” wild turkeys in our fields, learned to identify wildflowers and fungi, swung on ropes and vines from big trees, built secret “forts” and otherwise grew up immersed in nature. One is now a field biologist; one is a Navy officer. Both have been enriched by their childhood in the woods.
But no one has written about this book for this blog, and it’s an important book. If anything, its message is more urgent today than when Louv wrote it.
By Denis Dubay
LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: SAVING OUR CHILDREN FROM NATURE-DEFICIT DISORDER. By Richard Louv. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (2008). 390 pages. Paperback, $14.95
Richard Louv begins the final section of his book, Last Child in the Woods, with a question posed by his then 4-year-old son, Matthew: “Are God and Mother Nature married, or just good friends?” Later, Louv and his son share this question with Fred Rogers of TV fame, whose reply includes this request to Matthew: “Will you let me know, as time goes by, what answer you find to your question?”
The relationship between God and nature guides only a portion of this interesting and carefully researched book, but it is the final portion. It wraps up the story Louv weaves with perhaps the most effective argument for reconnecting children with nature: to strengthen their spirituality. The argument leans toward no particular denomination, rather toward a spirituality rooted in the amazement that overcomes one in the face of an incredibly steep and jagged mountain; the reflection of tree-covered hillsides, blue skies and white clouds in the smooth surface of a lake; the arcing flight of a hawk overhead, or the cautious steps of a suddenly alert deer on the trail ahead.
Louv’s account of this exchange between his young son and Mister Rogers ends in the same manner the book proceeds, with respect for the question and the child asking it, with compelling interest in how the answer comes out.
Although Louv clearly makes the case for the importance of nature in the growth and education of children, he does it gently, with openness to ultimate alternatives. Yes, he cites many examples, many studies to support his contention that connections to the natural world help children learn science and math and language, cope with danger as well as with difficulties, appreciate the unknown, and even come to know a God. But he entertains as much uncertainty in exactly how exposure to nature does these things, and how we might improve the connection down the road, as he acknowledges in dealing with his son’s question about God and Mother Nature.
Although Louv has two sons, it is his younger son, Matthew, who opens both the book and its last section. This time the question has to do with Louv’s oft-repeated recollections of playing outdoors during his own childhood, something Matthew felt he had missed growing up in the last decades of the 20th century. Matthew asked why it was more fun when his father was growing up. With this opening, Louv describes in disturbing detail the many obstacles preventing our children from experiencing nature with the same ease and wonder enjoyed by earlier generations.
Whether it’s homeowner-association rules prohibiting tree houses, forts, or any free, unsupervised play in open areas, the replacement of unstructured woods and vacant lots with ball fields used only for structured games, or the fearful restrictions placed by worried parents on how far their young offspring may roam, there is little doubt of the differences modern kids experience.
How many fifth-graders today ride their bikes several miles along major roads on their way to school? I asked my mother recently if she worried about me on those days in suburban Baltimore when she let me take a big spin towards independence. She recalled a strong fear for my safety, but she let me ride.
And Louv takes a look at the seductive draw of electronic gadgets. Couch potato may have been invented to refer to middle-age men watching football, but the term has been usurped by today’s children playing computer games and texting.
Louv goes on to highlight the costs of the well-documented separation from nature. He acknowledges that nature-deficit disorder is not a formally recognized illness, but nonetheless reports many problems that may arise when children grow up with little to no exposure to the natural world of trees, dirt, creeks, bugs, mud, frogs, hills and ponds.
But Louv also explores how we may return, not to the good old days, but to an exciting new future where parents and children have the opportunity to share an easy, hand-dirtying, imagination-filled examination of a hillside of bare soil, a flowing creek, a climb-able tree, a trail of ants or the capture of a frog by a snake. Louv does not spell out exactly how this will or must happen. Instead, he shares an array of examples in which that future has already begun to happen, and discusses a variety of projects, programs and movements that could lead us further in this direction.
To paraphrase an apt question one of my daughters asked on a trip at age 4: But did we want to go there? Having spent a portion of my time reading this book gazing at mountain ridges and walking alongside alpine lakes with mule deer and ravens, and once or twice passing a class of adventurous ninth-graders camping in the woods, I know the answer I would give. But the more difficult question is how do we get there, to this new future.
Although Richard Louv does not have all the answers, he’s posed important questions, and supported well his contention that most of our kids need and would benefit from more time spent in nature. He has also described a many-branched set of pathways to that hoped-for, nature-filled future. And he’s reminded us that to be human is to be constantly, repeatedly and deeply amazed, at a mountain, a tree, a waterfall, a hummingbird, a sandy beach, a child.
* Dr. Denis DuBay, a botanist and retired high-school earth and climate sciences teacher, writes about Earth and the environment at thisviewofearth.com