Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Foothold


I make my home among the rows of houses and shops choking Silicon Valley's edge. On the other side of the freeway, an emptying reservoir and yawning manzanitas crawl over the undeveloped hills to the ocean. On this side, the homes - tight little 1940's bungalows interspersed with towering McMansions that eat up entire lots, leaving no room for a yard, back or front - line up like soldiers along straight sidewalk-lined streets. The green grass of our parks stretch around wood-chipped play grounds and encircle open sand boxes. Any oak showing the slightest sign of disease is efficiently hacked down and a shiny play structure or water feature erected in its place. Wildflowers and weeds are trimmed back or sprayed. The occasional sparrow perches amongst the "topped" park trees and my boys can sometimes search out a lonely spider. This is our outdoors.

Last summer, tucked in my snug neighborhood, I read Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. I struggled to turn each page, to read another sentence, and, as I pushed through each chapter, I felt more suffocated, more heartbroken and more scared for my boys, for their generation. We've created a generation of plugged in children, who are strangers to outdoor living, to unfettered wilderness and unstructured time in it. How likely would my boys be to wander off into the woods unsupervised, to build a fort there, to dam a creek, to unearth polliwogs, to truly interact with nature as the author insisted they must?

I looked around my own neighborhood - at our clean schools, mowed lawns, lack of climbing trees - and wondered how to expose my children to nature at her finest, or even at her lowest. The author urged that even those of us in more urban environments can look to empty lots (there is no such thing on the San Francisco Peninsula) or unmanicured corners of parks to explore nature through the seasons, to investigate the small creatures living there.

Determinedly, we set out in search of local wild places. We uncovered a few forgotten hikes amongst the tightly knit homes of the Bay Area - a few walks where wild flowers still spotted an otherwise barren hill and calls of birds could be heard. For the most part, though, those hikes were too demanding for preschoolers and our passage through them too fleeting. Still, we marveled that such places could still exist and treasured them for what they were - a touch of the natural in our otherwise unnatural life.

We offered nature a corner of our tiny yard, leaving weeds to roam, fallen leaves to disintegrate and one morning we discovered a newt hiding in the debris. We set out bird feeders, a bird bath, and plants that would feed and provide habitat. Again, success. Birds appeared from Lord knows where and our yard is now a teeming haven for pecking, digging and nesting. A sole toad made his home in our undisturbed cover crop and dragonflies hover overhead.

Still, though, I yearned for the idyllic vision of my boys splashing in a creek, catching frogs, crossing by way of a log bridge, discovering hiding places amongst overgrown trees. Visiting my family in the country, we caught glimpses of this dream but they lasted only for a few days. Until last week.

The boys and I met a friend at a local park one city over. We'd visited this park many times. The playground is enclosed to prevent escapees and the slides and tunnels are shaded by tall trees. While my friend and I chatted, I noticed some children entering the playground, barefoot, mud weighing down their pants. They must have been playing in the creek, my friend noted. The what?!?

It turns out, all this time, nature has held out, struggled along in a polluted little creek bed tucked in a ravine behind a favorite local park. We returned the next day and hiked down to the tiny stream. My oldest crossed a rock dam and fell into the water, losing his shoe. I laughingly retrieved it and received a splash from the little guy for my efforts. The boys collected a stick, a piece of floating bark, and an oak apple. They dared each other to wade in further, around the corner, past this rock and then that. They discovered water bugs, tip-toeing across the water, and searched for frogs, picking up the rubber band and empty beer can buried in the creek bed. Soaked with the city's dirty water, we then climbed up through a forgotten enclave of trees. We kept our shoes on to avoid cuts from the broken glass strewn across the path. The big boy discovered a hollowed out tree trunk. Perhaps an owl lives there, he wondered. When I lifted him to peek inside, he asked what the yellow thing was. I peered over the edge - trash inside a hallowed tree. My heart sank - just a little.

It is hard to stay down with robins skittering on the path ahead, the sound of a stream bubbling over small boulders, children racing ahead giggling. We crossed the creek again - this time over a rock dam and headed to the car, my pockets bulging with plastic wrappers and bottle caps. Here was nature, plugged with litter and invasive plants, but here she was nonetheless! We embraced her for all her sordid, resistant beauty and for her gift of an hour of childhood.


13 comments:

CindyW said...

My sentiment exactly! My husband and I decided when our first was born that we would raise children who would marvel natural wonders as much as we did. Only when they learn to love nature can they then comprehend what protecting it means. We go on quite a lot of hikes, small ones and big ones. Even though I am so proud of 5 year old girl for completing 6 mile steep hikes, it is the mundane that builds her attachment to nature. Across the street from us, there is a piece of open space where wild flowers grow and myriads of trees stretch upward without trimming. It is a playing ground for all sorts bugs and a hunting ground for a couple of great herons (they use ground squirrels believe it or not). We go there digging in the dirt, looking for lady bugs, climbing trees. In the fall when acorns fall like rain from the sky, we play chicken little. Louv is right, you don't have to go too far to find nature, at least in my quiet suburb.

Donna said...

Don't know exactly where you live, but I grew up in the Bay Area, too. There is a large, accessible wonderful park filled with woods and nature trails (and poison oak, sorry) that is off of Edgewood Road (Redwood City). Can't remember the name of the park, but it's marked. Just drive up Edgewood road west from the intersection of Alameda a mile or so. It's on the south side of the road. If you reach the freeway, you've gone too far.

arduous said...

I grew up in the burbs basically, but even in the burbs we were able to find trees worth climbing and grass worth chewing on. (I don't remember what it was, but I can feel the taste on my tongue to this day.)

I also have fond memories of wading in creeks and collecting twigs. I know a lot of parents worry about their kids playing alone, and thus they try and corral kids into team sports and such. But I think it's pretty clear that child abduction has not risen dramatically, it's the media hype that has risen. And I think there is a lot of worth in letting your kids do whatever in the yard without too much adult supervision. (Obviously at the correct age.)

Of course the SV has changed greatly since I was a kid. The vineyard that was a short cut from my house to my friend's house is long gone and there are houses in its place.

Raw Food Diva said...

Sadly I have found in the last 30 years, yes my oldest son is now 31, I have found that parents feel it is safer for thier kids to stay inside.
When my son was 10 the nintendo craze took hold and parents lined up like lemmings to get a hold of the game for thier kids. I never got one and "made" my kid play outside.
He thanks me for this today.

Joyce said...

I think that we benefitted form the fact that we did not have air conditioning. People always felt sorry for us not having it, because it can certainly be hot and humid here, but the kids ran in and out of the house at will, never thinking about the heat.

Later, when they went out for cross-country, the coaches commented on how well acclimated they were to the heat during the summer training season.

I'm not going to lie; there were always about three weeks of the summer when sleeping was miserable. But the kids really played outside, and they remember it fondly.

Anonymous said...

I am currently reading this book and can't wait until the end of the day when my two little ones are asleep to read it. Nature has disappeared here and there since I was a kid, but our culture is the dramatic change that has changed the play environment for kids these days. Fear, comfort, technology...lures the kids inside when they would be much happier and healthier outside. I still remember my tire swing in the oak tree at the top of our hill and the ravine my family would hike in at the end of the street. These were rejuvenating moments in my childhood. The swing is where I would retreat when I dealt with death in the family and other emotionally challening issues as a child. I am yearning to figure out ways to allow my girls to grow up in nature and with unstructured outdoor time. Great post!

Burbanmom said...

Two words, GB - Cam Ping. Take 'em. They'll love it and so will you! If you don't have the gear, borrow it or check craigslist. It is SO MUCH FUN with the little ones and State Parks are pretty inexpensive.

Kudos for finding nature wherever you can. Sounds like you and the kids had oodles of fun! :-)

Jennifer said...

I grew up in suburbia... but on the edge of it, with a creek running behind my house that connected to the park. We were always walking along it, finding things, building forts, etc. So much fun.

Now, I live in an old downtown area... and there is an irrigation canal running through, 1/2 block from my house. A bike path runs along it. There is so much nature along... muskrats, raccoons, mallards, bullfrogs, and more. I enjoy walking the dogs along it every morning.

This path (and canal) also runs by low income housing three blocks away... it is so GLORIOUS to see the children who have only a small apartment and a parking lot for play in their house have a whole muddy playground of nature at their disposal. The children are always wading in it, building mudpies... sadly, they are also throwing trash in (usually in trying to "build" something out of a couch cushion, or a tv stand). Caught between the trash cans and the canal.

Shannon Hodgins said...

Yes, so glad you are reading this book!!!! How I wish we were crunchy neighbors. I think I'll just have to read your blog, grateful that there are other parents out there feeling the same way.

This morning we pulled out three plastic bags, one plastic bottle and a juice box at the little trickle of a stream that was by our walk. I'm going to start putting an extra canvas bag (just for this purpose) in my car so I can rescue recycle, and rescue our places of play.

Now entering my reading list is Common Wealth. Heard it's highly rated. Shannon

P.S., please make sure you put your nature inspired books to read for kids on mine. I'm making a bibliography on books for the budding environmentalist. Give me your two beans!

Mike Vandeman said...

Last Child in the Woods ––
Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,
by Richard Louv
Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.
November 16, 2006

In this eloquent and comprehensive work, Louv makes a convincing case for ensuring that children (and adults) maintain access to pristine natural areas, and even, when those are not available, any bit of nature that we can preserve, such as vacant lots. I agree with him 100%. Just as we never really outgrow our need for our parents (and grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.), humanity has never outgrown, and can never outgrow, our need for the companionship and mutual benefits of other species.

But what strikes me most about this book is how Louv is able, in spite of 310 pages of text, to completely ignore the two most obvious problems with his thesis: (1) We want and need to have contact with other species, but neither we nor Louv bother to ask whether they want to have contact with us! In fact, most species of wildlife obviously do not like having humans around, and can thrive only if we leave them alone! Or they are able tolerate our presence, but only within certain limits. (2) We and Louv never ask what type of contact is appropriate! He includes fishing, hunting, building "forts", farming, ranching, and all other manner of recreation. Clearly, not all contact with nature leads to someone becoming an advocate and protector of wildlife. While one kid may see a beautiful area and decide to protect it, what's to stop another from seeing it and thinking of it as a great place to build a house or create a ski resort? Developers and industrialists must come from somewhere, and they no doubt played in the woods with the future environmentalists!

It is obvious, and not a particularly new idea, that we must experience wilderness in order to appreciate it. But it is equally true, though ("conveniently") never mentioned, that we need to stay out of nature, if the wildlife that live there are to survive. I discuss this issue thoroughly in the essay, "Wildlife Need Habitat Off-Limits to Humans!", at http://home.pacbell.net/mjvande/india3.

It should also be obvious (but apparently isn't) that how we interact with nature determines how we think about it and how we learn to treat it. Remember, children don't learn so much what we tell them, but they learn very well what they see us do. Fishing, building "forts", mountain biking, and even berry-picking teach us that nature exists for us to exploit. Luckily, my fort-building career was cut short by a bee-sting! As I was about to cut down a tree to lay a third layer of logs on my little log cabin in the woods, I took one swing at the trunk with my axe, and immediately got a painful sting (there must have been a bee-hive in the tree) and ran away as fast as I could.

On page 144 Louv quotes Rasheed Salahuddin: "Nature has been taken over by thugs who care absolutely nothing about it. We need to take nature back." Then he titles his next chapter "Where Will Future Stewards of Nature Come From?" Where indeed? While fishing may bring one into contact with natural beauty, that message can be eclipsed by the more salient one that the fish exist to pleasure and feed humans (even if we release them after we catch them). (My fishing career was also short-lived, perhaps because I spent most of the time either waiting for fish that never came, or untangling fishing line.) Mountain bikers claim that they are "nature-lovers" and are "just hikers on wheels". But if you watch one of their helmet-camera videos, it is easy to see that 99.44% of their attention must be devoted to controlling their bike, or they will crash. Children initiated into mountain biking may learn to identify a plant or two, but by far the strongest message they will receive is that the rough treatment of nature is acceptable. It's not!

On page 184 Louv recommends that kids carry cell phones. First of all, cell phones transmit on essentially the same frequency as a microwave oven, and are therefore hazardous to one's health –- especially for children, whose skulls are still relatively thin. Second, there is nothing that will spoil one's experience of nature faster than something that reminds one of the city and the "civilized" world. The last thing one wants while enjoying nature is to be reminded of the world outside. Nothing will ruin a hike or a picnic faster than hearing a radio or the ring of a cell phone, or seeing a headset, cell phone, or mountain bike. I've been enjoying nature for over 60 years, and can't remember a single time when I felt a need for any of these items.

It's clear that we humans need to reduce our impacts on wildlife, if they, and hence we, are to survive. But it is repugnant and arguably inhumane to restrict human access to nature. Therefore, we need to practice minimal-impact recreation (i.e., hiking only), and leave our technology (if we need it at all!) at home. In other words, we need to decrease the quantity of contact with nature, and increase the quality.

References:

Ehrlich, Paul R. and Ehrlich, Anne H., Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearances of Species. New York: Random House, 1981.

Errington, Paul L., A Question of Values. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1987.

Flannery, Tim, The Eternal Frontier -- An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples. New York: Grove Press, 2001.

Foreman, Dave, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior. New York: Harmony Books, 1991.

Knight, Richard L. and Kevin J. Gutzwiller, eds. Wildlife and Recreationists. Covelo, California: Island Press, 1995.

Noss, Reed F. and Allen Y. Cooperrider, Saving Nature's Legacy: Protecting and Restoring Biodiversity. Island Press, Covelo, California, 1994.

Stone, Christopher D., Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1973.

Vandeman, Michael J., http://home.pacbell.net/mjvande, especially http://home.pacbell.net/mjvande/ecocity3, http://home.pacbell.net/mjvande/india3, http://home.pacbell.net/mjvande/sc8, and http://home.pacbell.net/mjvande/goodall.

Ward, Peter Douglas, The End of Evolution: On Mass Extinctions and the Preservation of Biodiversity. New York: Bantam Books, 1994.

"The Wildlands Project", Wild Earth. Richmond, Vermont: The Cenozoic Society, 1994.

Wilson, Edward O., The Future of Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

Abstract:

It is anthropocentric thinking, and irresponsible, to promote the invasion of wildlife habitat without considering: (1) We want and need to have contact with other species, but neither we nor Louv bother to ask whether they want to have contact with us! In fact, most species of wildlife obviously do not like having humans around, and can thrive only if we leave them alone! Or they are able tolerate our presence, but only within certain limits. (2) We and Louv never ask what type of contact is appropriate! He includes fishing, hunting, building "forts", farming, ranching, and all other manner of recreation. Clearly, not all contact with nature leads to someone becoming an advocate and protector of wildlife. While one kid may see a beautiful area and decide to protect it, what's to stop another from seeing it and thinking of it as a great place to build a house or create a ski resort? Developers and industrialists must come from somewhere, and they no doubt played in the woods with the future environmentalists!

Green Bean said...

Cindy: Sounds like an awesome spot! For my kids, I prefer somewhere like that that you can stay a while instead of just passing though on a hike - though both are obviously valuable.

Donna: HA! I know the exact spot. The poison oak was the tip off. I live very near there so we would have been neighbors. :)

RFW, Arduous and Anonymous: I do think you are right - it is a parental choice to a degree. Certainly there is less open space and undeveloped land available. But it is a conscious choice to have our kids inside where it's easier for us to keep an eye on them without getting off the computer or turning off the TV.

Joyce: Isn't that how we are supposed to live? It sounds so right. :)

Burbs: You are so right. We're going before school gets out. I'll report back.

Jen: It's so nice to see kids outside like that. Obviously the trash is not a good thing but it is a trade off and hopefully someone can organize an occasional clean up.

Shannon: I SO wish we were neighbors! We could let our kids frolic in dirty water while we fished out trash together. :) Thanks for the book rec. I'm going to check it out from my library.

Mike: You raise some good points for sure. There has to be balance with anything. I think it is important for parents to get our kids outside though clearly we need to limit the damage that is done to the already desolate landscape. I think this is where regenerating yards and open space can come in. By replacing lawn with animal habitat in my own yard, I am creating a win win situation. Likewise, stumbling upon a polluted creek, such as I described, not only included us removing a fair amount of debris but has me looking into possible creek restoration.

Shannon Hodgins said...

I'm impressed with Mike's research and passion on the issue. He raises several good points that we should keep in mind.

I totally agree with the mountain bike in the woods issue. It's also a huge safety hazard to regular people walking the trail, so I'd say I puts humans in peril as well as wildlife.

My treehouse as a kid was made of leftover scraps from building sites and such.

I'm not a hunter, though do fish. We eat what we catch and are careful to follow all the laws. I'm not a hunter, though learning archery is a goal for this summer. In the event of climate destabilization we want skills such as farming, archery, swimming, etc. to be on our list of things we teach our kids.

I'd like to take more of a Native American approach to respect, and therefore use of the outdoors. In the next couple of years our goal is to transition to a higher level of use and appreciation.

Shannon Hodgins said...

I'm impressed with Mike's research and passion on the issue. He raises several good points that we should keep in mind.

I totally agree with the mountain bike in the woods issue. It's also a huge safety hazard to regular people walking the trail, so I'd say I puts humans in peril as well as wildlife.

My treehouse as a kid was made of leftover scraps from building sites and such.

I'm not a hunter, though do fish. We eat what we catch and are careful to follow all the laws. I'm not a hunter, though learning archery is a goal for this summer. In the event of climate destabilization we want skills such as farming, archery, swimming, etc. to be on our list of things we teach our kids.

I'd like to take more of a Native American approach to respect, and therefore use of the outdoors. In the next couple of years our goal is to transition to a higher level of use and appreciation.

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