Monday, July 21, 2008

Book Review: Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv



I really didn't think this book was going to be much of an eye-opener. As a bonified nature lover and parent, I know just how important the connection between child and wilderness is. I see it every winter when my children are forced indoors for most of the time and at the 4th of July celebration when my 2-year-old's greatest joy is not the fireworks but catching lightening bugs. But this book wasn't just about that connection and how it's being lost, it was about revolutionizing our country, our culture, our way of living to guarantee the health of our children and ourselves. Louv runs the gamut, sharing conversations with parents and children, teachers, scientists, environmentalists, experts in child development, and religious leaders alike. Each of these conversations serves to further the main theory of his book, that children today are growing ever more disconnected from nature.

The book is split into seven sections. The first four were exactly what I expected of this book, discussing the importance of nature to human health, the factors that have led to the distancing between children and nature, and a why a reunion is in order. There is much discussion of forts, tree houses, childhood obesity and ADHD. These first sections can be summed up by this quote: "To take nature and natural play away from children may be tantamount to withholding oxygen." (pg. 108)

The last three parts of the book were very enlightening for me, though. Despite my personal involvement in the back-to-the-land movement, it's been a long time since I've looked at the movement nationwide, let alone globally. Louv's encouragement for the "zoopolis" was refreshing, and he agrees with scientists who now advocate corridors for wildlife travel/migration rather than isolated pockets of habitat. The author even touched on the fact that many environmentalists see only the problem of overpopulation when they look at children and therefore disregard the needs of our little ones. His take on this matter was encouraging for a soon-to-be mother of four.

There is an extensive discussion of education reform in the book, and I wholeheartedly agree with Louv's assertion that parents alone cannot solve this problem. I did, however, find it rather interesting that he never mentioned homeschooling as an option for providing children greater interaction with nature throughout their school years. He mentions very briefly at the end of the book that one of the families he had discussed throughout homeschools, but that's it. There is no probe as to why they homeschool or whether or not this form of education is more or less likely to produce nature-deprived children.

I was also a bit disconcerted by the fact that there was no discussion of how parents should go about enacting change in their local school systems. Perhaps it wasn't the intent of the author to encourage such a thing, but I felt, after reading the portions on nature and education, that making my parental voice heard even before my children enter the school system was not only what I wanted to do but what I had to do as a mindful parent. If anyone has any ideas or stories to share on this matter, please comment or contact me.

Overall, the book was an easy read. I didn't find it to be depressing, as many "child deficit" books can be. The author sprinkled stories throughout the facts and studies, making it enjoyable and heartening. I don't plan to add the book to my personal library, but I would recommend everyone (not just parents) check this book out from their public library.

3 comments:

Green Bean said...

Great review. I read the book last summer and also felt it was an eye opener. My sister was so struck by the book she joined a group of moms to create an organization called Sustainable Schoolyards where they build gardens in schools and try to get kids outside more. Every little bit helps.

Please pop by The Blogging Bookworm to share your review.

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.

Louv, Richard, Last Child in the Woods -- Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005.

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.

Mist said...

Thanks, Green Bean, for sharing your sister's organization! I've been mulling ideas over in my head, and I think she got it right. The first thing I need to do is to gather other parents with me.

I'm hopping over to your link now! :)

Mike Vandeman, thank you for your insightful comments on the book. I don't necessarily agree with the argument that parts of nature should be off-limits to humans, but I understand where you're coming from. There is much yet to be done on educating the public how to tread lightly in nature. As a wildcrafter myself, though, I know that one can interact with nature and even take advantage of its bounty with reverence and without causing harm.

In regards to your question of whether or not other species want us around, you're probably right that they don't. But ask the meerkat if it wants other meerkats around, and you'll discover that the answer is an emphatic NO. There is a difference, for better or worse, between our species and every other species on the planet, especially when it comes to those of us in developed countries. The difference is that every other species is concerned mainly with survival. I think you'd agree that most of us are not. My point is, that other species quite probably don't want anything around that isn't immediately necessary to their survival, be it humans or ostriches.

I also appreciate your concern that certain activities mentioned in Louv's book may not be appropriate ways for children to interact with nature. Unfortunately, this argument goes both ways. As you said, we can't predict which child will decide to protect nature and which one will decide to dominate it, but Louv himself is an example of how someone can love fishing and take part in it yet still have a strong desire to protect nature.

Human beings are complex creatures, each individual having their own inclinations. Not every person will enjoy hiking alone. If outdoor activity is reduced to this, I think we run the possibility of boring some people to death until they want nothing to do with nature at all. Then it's, "why not turn that beautiful virgin forest into the next Cedar Point? I'd have a hell of a lot more fun there than just looking at things from a trail!" It is the responsibility of parents, educators, and the community as a whole to foster proper childhood interaction with nature and minimize the impact of outdoor activities.

Indeed, some of Louv's suggestions will help with this: planting gardens around schools, replacing existing flat expanses of landscape around education facilities with muddy pits or other interactive features. This will help to keep the kids in certain areas specified for interaction purposes.

But then we get to the question of where does nature end and education begin? If a forest glade is recreated around a school by parents, teachers, and students, should that then be off-limits to them in order to preserve the ecosystem?

And one last thing, we're completely agreed where cell phones are concerned! :) If I remember correctly, though, Louv was trying to give parents ways of letting their children have the solitary time they need in the wild while still minimizing the fear factor. I can understand that.