Friday, June 03, 2005

Quiet Days at the Drop Edge of Yonder
It's been positively gorgeous here in Wisconsin since we got home after the weekend. Summer's arrived, right on time. On my usual daily routes around the west side of the metro area, I pass by a couple of parks. And even on days as gorgeous as yesterday, there's almost never anyone in them.

I've noticed this every summer for several years, but I thought it again this morning while reading an interview in Salon with Richard Louv, who's written a book called Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. Louv believes that kids (and society) have lost something significant not just because they spend so much time in front of screens, but because they have so few opportunities for unstructured exploration of the natural world.

Among the most interesting observations in the interview: The average kid today is permitted to roam an area only one-ninth as large as that of a kid 20 years ago. I grew up on a farm (35 years ago, to make a charitable estimate), and I can remember my brother and I taking off for the woods in the back of beyond, by ourselves, and being gone for hours at a time. We had to tell where we were going before we went and we were warned to be careful, but there was no assumption, as there so often seems to be today, that something horrid would befall us if we were unsupervised for too long. But my brother's kid, who's almost 13, probably wouldn't be permitted to do the same thing today. (Even if my brother would let him, his grandmother--our mother--would not.)

OK fine, you might think, but very few people live on farms anymore, and besides, the world was a safer place then than it is now. Well, maybe not. Louv notes that the number of child abductions by strangers, which has never numbered more than the low hundreds in any given year, is lower now than it was in the late 80s, and that one study shows kids are safer now than at any time in the past 30 years. But perception is reality, even when it's badly skewed by sensational TV coverage of kidnapped children, and so the quest for "safe" spaces goes on. But the outdoor spaces we create, Louv says, are not kid-friendly as much as they're lawyer-friendly, as our litigious society seeks to punish anything that might carry even a hint of danger.

As I read the Louv interview this morning, I thought about the kids I know--specifically the nephews and niece we visited this past weekend. I don't know much about their play habits, but I know something else about them that relates to the idea of kids being disconnected from the natural world around them. Their family van is equipped with a DVD player, as is the van the kids' grandparents drive. I realize why parents install this technology, and I can even justify it a little bit when I remember that young children have to be strapped into the car today, and that in the olden days, we could roam at large in the back seat. But, strapped in or not, between the DVD player and their video games, my two oldest nephews never have to look out the window when they travel--and that has a cost, too.

Between about 1968 and 1977, my family took an extended car vacation almost every summer. I remember visiting the Black Hills, Mackinac Island, Abe Lincoln's home, and other places around the Midwest--and seeing not only the destinations, but the sights along the way. Sometimes it was only farms and billboards flashing by on the Interstate, but even that could give you a sense of where you live, and by extension, who you are. Counting license plates could teach you geography, as could following your route on the road map. And when you're stuck in the car for six or seven hours, you even find yourself carrying on real, extended conversations with your parents--which also gives you a sense of who you are. What replaces these experiences?

Maybe Louv's "nature-deficit disorder" is a natural outgrowth of a very American idea--that wild places left wild are at best wasted and at worst dangerous, and that they exist to be tamed. And maybe our preference for the manufactured reality of a DVD instead of the actual reality out the car window is a side-effect.

I think one of the things I'd better do this weekend is take a walk, because it's been too long.

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