Tires, Turmoil and Toxic Stress

I just bookmarked and read a speculative piece by Richard Louv, (Nature’s Neurons) who wonders aloud about the impact on young brains of growing up apart from the natural world. As much as that lack, natural elements have been replaced by the man-made-and-sustained urban environment. That would seem to compound the damage of nature privation by an order of magnitude. Not only is there no green in the urban ghetto, there is far too much gray: noise, commotion, speed, a general, pervasive homogenized  artificiality and ugliness, exhaust fumes, and broken glass.  There is no THERE there.

I am realizing all over again how different my thinking, writing, feeling and being would be today if I’d been compelled by circumstance or forced choice to live in the city. I don’t think I’d like me very much. Our recent two-month-long encounter with the logging trucks and sound of chain saws and falling trees produced similar adrenal stress for me as sitting on that busy city four-lane. I clinched my teeth and muttered under my breath like a mad mad.

A rotund woman talked loudly in the waiting room at the auto repair shop on Peppers Ferry Road yesterday–spewing some obnoxious inappropriate monologue on her phone to the empty chair, as it were, about her whatever. I’d wait outside rather than endure that acoustic litter from one side of the small waiting room and from the wall-mounted daytime television on the other. How–and why–do people put up with this? I spotted a bench just the other side of the showroom window. I made my escape.

It was an unhealthy choice. Within seconds, already disgusted by circumstances inside, I knew the air was not good for my well-being.

I suppose the good news is that this quality of environment was so out of my ordinary, so bizarrely remarkable (but would NOT be to far too many) that I actually recorded the horrible traffic noise, and came close to making a video on my phone of the blue-smoking dump trucks across the road where some other former woods is becoming an addition to the impervious square mileage of Montgomery County. The exhaust fumes were so noxious I actually gagged.

And to think that there are people–most especially there are children–who exist for years breathing, seeing, hearing and physiologically internalizing these kinds of stressors: what have we done to our living spaces in so much of this country? And why are we not more universally appalled by the sheer trashy, counterfeit ugliness of so much of America? Why do we live so far for so long from clean, slow, quiet and beautiful? We have sold our birthright for a bowl of Wendy’s chili.

I can’t help but explain part of Floyd County’s uniqueness–the “Floyd Thing” that many wonder about–as coming from the fact that by and large, we live apart from so many of those toxic stresses of built-up “successful” places. The same is true of other small rural communities. We move by choice at a slower pace, live on a smaller, more human scale, and find our joys in dark night skies, quiet country roads, in the soil and what it brings us–green hills, checkerboard patches of forest, wildflower meadow; and a single traffic light.

Maybe the Floyd Thing comes as much from what we don’t have as what we do. We live closer to “nature” by and large, though exactly how to define that term and how to measure its benefits for children and adults waits for Richard Louv and others to illuminate. All I know is that at a certain scale and pace of life, at a certain close distance to natural beauty, there is most certainly a HERE here, and it gives us a healthy sense of both self and of place. I wish this for far more of us.

CAPTION: Rake’s Mill Pond, Blue Ridge Parkway. I stopped at this quiet, beautiful, botanically-diverse roadside pull-off on the way from last week’s far more pleasant auto-repair experience in Floyd County–at the place where the Sweet Pinesap bloomed. I’ll have a few more mushroom pictures from that excursion this week.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I feel exactly the same Fred. Our new place in Knowlton Quebec is in a tiny town but very rural as well. Our cottage is on nearly and acre and most of the houses round us have 2 – 6 acres! Nearly all have barns. I asked why all this land.. The answer was that until 50 years ago all had animals – a cow, pigs and chickens!

    There is NO light pollution. The sky was clear the the night and I had the best view of the night shy in decades. People walk and bike everywhere and the few cars drive very slowly. I get stopped in the street to say hello and all around us know who we are and we have only been here a week!

    I could not live in the world that I used to either. People here live well into their 80’s. My neighbour aged 84 has just remarried and the woman down the road also of that age is on boyfriend # 2. Both are widows. There is a vitality about life here

  2. I cannot imagine what kind of a person I would be today if I had been one who was deprived of the experience of nature and all that it had to teach me.

    As a child I lived in a small town but that was nothing like living in a large city. I have experienced both. I recall winters when the snow would pileup, then cease for a few days before the next snowfall came and that cycle would repeat without the snow melting or being removed. Then, when a shovel finally cleared a path through its depth, there was a definite indicator in the snow in the form of thin black lines deposited there by the soot from the coal-fired fireplaces of most of the houses in our neighborhood. When I first witnessed that affect I was mystified as to what might have caused it. I discussed what I had observed with my parents and they explained the reason it was so. It occurred to me even at that young age, that the simple act of breathing caused me to take into my lungs, some of that same soot. I suppose that was the point at which I became aware of my immediate surroundings and how the ambient atmosphere might be affecting my body. I believe that is when I acquired my interest in science in school.

    I was very thankful for the father I had when I was a young man. He taught me to love nature. He revealed to me where my food came from. He also revealed to me what my ancestors had to go through to gather the food that sustained them through life. He taught me to hunt and fish and to not take more than I needed. He also instilled in me a love for farming. I give him credit for the green thumb I have today. It was he who made me kneel down beside him and bury my open hands in the newly tilled earth. “Be still now son; can you not sense the life in the Earth? This is God’s creation, his spirit is in it and in you also. The Earth is just as alive as you are. It too can be destroyed just as human flesh can. Always be aware of the nature which surrounds you. Respected it, care for it as you would another human being and in return, it will provide you with food, shelter, clothing and peace of mind.” My father’s Mother, was a Native American woman. I know that is where he acquired his love for Mother Earth. One day, in the not too distant future, I will return to her womb. In her, I expect to know eternal peace and release my spirit back to God.

  3. It’s funny what perspective does to your outlook. I consider my home to be essentially rural in nature. There are cows and horses all around me. I have about 40 acres of woods within view of my house. My kids and I spent many hours wandering around in those woods as they grew up. But the population of my town is greater than Christiansburg, and in this area it is considered small.

    The town I grew up in, and where most of my family still lives, is a suburb of Houston. There are almost 150,000 people living there now. It is surrounded by one of the largest concentrations of petrochemical manufacturing in the country. When I grew up there, it was about half that size. And we managed to find bits of nature to spend our days in even then.

    The main thing that has changed in the last half a decade is that now there are more “things” competing for your (and your grandkids) attention. The other thing that has changed (in my neck of the woods anyway) is the change in comfort zones. When I grew up on the Texas Gulf Coast, almost no one had air conditioners. Come summer it was more comfortable to be outside during the day. So that was where we spent our days…In the woods, the fields, along the bayous.

    Even though we lived in small houses on small lots, we had the run of all of the yards in the neighborhood. We knew where the best snacks grew. Kumquats, pomegranates, peaches, oranges…plants planted as ornamentals… Plants that no one minded a bunch of kids eating from.

    All of that has changed. Kids do not dare go into the yards around them, much less eat the fruits growing in them. Most parents don’t want there kids out of their sight these days… It’s a different world, a dangerous world for kids. So it’s no wonder that nature has taken a backseat to in home activities…

    Would I like to see it go back to where it was? You bet I would. Do I expect it to do so? Not very likely.

    Pardon the meandering nature of my thoughts…

  4. Fred, It’s not just that I can’t imagine me living in an urbanized environment, it’s that I can’t imagine how so many people are able to do just that.

    I work with kids in the outdoors during summers, leading walks and crayfish catching, etc. and it’s shocking to me how little these kids know. And these are kids who are well-off and live in nice houses in the suburbs. They don’t know things I knew years before I was their ages. These kids just never get a chance to be outside and explore.

    It makes me worry about the future of our planet when decisions will be made by people with so little understanding, let alone affection, for nature.

  5. Someone(??), an environmentalist, I think, once said, “A free man needs to know that when it’s time to run for the hills, there will be hills to run to.” We are blessed in southwest VA to still have some quiet hills to run to. A lot less than there used to be, but still some. Islands in the sea of so-called “progress”…

  6. I can vouch for your description of the urban environment. The only relief from the ugliness is the sky and the breeze, and in L.A., the sky can be pretty unlovely, too. We walk around appreciating our fellow humans, because there is nowhere else to turn your gaze that has any hope of being lovely. The noise is inescapable. No lovely sounds to focus on.