The Risks and Rewards of Nature

It is good to know that, while conversations started by teachers and other speakers may never stay long on the surface at the time, ripples spread out, and waves finally find the shore. And from time to time, even if and maybe especially if there are differences of point of view  between speaker and audience, we learn from each other.

Here is one excerpt from a letter I  received in response to a recent discussion about “nature deficit disorder.” I offer it to extend the conversation (one sided, to the benefit of the blogger, I apologize) to the few blog readers who might choose to wade through to the end.

“Dear Fred First… Introducing others to the many aspects of our natural surroundings especially children is a worthy cause; attributing lack of concern for climate change to those unfamiliar with nature and to parents who seem overprotective jarred a visceral response fromme and until I had spent several days mulling over why it upset me so did I finally realize it was because of my personal experience and my professional training.”

The writer went on to describe several instances of abuse in which nature-immersed individuals did bad things to children. She made the valid point several times that nature knowledge is not a panacea.

Since this was the first day I have been able to type now for 6 weeks, my response was partly a celebration of finger-freedom. But there may be something more in the exchange worth leaving  it for a few of you here on this dusty outpost at the edge of the blogosphere. Or not. Move along if you were looking for cat pictures or dancing dogs or Black Friday bargains.

I wrote…

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and personal reactions and responses to the program I presented … on November 13. I am certain that among those in the audience there were many unspoken responses about childhoods impacted by environments where outdoor play and a reverence and wonder for nature were or were not influential. So thanks for sharing yours. I think any encounter that makes us look more carefully at our own presuppositions and biases and point of view is a good thing, so am glad you have been mulling.

However, I think you misrepresent my message in a couple of important ways. I won’t belabor these differences of viewpoint but will respond briefly. Such an exchange is much easier face to face, for sure.

Your first paragraph contains two errant understandings that empower the remainder of your letter. The first holds that I said “lack of concern for climate change” was “due to those unfamiliar with nature.”

This is a misreading of my thoughts on that issue, though I do think there is a connection. Apathy and ignorance and hubris with regard to the non-human world (nature) is part of a systemic cause of mankind’s role in global warming but certainly not a direct cause.

In that regard, our break with nature is not recent and it is complex. Its roots grow out of shifts in all of our national organ systems–philosophy, law, commerce, politics and religion. The distance has increased since the beginning of the “consumer economy” since about 1950.

Mankind’s role in climate change, however, is a newer understanding, if not a new phenomenon. That more than 100 million of us in this country today either don’t believe “anthropogenic climate change” is fact supported by objective evidence or don’t want the way we extract matter and energy from the natural world to change in any significant way that would make our lives more inconvenient. This says much, I think, about altered understandings of man in nature.

Nature illiteracy is not aided by our increasing ignorance and suspicion of science in general. And that dark cloud is held in place by an economic model that says nature is merely resource here to serve us as much or as long as we demand it do so. Science rocks that boat.

Secondly, also in your first paragraph, I do not believe that “overprotective parents” are the cause of climate change. Given your many negative experiences and examples of “normal” people conversant with nature who do bad things to small children, I understand your visceral response. Certainly the well-being of children must be considered in any outdoor experience, balanced against the health and safety of remaining out of the sunshine safely cloistered in the game room using their thumbs for play.

Simply enjoying nature or knowing the names of a few things in the outdoors will not be our national or global salvation anymore than realizing a world where suddenly no one is obese. Thin people can do reprehensible things. But quality of life for the individual and collective costs to society are less for a nation of people whose diets are healthy and responsible and whose bodies are not a liability to themselves or to our collective future. To become less overweight and to become less “under-natured” are both desirable goals for the good of individual people and for all of us together.

A return to a more balanced nature diet is one small but important step back towards renewed relationships that must take place if humanity is to treat the planet in such a way as to honor it and work collectively on its behalf, and this consideration first and foremost before what’s best for shareholder profits. Gains in overall national nature respect and literacy will not be reflected in the Gross National Product. But these values and knowledge assets will be important contributors to future measures of overall sense of national well-being and spiritual and mental health.

Your letter shows that you are aware of both the risks and the benefits of less-structured outdoor experiences for our children. With this understanding, I hope you’ll find opportunities to share your voice and experience with local efforts to “re-nature” the children of SW Virginia in ways that are both effective and protective.

Share this with your friends!

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. That’s a tough one, Fred. It reminds me of the jolt that I received from one of my neighbors, who I mistakenly thought leaned in the direction of sanity. Another of my neighbors had recently cut down, because I wasn’t watching him carefully, the biggest sassafras tree on my property, a 65-year-old tree full of nesting cavities – he said it was just a rotten old sycamore. I mentioned this incident to this other neighbor and his response was to point to a dead pine, also with nesting cavities, and remark that after the baby birds had left the nest, he was going to cut the tree down. So it isn’t just urbanites or suburbanites who suffer from nature deficit – there are plenty of rural folk who only see trees as firewood and nature as something to be exploited for human ends. Our alienation from nature is wide and deep. I really wish that I knew how to reach people like this without coming across as a tree-hugger or a Sierra Club environmental terrorist, I really do.

  2. Rural folks must feel there are so many trees with nesting cavities, that what difference could it make to get rid of one that is negative in any way to the people who own it. To counter that logic, the only thing I can think of is facts about declining songbird populations in their area, etc.

  3. Thank you for this post Fred. What you are writing about here is very important. “Re-naturing” ourselves is such a complex journey and to lead our children in that reconnection, we must walk that journey ourselves. I find that as I take risks to heal in my relationship to the Earth (through my own body and that of the planet) that healing and connection naturally spills over onto my children and vice versa. Thank you again for bringing continued attention to the need for healing the relationship between human beings and the planet. Blessings to you!