…And a Little Child Shall Lead Them
The Blue Ridge Parkway: Gateway To The Future
The 469-mile-long Blue Ridge Parkway is often depicted as being “more than a road.” Superintendent Phil Francis interprets this in part by explaining that “many people see local communities as a gateway to the Parkway. We often think of the Parkway as a gateway to unique local communities and authentic experiences.”
This communities-centered rethinking was a common theme during a three-day-long 75th anniversary event where you might have expected only nostalgic retrospectives of days gone by. But the conference, October 14-16 at Hotel Roanoke, cast its vision boldly toward the future.
Imagining The Blue Ridge Parkway for the 21st Century: Sustaining Communities, Environments, and Economics was hosted by the Virginia Tech College of Natural Resources and Environment in partnership with Blue Ridge Parkway 75, an entity that will endure beyond this celebratory event to help guide, advise and assist National Park staff in managing assets and programs.
More than thirty speakers addressed some 120 community leaders and participants from a wide variety of disciplines and organizations, and from across the reach of the twenty-nine counties of North Carolina and Virginia through which the roadway passes.
While the maintenance and oversight of the nation’s most visited National Park is a matter of fiscal concern in an era of continually declining budgets, the emphasis here was on the promise of cooperative programs that are increasingly likely in the Parkway’s next 75 years, with an emphasis on partnerships, stewardship and sustainability.
One of those partnerships has been and will increasingly be with local educators, parents and grandparents to ensure that resident or visiting children take full advantage of the parks unique learning resources. Discussions at the symposium often turned to the importance of nurturing a connection with the next generation–those young citizens who will inherit decision-making and stewardship for this national and natural treasure.
Indicative of the importance of that focus was the Friday night keynote address by Richard Louv, best-selling author of Last Child in the Woods. His presentation began with a quick disclaimer for all those in the audience–including Louv himself–who had secretly checked their phones since the dinner event began.
“The problem is not what we’re doing. It’s what we’re not doing. The problem is not that we’re using technology. It’s that we’re not using nature” Louv explained.
While describing studies that show such conditions as childhood obesity, attention deficit disorder and childhood depression are made worse by our modern indifference to and distance from natural surroundings for play and recreation, his message was overwhelmingly positive.
“Nature deficit disorder” is not permanent, and it is possible to remedy in our society, now that we’ve been given the words to describe it. The phrase describes a kind of invisible ailment so many teachers, parents and grandparents have acknowledged. We now know what to call the enemy, and that is half the battle.
Louv cautioned that “we have to be careful how we talk about the future with our children.” He challenged the audience to understand that, if we are to succeed in the face of urgent natural resource and economic challenges, the coming decades will need to be some of the most creative in human history. He suggested a positive, “biophilic” perspective of working with rather than against nature, with a renewed sense of wonder, understanding and hope that can be rekindled by closer contact with the natural world.
The author encouraged his audience to embrace sustainability, but mind the language. “Sustainability sounds too much like stasis. Kids are not interested in stasis. We’re not here to merely survive. This can be a better world. They can be better people.” Batteries and electrical outlets are not required for this.
Asked what he considered the most encouraging change to come out of the work he’d started some five years ago to re-nature our lives, Louv responded that “it is the fact that, across the country and the world, so many individuals, organizations and towns have taken up the task.”
Likewise, perhaps the most hopeful sign of positive change for the Blue Ridge Parkway in coming decades is the fact that so many individuals, partner organizations, towns and villages along its path–many in attendance at this symposium–will have taken up the task of the park’s care and best use. We will more fully comprehend that this “ribbon-roadway through a borrowed landscape” is a gateway by which we might reconnect our lives for good with the natural world and each other.
One could only come away from this conference with the sense that citizens of Virginia, Carolina and the country are coming to embrace this one fact: this is OUR park. Imagine that!