Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Last Child in the Woods

Image of schoolchildren pulling carrots comes from the website of The Edible Schoolyard, a school-garden project in Berkeley, spearheaded by Alice Waters. Caption: "'The garden looks beautiful, it smells great, it tastes like heaven, the sounds are very calming, and the feel of the plants is wonderful.' - Emily, 6th Grade". The emphasis on the multi-layered sensual experience echoes Louv's ideas about the ways that plants or the outdoors could calm children with ADHD or other behavorial disorders.

Title: Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2005)

Author: Richard Louv, journalist, columnist for the San Diego Union-Trib. Chairman of an org. called The Children and Nature Network. Author of other books about childhood and general life in America: Web of Life: Weaving the Values that Sustain Us (1998); 101 Things You Can Do For Our Children's Future (1993); and Childhood's Future (1992).

My review:

It's a difficult thing to read a book whose premises you fundamentally agree with, but whose presentation elides nuance and is ahistorical and alarmist. (Reminds me of watching "Fahrenheit 9/11" - ugh.) Yes, I do agree that kids spend too much time indoors playing video games; that it is a terrible thing that communities have little space for children to play in; that it sucks that parents are too afraid to let kids bike around by themselves, so they rein them in with cell phones and GPS devices or don't let them out at all; that it's bogus that science education seems not to foster a generalized love of the outdoors, instead directing children toward specialized technological achievement. But Louv's discussion of these matters relies so heavily on anecdote, and on fear, that I find myself picking holes in it almost against my will (and not just because I think Louv's characterization of the problem as "nature deficit disorder" is fundamentally opportunist - the man wanted to sell books, or his editor did, anyway).

A great kid-in-nature tome of earlier years: Gene Stratton-Porter's A Girl of the Limberlost (1909).

In many ways, Louv's central concerns are very similar to those of Progressive-era educational thinkers such as John Dewey (who he references on p 65, on the virtues of primary experience) and G. Stanley Hall (who idealized his own farm-based upbringing). Louv's book is mostly free from the nastier racial implications of the late nineteenth-century anxiety re: "overcivilization" and degeneration (nobody back then ever seemed to worry about whether black sharecroppers' kids in the South were becoming proper men - all that anxiety was reserved for cream-of-the-crop white children). However, Louv sometimes seems to assume that the standard-issue "kid" is a white suburban one. There are a couple mentions of the problem of equal access to natural areas, and a few interviews with black or Latino kids who come back from wilderness-ed programs fundamentally changed, but they feel like gestures.

Teddy Roosevelt had Louv-like fears a hundred years before Louv louved. Here he is, at about the age when "Teedie" would have started discovering his affinity for the outdoors - a lifelong affection he credited for his vitality and right-thinkingness. See his "The Strenuous Life" for more.

Although Louv does not prescribe the benefits of Outside as a tonic for race regeneration, he does focus on the benefits - a very androcentric approach, which totally ignores a deep-ecology or biocentric POV. Humans, and human kids, are what matters here, not the environment per se. I'll go into pick-apart mode here: Louv is basically arguing that human kids will become stronger, more mentally acute, be cured of behavior problems, and probably get better grades and better scores on their SATs, if they go wander into a forest every once in a while. Will driven middle-class parents everywhere now begin scheduling in nature-time for their little babies, to give them every advantage in the race for success? If it doesn't "work", will they stop? Is this any way to create a new environmental paradigm?

Louv's book touches on very complex contemporary environmental issues, such as whether or not religious groups will embrace a movement which they see as embodying some animistic pagan qualities (292) and even cites Jennifer Wolch's idea of the "zoopolis", or the new interpolation of wildlife and natural growth into the city. But his fundamental stance seems unprepared to grapple with the implications of the scope of the topic.

The questions I see arising here include the most basic ones about the aim of our society, including whether or not we believe in equal economic rights (and thus, access to nature) for all children;
whether technological education and environmental education can ever go hand in hand; whether we are willing to control capitalism (in the form of development) in order to create an environmentally aware society; and whether the system of labor and settlement brought about by advanced capitalism can be amended so that humans continue to get a good dose of "nature time" when they are young - and whether these humans will be able to maintain their contact with nature once they are working full-time, as are the parents reading this book, or whether they will be so straitened with the need to earn a living that they will not be able to do so. The alienation of childhood from the natural world is not the problem. This is a symptom of the way society is going today, and as such, will not be "fixed" in and of itself, but needs to be viewed as a part of a constellation of larger issues around environmental ethics and human rights.

Caption text from article by Michael B. Smith, "The Ego Ideal of 'The Good Camper' and the Nature of Summer Camp", Environmental History, January 2006 (link): "Boys at Camp Dudley, the first YMCA camp in the country, learn the finer points of axmanship, a skill intended to reconnect them with both nature and the "good life" of their frontier forbearers. As critics of this romantic construction of both nature and American history would later point out, learning to use an ax did not in itself prepare children very well for life in a modern city or suburb. (Courtesy of the YMCA of the USA and the Kautz Family YMCA Archive, University of Minnesota.)"

Books to follow up on:

The American Boys' Handy Book, written by Daniel Carter Beard (of the Boy Scouts) at the turn of the century, was reissued in a centennial edition in 2003 - a circumstance I find fascinating.

Eva, my friend who teaches elementary school, recommended this one. Which reminds me that Eva; my sister Sarah, who teaches pre-K kids; and my friend Mira, who is considering going into environmental education, are all intensely concerned about the issues Louv brings up. But Eva and Sarah are criminally underpaid, and Mira will be, if she goes through with her plan. Are Americans ready to consider environmental education as something CENTRAL to childhood, not a frill to be cut as soon as the budget gets tight? If they aren't ready, why? Is it because we still think of it as something that should take place organically (ha), in the bosom of the family (or in the backyard of the family, rather), like it used to? And if it doesn't take place organically, is it still as effective? Can a kid "discover" something s/he has been pointed towards?

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