Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Last Child in the Woods

Richard Louv was born in 1949, a card-carrying member of the baby boomer generation.  He has been a newspaper reporter, syndicated columnist, and author of nine books.  The father of two sons, his writing often covered issues of family life.  Over the years, he interviewed thousands of parents, children, and social science experts.  Working on the front lines of American culture, he became increasingly aware that the children of boomers were moving down a path far different from their parents.

“They are the first daycare generation, the first post-sexual-revolution generation, the first generation to grow up in the electronic bubble, the first for whom nature is often an abstraction rather than a reality,” he says.  A fourth grader shocked him when he announced, “I like to play indoors better, ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”  Louv came to understand that boomers were probably “the last generation of Americans to share an intimate, familial attachment to the land and water.”  This inspired him to write Last Child in the Woods.

He imagined three phases in American culture.  The first frontier started with the European invasion of North America.  Wave after wave of settlers exterminated natives, destroyed forests, and created farms.  In the 1790 census, nearly 4 million were counted.  By 1890, we had exploded to 63 million, and the wild frontier was gone.  The era of free land for homesteaders had ended.

The second frontier spanned from 1890 to 1990.  America was urbanizing, and life in industrial cities was noisy, stinky, and chaotic.  It was an era of dust storms, robber barons, the great depression, and two world wars.  Folks took pleasant imaginary voyages to “the good old days” of rugged pioneers, cowboys, Indians, and little houses on the prairie.

In 1990, there were 248 million of us, and the government ended its tradition of taking annual surveys of farm residents.  Most small farmers had sold out and moved to town.  The third frontier was born — computers, cell phones, video games, and a cornucopia of other excesses. 

In the first frontier, most Americans spent their lives in direct contact with the natural world, working hard to survive.  In the second frontier, for many Americans, the relationship with nature evolved into something like romantic attachment.  The third frontier became an era of electronic detachment from nature, digital space aliens.

“Not that long ago, the sound track of a young person’s days and nights was composed largely of the notes of nature.  Most people were raised on the land, worked the land, and were often buried on the same land.  The relationship was direct.  Today, the life of the senses is, literally, electrified.”  Childhood has shifted from loving streams to loving screens.

Louv was born into an America of 151 million.  As I write, it’s 324 million.  In his lifetime, lots and lots of fields and forests have been erased by vast swarms of nature-devouring consumers.  The pleasant rural countrysides where many boomers grew up have been replaced by rumbling six-lane thoroughfares lined with malls, burger joints, convenience stores, suburban sprawl, and homeless camps.

He once interviewed a fifth-grade girl for whom nature remained precious.  She adored her sacred grove, a place of peace, sweet air, and freedom.  It had a creek and waterfall.  She went there almost every day.  “And then they just cut the woods down.  It was like they cut down a part of me.”  Adults tend to speak fondly of nature, but their actions display a remarkable disinterest in defending it.  Children clearly understand the unspoken message.  Progress is sacred.  Don’t make a fuss.  It reminds me of Victor Frankenstein, the mad scientist who created a monster that nobody could control.

Like many boomers, Louv spent much of his youth playing outdoors without supervision.  This had been the norm for all children everywhere — throughout all human history — until now.  Today’s poor kids have been herded indoors, where they get fat and depressed.  Stepping outdoors is simply too dangerous.  The nightly news is a constant horror show of psychopaths, gushing blood, and crazy politicians.  All kids are issued cell phones so that paranoid “helicopter parents” can know where they are at every moment.

Tree houses and tree climbing have been banned.  Fishing ponds are now off-limits.  Dangerous merry-go-rounds, swing sets, and basketball courts disappeared from playgrounds, and “No Running” signs are multiplying.  Large flocks of personal injury lawyers soar overhead, waiting for a child to get hurt.  With breathtaking speed, they dive into courthouses and file huge lawsuits.

Liability insurance rates are skyrocketing, and many communities are working hard to eliminate the menace of outdoor play.  Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are selling off wilderness camps, because insurance is too expensive.  Parents no longer expect scouting organizations to nurture healthy relationships with nature.  They prefer safe indoor activities, where kids can learn about technology or weight loss.

Public education has become obsessed with boosting test scores.  Consequently, “nearly 40 percent of American elementary schools either eliminated, or were considering eliminating recess.”  Playgrounds are a waste of precious time.  As kids get older, nature loses its wonder.  Many unlucky kids live in homes where TV is on most of the time.

Louv mentioned a program for children with AIDS.  Kids who had never been out of their urban jungle were taken to a camp in the mountains.  One night, a nine-year old girl had to go to the bathroom.  Stepping outdoors, she gasped!  She had never seen the stars before.  Wow!

On the third frontier, most teens will not effortlessly glide from high school graduation to living wage jobs.  Ten-year olds worry about college.  Parents now expect their kids to be high-achievers, tightly focused on success and careers — more computer time and study time, and little or no time for unstructured play.  Fanatical young achievers are determined to race up the golden ladder to Trump Valhalla and live in infamy.

Under relentless pressure to perform, kids who stumble contemplate suicide.  A stunning number of children are now gobbling antidepressants.  Obesity rates for American adults are skyrocketing, and rates for children are growing faster.  In communities isolated from nature, cultural autism is on the rise — reduced senses, feelings of isolation, attention fixated on glowing screens.  We are losing direct experience of the world, living like burned out zoo animals.

This is a crisis.  Louv is famous for coining the term Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD), a serious physical, emotional, and mental health issue.  It is curable.  Being close to nature boosts a child’s attention span and self-confidence.  It fosters creative play.  Contact with nature seems to be as important as good nutrition and adequate sleep.  We desperately need a movement to leave no child indoors.

Schools have been herding the kids down the dead end path of technology, status seeking, and high impact living.  The young are well aware of overpopulation, deforestation, mass extinction, climate change, and so on.  What can they do?  The wonderland of glowing screens can provide hours of escape from their anger, despair, and powerlessness.

Louv blasts readers with a fire hose of full strength hopium.  His recommendations range from simple commonsense strategies to soaring flights of magical thinking.  Meanwhile, around the clock, Mother Culture shouts at the herd.  “Fear not!  Everything is under control!  Shop like there’s no tomorrow!  The best is yet to come!”

I’ve spent decades trying to understand reality, a lonely path.  I have come to accept it, in the fullness of its darkness.  Being present in reality is not fatal.  On the other hand, denial, disconnection, and nonstop rage are soul killing and crazy making.  Louv introduces respectable suburban consumers to nature connection lite.  Jon Young goes further, encouraging dirty, sweaty, full strength, howling at the moon nature connection.  He says, “The future belongs to those who are deeply connected to nature.”  I agree. 

Louv, Richard, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, 2008.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Right Relationship to Reality

Reverend Michael Dowd and his wife Connie Barlow are nomadic evolutionary evangelists who have been on the road since 2002, speaking to more than 2,000 audiences.  In their reality, evolution and religion are not in conflict; both can happily sit next to each other on the same pew.  A primary goal of their mission is teaching folks about sustainability.  For them, right relationship to reality is what ultimately matters.  We must be in right relationship with the soil, water, and life of this planet.  If we don’t get right with reality, we’re going to perish.

Their Grace Limits webpage provides links to an impressive collection of information on sustainability, including books, essays, and videos.  Dowd has read a number of books and essays aloud, recording them as MP3 files (with the authors’ permission).  They are available to download, free of charge.  Some of the books he has recorded include Overshoot by William Catton, The Green History of Religion by Anand Veeraraj, Afterburn by Richard Heinberg, The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scranton, and four books by John Michael Greer.

A root issue is the rejection of science — separation from reality.  Among fundamentalist Christians, 76 percent do not believe in evolution, 58 percent do not believe in climate change, and 77 percent deny that the universe is billions of years old.  According to 41 percent, we’re now living in the End Times, so there is no point in worrying about the health of creation.  The future doesn’t matter.  Religious youth are abandoning faith in record numbers.  Rates of teen pregnancy, obesity, spouse abuse, and porn addiction are highest in the most religiously conservative, Bible-centered parts of America.

I was impressed by how far Dowd’s thinking was from the perplexing theology I struggled with in my youth.  For example, Reality Reconciles Science and Religion is an 18-minute TEDx talk he gave in 2014.  He tells us that he is an evolutionary theologian, or a big history evangelist.  He teaches the gospel of right relationship with reality — especially factual realism.  Reality is my god.  Evidence is my scripture.  Big history is my creation story.  Ecology is my theology.  Integrity is my salvation.  Ensuring a just and healthy future is my mission (for the entire family of life).

Michael Dowd’s home page is HERE. 

Connie Barlow’s home page is HERE. 

HERE is info on Dowd’s book, Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Nature Connection

Stalking Wolf was a tracker raised in a wild, free Apache community.  His people never surrendered to the barbarian invaders, and some still continue living in freedom, as undocumented Americans, in remote desert regions.  Later in life, he spent time with his son in New Jersey, where he happened to meet an 8-year old boy named Tom Brown.  He mentored Tom and his buddy Rick for nine years, giving them an excellent education in tracking, survival, and respect for the family of life.  When it was time for him to return west, and end his life’s journey, he told Tom to teach someone else all that he had learned.

In 1971, when Tom was 18, he met a 10-year old boy named Jon Young, and trained him for eight years.  Tom went on to write 17 books, and launch his famous tracking school.  Young went to college, where he was a freak — a highly skilled tracker with a deep understanding of wild ecosystems, and enormous respect for the family of life.  Weirdo!

Young grew up in an era when there were only three channels on TV, so he and his buddies spent a lot of time outdoors, playing unsupervised in the woods, taking risks, and forming close bonds with children of different ages.  This is how well adjusted young animals are supposed to grow up, feeling at home in nature, connected.

He would have made a perfect poster boy for Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods.  It described the rapidly growing epidemic of Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD) — separation sickness.  Today’s kids have far more distractions, like 500 TV channels, the internet, cell phones, and video games.  They typically have intrusive “helicopter parents” who micromanage them, constantly protecting them from dirt, danger, creativity, and freedom.

Every newborn that squirts out of the womb is a wild animal fine-tuned for thriving on tropical savannahs, fully connected to nature, acutely intelligent, and highly aware.  Even today, some are able to preserve nature connection during their childhood years, but it tends to suffocate in their teen years, due to a nonstop barrage of loony balderdash from the nightmare world of Sustainable Growth™.  A lucky few manage to maintain their connection into adulthood, and strengthen it as they go — maybe one in a thousand, according to Young.

In 1979, Tom Brown published his first masterpiece, The Tracker, a book that blew my mind.  In that year, Young asked his life question, “Who are the most connected to nature and how did they get that way?  Why are some folks deeply connected, and others not?”  In search of answers, he spent years visiting a number of indigenous cultures.  He discovered that the San Bushmen of the Kalahari in Botswana were incredibly well connected.  They refuse to enter houses, because people who live indoors go insane.

Young says that with the San, you always feel safe.  They are super intelligent, super happy, super vital, and great problem solvers.  You never feel competition.  People are in love with every aspect of the ecosystem around them, celebrating with childlike wonder through all stages of their life.  Every person in that community is committed to the flowering of every other person.  They are incredibly aware of their surroundings at all times, because a brief lapse of attention can kill you in lion country.

Today, using the techno-juju of DNA mapping, it’s looking like the San are the common ancestors of all humankind.  For two million years, our ancestors lived like they still do.  We have their genes and instincts, but our culture lost its nature connection centuries ago.  Culture is a whirlwind of beliefs.  Stupid beliefs can have deep roots and powerful momentum, but they are not invincible, especially when they are destabilizing society.  Never forget that there was a time when our culture, and its belief system, did not exist.  It’s a spooky mutant, and it has no long-term future.

Richard Louv compiled years of reputable research on the harms associated with NDD.  Complications of disconnection include drug addiction, autism, homelessness, attention deficit disorder, depression, suicide, obesity, anxiety, and on and on.  Kids who grew up as Young did were strikingly healthier, happier, and smarter.  They were more creative, well adjusted, spiritually grounded, and centered.

In 2011, the popular talk show celebrity Oprah Winfrey read Louv’s book, The Nature Principle, and added it to her influential summer reading list.  Suddenly, news of the NDD epidemic went viral.  Millions of mothers gasped in horror!  My God!  What have we done to our precious little couch potatoes?  Everyone wanted their children to be connected, because the benefits were obviously huge.  In the book, Louv mentioned that Young was an expert on nature connection.

Since 1983, Young has been developing mentoring projects, striving to help youths move beyond the soul-killing void of disconnection.  For a long time, he was seen as a last resort, a place to dump emotional basket cases that the experts could not fix, kids close to blinking out.  He had an impressive record of hitting home runs with high-risk youths, because he gave them what they desperately needed, connection.  There are three facets of connection: connection with others, connection with self, and connection with nature.

Consumer culture excels at disconnecting people from self, others, and nature.  Many adults fail to develop healthy connections with their husbands, wives, children, and friends.  Many don’t know the folks who have been their neighbors for years.  Many are only capable of forming connections with their dogs and cats.

Anyway, in recent years, awareness of the importance of nature connection has increased significantly, but so has the teen suicide rate.  Indeed, the NDD epidemic continues to spread.  Participation in nature conservation groups is declining, while connection to glowing screens has grown explosively.  The ecosystem is not getting the love and respect it so desperately needs.

Young points out that there is no miraculous silver bullet cure for NDD.  A weekend camping trip is not enough.  Youths attend his mentoring projects once or twice a week.  Most attendees develop connection in two years, on average.  He says that their values are significantly changed.  Connection opens up their empathy and their concern for others.  It causes them to seek meaning, and meaningful service to others, and to future generations.  Great!

When you meet a cool weasel, or find a bird nest, you want to share the exciting discovery.  The path to healing requires being with folks who will give you a listening ear, nonjudgmental story catchers.  Story catching is a life-giving connective experience.  It’s about giving full attention to listening, without interrupting, or projecting your thoughts.  Young says that grownups usually talk at each other, semi-listening, mostly waiting for a space in the conversation where they can cut in — intersecting monologues.

As a wordsmith, I can communicate knowledge about environmental history or ecological sustainability, but my connection to nature is hard to convey via words.  The Tracker blew my mind, but I know that many others say the book had little or no value for them.  I was lucky to preserve my nature connection into adulthood.

Young points out that you can’t succeed at bodybuilding by reading books.  You have to engage in actual exercise.  Similarly, nature connection is not acquired from books.  Book learning is education modeling.  Equally ineffective is recreation modeling, engaging in health and fitness activities.  The correct tool for this job is connection modeling, the mode of mentoring to which Young has devoted his life.

Modern societies have inherited a stupendous mess, a bloody pileup of thousands of years of trauma.  Magical thinking is not the answer.  Young optimistically estimates that the healing process will take 200 years.  He says we need to think of ourselves as foundation builders.  Our task is to begin the long and difficult journey home.  Live well!

Videos of Jon Young lectures:

Nature Connection Books:

Young, Jon; Evan McGown, and Ellen Haas, Coyote’s Guide to Connecting to Nature, 2nd ed., Owlink Media, Shelton, Washington, 2010.

Young, Jon, What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2012.

Louv, Richard, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, 2008.

Louv, Richard, The Nature Principle: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age, 2nd ed., Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, 2012.

Nature Connection Organizations:

Jon Young founded the 8 Shields Institute, which has been training nature connection mentors for 30 years.  It runs over 300 programs worldwide.  More info is HERE.

Richard Louv founded the Children and Nature Network, an organization that is influencing policy in Washington, via 122 grassroots campaigns.