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Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder
by Richard Louv
Algonquin Books, 336 pp., $24.95

Last Child in the Woods

For the first time in years, you remember that spooky tree in the dirt lot by your grade school, the way the tent caterpillars erupted and writhed in their bags of silk, grotesque but vital, a lesson in abundance. You remember the visit to your grandmother's farm, how you got lost in the cornfield: You had to fight your way out with a sword! You remember your special place in a hedge, a garden, a tree house. You see how these moments add up to who you are today.

Inevitably, Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods will evoke in the reader these first encounters with nature. His thesis is that such moments are increasingly less common for this generation of children, who suffer from what Louv -- an author and activist for children's health -- calls nature-deficit disorder. The deprivation is not trivial. Echoing Edward O. Wilson's concept of biophilia, or the need "to affiliate with other forms of life," Louv believes a relationship with nature is essential to a child's development.

In our new, denatured world of "electronic detachment," 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas; in the city of Los Angeles, only 30 percent of people are within walking distance of a park. Even in small towns and green suburbia, children are kept on a tight leash by parents fearful of traffic and sexual predators. Outdoor play is usually in the form of organized sports. Indoor entertainment is extraordinarily seductive. Let's be real. The latest role-playing video game easily beats a bag of tent caterpillars.

What children are missing is unstructured play in a natural environment, a creativity uniquely stimulated by the complex and multiple "loose parts" of a wood or canyon or overgrown dirt lot. This play is often manipulative -- damming a stream, digging a hole, building a fort. It involves all the senses and can lead to flashes of insight and connection, an abiding sense of one's place in the world.

Louv gently chides environmental organizations for neglecting this crisis in the American childhood -- this lack of intimacy with nature -- in favor of the more "serious adult work of saving the world." We ignore children at our peril. Their disaffection from nature could be the politics of the future. Their goodwill could be what truly saves the world.

Conservationists can even be part of the problem. One of the most accepted roles of environmental education -- teaching children about the imminent threats of pollution and extinction -- may be counterproductive. One of Louv's experts, David Sobel, author of Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education, uses the analogy of physical and sexual abuse, which causes children to dissociate from pain. Similarly, Sobel worries that fearful and emotional stories about the destruction of the rainforest and how "the natural world is being abused" distance children from that particular pain. Some educators believe we should first focus a child's attention on the joy and wonder of local natural history, studying squirrels and milkweed before jaguars and epiphytes. Louv advises parents to slow down and enjoy nature with their children, perhaps by simply taking a walk in the neighborhood or gardening.

It's not as easy as it sounds. If you are a parent reading this book, you will do what parents do so well: obsess. Is your child a victim of nature-deficit disorder? Did you provide your daughter with enough outdoor unstructured play? Is it okay to go camping with Barbie dolls? Should you have bought her that iPod last Christmas? My own experience as the parent of two teenagers is that the next generation is always the last of something and the beginning of something. Louv knows this when he ends his book with a series of futuristic and hopeful scenarios: a vast network of bike paths, green cities, or "zoopolises," that encourage wildlife by providing natural habitats and migration corridors to maintain genetic diversity in animal populations.

Much like outdoor play itself, Last Child in the Woods actively engages the reader. You will argue some of these ideas. You may pause at Louv's connection between nature deficit in children and the rise of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. You may cheer -- or counter -- his defense of Girl Scouts and fishing. There are enough complex "loose parts" here to stimulate your own creativity.
-- Sharman Apt Russell

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Great Ape Odyssey
Last Child in the Woods
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Wandering Home

Wandering Home
Wandering Home
by Bill McKibben
Crown Publishers, 157 pp., $16

Two years ago, Bill McKibben walked from his home in the Champlain Valley in Vermont to his former home in the Adirondack Mountains in New York. Along the way he stopped in on friends and friends of friends, briefly living the life of a rancher, a winemaker, a beekeeper, an organic farmer, and a forest-fire fighter, each experience illustrative of the domestic human way of life successfully commingling with the wild. At the end of his journey he wrote Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America's Most Hopeful Landscape, Vermont's Champlain Valley and New York's Adirondacks. Although it is in large part a paean to the Wild East, McKibben vividly reasserts the modern conservationist notion that preserving the wild does not require barbed-wire fencing, but rather that man's and nature's needs can be met simultaneously if we think locally: Smaller farms plus smaller trade networks equals lighter environmental footprints. McKibben is perhaps best known for The End of Nature, the first book on global warming written for a popular audience. His most recent work is less a somber call to action than a hopeful celebration of man's peaceful cohabitation with nature.

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OnEarth. Summer 2005
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council