Last Child in the Woods
Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder
by Richard Louv
I know, I know. I said I enjoy reading fiction more than non-fiction. But every once in awhile, a non-fiction, fact-loaded book blows me away. Last Child in the Woods did that. I was constantly dog-earing pages so I could read passages aloud to Keith when he got home. The subtitle, Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, goes a long way in explaining what this one is about. The author, Richard Louv, coined the term nature-deficit disorder for this book, not as a medical diagnoses, but as a way of identifying the consequences of children's disconnect from nature. Louv meticulously details the profound effects of time spent in nature on the mental, physical, emotional, and even spiritual, health of children. He not only documents what we have lost by disconnecting from nature, but why we have lost it: stranger-danger fears, the regulations of new developments, over-scheduled childhoods, lack of natural history in public education, and indoor air-conditioning, among other things. There is hope, though, according to Louv, in the the way environmental groups and churches are re-engaging children to be stewards of the earth, in the creation of "pocket parks" in vacant urban areas, and a renewed interest in the back-to-the-land movement.
It is hard to sum up a book like this, packed with research and anecdotes that powerfully present what feels, to me, to be an essential truth: kids need nature. Most of you know I grew up on a farm. I know we played inside, I know we watched movies, and I definitely know I read books. I won't exaggerate and tell you that my brother Travis and I spent every available moment outside. But we spent a huge amount of our childhood, and adolescence, outdoors. We were incredibly fortunate to live on a hundred-plus acre farm, with woods, creeks, fields, and animals. Our cousins were nearby, and we spent hours traipsing around the woods between our houses in the summer and sledding in the winter. We were enthusiastic, if ineffective, builders of dams. We never tired of following the creek up through the hollow to the spring where it started, in a tangle of roots from a giant tree. It was dark back there and my dad had me convinced there was an alligator living there, but it didn't stop us from playing. I remember hauling ropes and boards up to a towering pine tree to build a fort. Travis was the tree climber; I don't think I ever made it more than about eight feet off the ground. This particular building adventure sticks in my mind because we were older then, probably in middle school. We were often stuck doing farm work together, so by that age, we spent most of our free time apart. But for whatever reason, that summer we would head up to the tree in the late afternoons or evenings, building and dragging branches around, Travis up in the tree with a rope, me below tying things onto it for him to haul up. The rope still hangs in that tree, and our dog Buck is buried beneath it.
Louv mentions in his book that those of us who grew up with direct, everyday access to nature tend to romanticize it, idealize it. That's probably true. I know that our time spent outside wasn't all play. We griped about making hay and fixing fences. We moaned about carrying water for the cows on ice-cold mornings. I'm sure my complaints about weeding the garden seemed endless to my mom and my dad probably wondered if I would ever learn to stack a woodpile so it wouldn't fall. Chopping thistles in the cow pastures seemed like some kind of torture. Now the farm has automatic frost-free waterers and high-tensile fences that the deer can't knock down. But it all built character, just like my dad said it would. We always knew where our food came from, and how our house stayed warm. And now we shake our heads when we drive by pastures full of thistles.
Somehow, I don't think my brother or cousins or I realized what we had until we grew up and left the farm. When I went to college, it took me months to get used to the light from lampposts coming through the window all night. The constant noise of the dorms made me wish for the solitude of a rainy afternoon at the top of the hay mow, listening to the patter of rain on the metal roof.
More than anything, I want Bert to have those experiences. We talk about someday moving back closer to the farm, but until that can happen, we are trying to carve out a little bit of that life right here. The garden, the park across the street, and lots and lots of trips to the farm should awaken in him curiosity and adventure and give him the room to roam I was fortunate enough to grow up with. I wish for him clear nights, full of endless stars, and soft new calves and fresh, warm eggs. I wish toads and salamanders and dirty knees and bare feet. I can only hope that I am patient enough to cook him wild mustard when he pulls it and wants to try eating it, to clean scraped knees and elbows, and to explain why baby mice and birds in shoeboxes won't survive. To me, these things are the essence of childhood, and every child is entitled to that.