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THE BOND OF SHARED SOLITUDE: How do we stay connected to our children and spouses in the age of wall-to-wall media? Here's one way.

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of nine books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" and "The Nature Principle." His newest book, "Vitamin N," offers 500 ways to build a nature-rich life. In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal.

Adapted from “The Nature Principle.”

Boredom has its benefits. So does solitude, that lost art in the age of wall-to-wall media. To occasionally be alone — not lonely, but alone — is an important part of parenting and of marriage. One time, my wife Kathy rented a room at the beach, and spent a weekend with no electronic interruptions, no demands for time or attention — just the sound of the waves and gulls. She came home looking even younger than she usually does.

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Several years ago, facing a book deadline, I drove to the Cuyamaca mountains. My friends Jim and Anne Hubbell had invited me to house sit a magical Hobbit cottage, a work of art, on their property. I planned to spend a whole week there, alone. I realize taking work on a retreat is a contradiction, but even with work at hand, solitude is elevating. I had done this once before, spending a week in a bunkhouse made from an abandoned railroad car in Mesa Grande, had worked during the heat of the day and then wandered at dusk through the hills.

This was mountain lion country. I always felt watched. I carried a walking stick made of light, strong yucca. Each evening, as it turned dark, I would stop at an open watering tank to wash up, then head back to the boxcar.

This time, the accommodations were better, a charming, sculpted house with windows of stained glass — I even had electricity, and a comfortable bed to sleep in. In the gray dawn on my first morning there, I opened my eyes to see a coyote standing next to an open window. It stared at me. I blinked. It was gone.

I got up, made coffee, and went to work.

During these days of solitude, moving clouds and lifting wind would begin to bring voices — of a father and a mother, now gone, and of my wife and children. On the fourth day, Kathy and the boys, Jason and Matthew, arrived for a visit. In solitude, even for a few days, a person changes subtly; the familiar phrases and patterns seem odd, somehow. So our first minutes together felt a little awkward. But this is why taking a retreat, as a husband or wife or parent, is a good thing. Familiar patterns can shield us from true familiarity.

At the end of their visit, Kathy took me aside and said that Jason had commitments at home, but Matthew would like to stay with me for my remaining three days. He was terribly bored at home, and needed a break from his brother (and his brother needed a break from him). Of course, I said, as long as he understands that I need to work, and he’ll have to entertain himself.

At 11, Matthew was in the between time, in the gap between childhood and adolescence. This is a particularly magical stage in a boy’s life, a time when it’s good to take a break from familiar patterns — to spend some time in silence.

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My wife and older son drove off, and Matthew and I went through the house to look for books for him to read. There was no TV in the little house and no radio. Not a single electronic game, either. He picked out a Tolkein novel and another book about a boy who adopts a wolf cub. He sat on an old couch behind me, and respecting my need for quiet, began to read.

Three hours later I realized he had not said a word. I turned around. He was asleep, holding Tolkein like a stuffed bear.

That evening, we walked up the hill and swam together in a round, tiled pool under a quarter moon, and later, we listened to the wind come up and the coyotes jabber in fits and starts. For the next three days, we talked only occasionally, in the pool or at dinner. He was usually a voluble boy, so I was surprised that the silences came so easily to him.

The absence of electronics (except for my laptop computer) helped. So did the wildness of the land around us. So did the fact that I was there, but quieter than usual. I asked him to take charge of feeding the cats and dog. He gave names to the cats, who followed him around the property, scrambling up the oaks to show off for him. In the evenings we swam or walked, and he took his camera, and snuck up on the deer that wandered through an orchard at dusk.

Matthew and I moved into a new rhythm. I got to know him better during those days, and perhaps he came to know me better, not because we talked, but because we didn’t. As a parent, you capture such quiet moments when you can, in the loudness of time.

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Richard Louv is chairman emeritus of the Children and Nature Network. He is the author of  “Last Child in the Woods” and “The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual World,” from which this column is adapted. It also appeared in this space in 2012. Matt Louv, now 26, is a standup comedian.

Like Rich on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @RichLouv 

 

 

More reading

“Shared Nature Experience as a Pathway to Family Bonds” by Martha Ferrell Erickson, PH.D., part of C&NN’s Leadership Writing Series.

In Defense of Boredom

The Monster of Mystery Valley

 

 

19 Comments

  1. A lovely reflection, Richard.

    My wife and I have been together for fifteen years. Four times a year, we do a three-day retreat together, usually at home. We turn off the computers and the phone, and cover the clocks. The first two days, we don’t speak, instead sharing a companionable silence, perhaps reading, perhaps walking along a trail through the woods. The third day, when we do speak, we do so more mindfully than usual. The experience is always refreshing.

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  2. Richard Louv, sou avó de 11, e moro com 9 deles. Desde que conheci seu blog, e tomei conhecimento de poucos escritos seus, me identifiquei muito, pois sempre tive muito amor pela Natureza! Agora eu tento muito mais trazer meus netos para fora, mas tem sido uma luta. Nunca li o seu livro, moro no Brasil, não sei se tem ele por aqui, em portugues. Não leio tão bem inglês, mas tento pegar o máximo daquilo que posso ler no seu blog, e aplicar! Obrigada pelo maravilhoso trabalho que faz. Gostaria de formar um clube da Natureza aqui. Muito amor para você!

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  3. Richard:

    Very beautiful! Very special piece! Tears actually. You and I have met and talked but I don’t expect you to remember.
    Thank you for such a special piece of writing.

    Jack.

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  4. My comment is “awaiting moderation?” There is no forthcoming “moderation.” All I wanted to do was say “Thank You!”

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  5. I am a volunteer for Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and my “Little” is 11 years old, like Matthew at the time of your stay at “Hobbit House”. We have gone on outings to several natural areas in southern California, including a long weekend with a hike to a palm oasis in Anza Borrego State Park, and a couple of sessions under dark desert skies. The lure of electronics for this 11-year old has been very hard to resist. Your “quiet time” together seems like a wonderful idea which we will try.

    Those who share quiet time with their kids enjoying the western sky at dusk through July and early August will be rewarded by the sight of a very striking lineup of planets, ever more compact as weeks pass. At the start of July, brilliant Venus is at the lower right end of the grouping, with the star Regulus and the planets Mars and Saturn, in order, to Venus’ upper left. On July 9, Venus will pass close to Regulus. The crescent Moon goes past the gathering July 13-16, and on July 30, Mars will catch up to Saturn. By August 7, all three planets will fit within the field of view of most binoculars!

    A Sky Calendar illustrating many of these events with an evening star map are available at http://www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/july2010.pdf

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  6. Hi there Richard and staff-
    I read this piece with admiration- very nice and quieting. Your son sounds grand! I would like to hear more about y our organization bedides the grand meetings you plan. I am anxious to know Richarad if you ever teamed up with the Aldo Leopold Naature Center in Monona (Madison) WI. Kath Conn the CEO is a fabulous natrue leader for kids and I have longed for you to get to know her. Every chuild in Madison gores thru her nature camp there in the shores of Lake Monona and the wetland0- and they had a shack there too! They are beginning to teach kids phenology now-keep their own records. interested? drop me a line!
    Estella Leopold 206-524-3042 H oe 685-1151 work June 29, 2010
    Best Estella

    Reply
    • Richard Louv

      Thanks so much, Estella. No I’ve not been in touch with the Center since our conference. Very interested! I need to send you something to, related to a new project….

      Reply
  7. What a lovely time and a lovely reflection. Thanks for sharing. Solitude seems to be a quality that is much under valued in modern times. As a teacher I am often asked, by my students, what music I listen to. My response is that I often don’t listen to anything. When I am driving in my car, even for short distances, I value that time alone and frequently choose not to share it, even with my favorite songs. It is good to be still. My students are always surprised but perhaps some of them will remember to value silence and stillness.

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  8. Richard, I loved reading your column on your Hobbit house stays and time with your son. I have done this with my boys when they are 18 and 22 to the Shawnee HIlls area in Southern Illinois. Nature works.
    I teach 4th graders. I also teach 4th and 5th graders in an after school ecology club. I am interested in starting a summer “camp” of some sort. There is a natural area that surrounds our school. Our school is May Watts Elementary. Do you know of her? Important environmentalist from Naperville, Illinois. I would like some help to get started. Don’t know if you have time to spare. Maybe just some ideas.
    I met you at College of Dupage, Glen Ellyn, Illinois – when you spoke.
    I absolutely loved your book.
    I was raised on a dairy farm and lived the outdoors all my youth.
    I connected so – with your stories.
    Thanks for all you do.
    Ann Covert

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    • Richard Louv

      Thanks for the kind words, Ann. The best ideas are found on the C&NN web site (www.childrenandnature.org) and for families specifically, http://www.naturerocks.org I know there are articles about camps on the C&NN web site. Quite an undertaking but hope it works out!

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  9. Ron Swaisgood

    Beautiful words and sentiments, Rich! I couldn’t agree more. In an age of incessant over-communicating, taking a break to communicate little and with few, or even just yourself, can be cleansing and rewarding. At times I’ve spent so much time in nature alone that I’ve not only started talking to myself, but have answered my questions aloud. In grad school, I remember reading a piece entitled “Protestations of a field person.” In it, the author comments on how, when alone for long periods, one loses some of the emotional anchoring that we depend on others for. This can be bewildering and lead us to pendulous swings from self-aggrandizement to self-loathing, but in the end it forces you to rely on yourself. There’s no better way to find out who you really are. Or build a deeper relationship with someone important.

    Thanks again, Rich, for continuing to point out to us what is most salient in nature.

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  10. This is beautiful. I love the idea of getting to know people better through silence. It’s awesome how your son adapted so well. Kids can. I think we often expect they can’t and they live up to that expectation. That last sentence really hit me. Beautiful.

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  11. Dear Richard-i really enjoyed your article on solitude as I do most of your work. It reminded me of a time when I had just discovered that I had a serious case of Prostate Cancer and a friend, Tahdi, gifted me a week at her beautiful and rustic place up in West Hills, CA while she was at an IONS Conference in Argentina. I had access to her kitchen, so I stocked up on easy for me to cook things and left the place only once during the week to see a friend, Michael Lerner, who was speaking at Loyola Marymount University one evening. You do get to know some of the animals in the area who are curious about you, and you get to bask in the beauty of nature, with all of its regular sounds. It was so nice to be away from the electronic universe and to have time to think and to be a little creative. I came back clear about the need to change my insurance company provider which had been negating various types of treatments. Through friends I was able to do so, and because of this I am still around today. That gift of solitude was precious!

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    • Richard Louv

      Thanks, John, for your good story. Hope all’s well.

      Reply
  12. Richard,
    Your words above reminded me of the times Matthew and I spent going into the Eucalyptis near your home. Up and down, over the little brooklet, looking at nature. Fun times and sweet memories. It’s lovely to see photos of you with him, now a happy grown up. Phyllis

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  13. Hi Richard — I love this reflection. I too find silences full and rich.

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  14. When one speaks from the heart it touched others deeply. I love how open you are Richard. Your purity is both quenching and moving. This is such a beautiful post. Solitude plays an important role in our character building. It is in silence that one can truly find oneself. And as you experienced on this occasion, a deeper connection and understanding of others.

    Our children are gifted to us for such a short time. My eldest is now 20 – a young adult, my daughter Jasmine is now 17 and my youngest 14. My husband and I spend as much of our free time outdoors with our teenagers. We feel incredibly fortunate that our children still want to hang out with us and we appreciate and savour every moment we can. Lately, I have been spending a lot more time with my 17yr old daughter (now that she is home-schooling).

    Jasmine is just beginning to discover herself and understand her own spiritual beliefs. Our walks down to the lake help her to escape the “noise” of modern teenage day living. Usually we talk on the way to the lake but more often than not when we reach the lake-shore we find our own space. Jasmine has a favourite rock where you can see for miles across the vast lake to the mountains and beyond. I wander for a while but usually end up sitting close to the water and not too far from Jasmine’s rock. We are together but there is no need to speak. In our silence we hear nature speaking, we are connected in spirit, with everything around us. This connection gifts us a peace and tranquility so quenching in a world so full of “noise”.

    I probably crave solitude more than most and make an effort to get up early in the morning, before everyone is awake to have that solitude. Each morning, I walk barefoot around the garden in all weathers, finishing with a meditation. This time alone in nature gifts me a sense of peace and gratitude which helps me through the days events. It is sad to think so many have been made to feel guilty about taking time to be alone or find it unnatural not to be constantly in company or conversation.

    I am sure Richard, as all your posts, you will have inspired…..thank you for being you. Love and peace Marghanita xx

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  15. A lovely read this morning. I think even if you can’t get to a quiet place physically like the house you stayed in it is possible to have a little bit of quiet at home. Every so often if I feel things starting to get busy I take a silent retreat myself at home by just not talking so much only to respond to my children and my husband. I listen to them instead and give them quiet space with me. I always feel better after a day or two of this and I feel very tuned into myself after. Its very simple to do and there’s no organising in it.

    Reply

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