REAL IS THE NEW VIRTUAL: It's All Happening at the Fair

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.

Out on the Midway at the San Diego County Fair, the pavement jumped with music. Screams spewed from the Fun Zone. “Goat milk!” a woman shouted. In front of her, plastic tubing pulsed with white fluid.

“I can’t believe it! I’ve never seen anything milked! Look at that! Fantastic!” She was pointing at a goat, its udder full as a Nordstrom’s shopping bag. “You only see this when you come to the fair.” A mother wheeled a baby stroller in front of the goat-milking demonstration. The father knelt down and snapped a photograph of his wife and baby in front of the goat.

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Evidence. Real life. Right here.

After a decade of falling attendance, county and state fairs, or at least some of them, are experiencing a slight upsurge in attendance, and a few changes. The Baltimore Sun reports: “Herb-infused olive oils have edged out canned beans, bathroom attendants hand out towels for tips, snack bars have air conditioning, and alpacas — not cows — are the new must-have animals.”

Still, to many folks, hand-raised live animals are more fascinating than the yawning House of Mirrors, the Crazy Dance Spinning Pods or even the Falling Star Swing from Hell.

Sometimes that fascination seems a bit…bizarre. A friend in Minneapolis reports that, at the Minnesota State Fair, which starts this week, “you literally have to wait in line and allot hours to get through the barns, especially the birthing barn where live births are projected on big screens all day.”

Real is the new virtual. As our lives become more electronic, the wonder of life itself draws us. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking

I mentioned my theory to a no-nonsense goat farmer. She shrugged. “People ask a lot of really stupid questions,” she said. Muscled and tan, she was wearing a Desert Shield T-shirt and wrestling a goat. “People ask: ‘Does it hurt the goat?’ And they ask: ‘How often do you milk ’em?'” The goat did a backward rump toss in her arms.

“How often do you milk that goat?” asked the dad with the camera.

The goat farmer hooked her thumb in his direction. “See?”

The question didn’t seem dumb to me. She snapped the goat’s teat into the tube. “I get half the football team at my house. They want to drive the tractor,” she said. “And I tell ’em, ‘You want to drive the tractor, you load the manure spreader.'” Regarding the benefits of rural life to children, she’s succinct. “My kids don’t have time for TV. Too many chores.”

None of this is news to the good people at 4-H and other organizations that connect kids to farm life. With the growth of the organic food movement and the trend toward local food, all kinds of new opportunities could open up for young people and families–including “new” green jobs in urban agriculture.

Writer Courtney White describes this trend as the rise of the “New Agrarians.” But that’s a topic for another day.

I also watched a woman at a spinning wheel transform goat hair into soft yarn. She had a different take on the questions people ask.  “Women are more inclined to ask questions, but men are more likely to linger,” she said. She offered no explanation. But she knew she preferred real reality to virtual reality. She said she’d traded life in the fast lane for a farm in the country. “It blows my friends’ minds. I used to wear designer clothes and work nine to five. Now I wear blue jeans and a hairpiece and I work five to nine.”

An hour later, I met a blacksmith from Nickerson, Kansas. He described himself as a working smith: a blade smith, a farrier, a coppersmith, and a certified horseshoer. He met his wife a few years ago at the Bakersfield fair. She watched him pound and she came back to watch a few more times, and then she stayed. Now she works beside him.

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For years, he’d done high structure iron work, 300 feet in the air, but more recently he and his wife had begun to tour the West’s big fairs. Traveling fair to fair in their rolling blacksmith shop, they demonstrated the reality of smithing to people who can’t seem get enough of it.

“Kids see in 3-D,” he said as he pounded red-hot horse nail. He was smudged and stolid and bearded. “They can see the thing take shape, but the parents can’t.”

The banging of his hammer rang across the grounds, above the Midway’s rock ‘n’ roll.

“For a while the fairs got too commercial,” he said, “but people got burnt out on the glitz. Now they’re coming full circle. People want to see the largest ear of corn.”

He handed the nail to his wife. “Hot?”

“Nope.” She said she checks her husband’s work because, after all these years smithing, his hands can’t feel heat or sharpness. So he took the nail and heated it again and pounded more, and then he let the nail cool, and finally handed it to me. I looked at the nail. He had pounded it into a tiny sculpture of a wizard.

“Keep it,” he said kindly.

Then he pointed to the calf-birthing pen. Children were watching a calf take its first steps on wobbly new legs, its cord still hanging wet and red.

Evidence. Real life. Right now.

The blacksmith smiled. “One o’clock, the fair PA system announced a calf was being born,” he said. “Sixty-thousand people at the fair. Seemed like most of them stampeded this way. They come bucking’ outta the barn. To see a calf being born. Can you believe that?”

He picked up another nail.

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Richard Louv is Chairman Emeritus of the Children and Nature Network and author of “The Nature Principle” and “Last Child in the Woods.” This piece was adapted from his book, “The Web of Life.” Follow Rich Louv on Facebook and @RichLouv on Twitter


More Reading and Resources

Minnesota State Fair Live Birth Center

A strange but moving video on the live birth exhibit at the Minnesota State Fair

True Green: 21 Ways to Plant a City

Local Harvest: How to Visit a Farm

4 Lessons for Growing a Family Farm across Generations: Yes Magazine

Childhood love of 4-H leads to rewarding career


Photo by Matt Hintsa, Creative Commons



  1. The need for actual experiences is acute in these times. What affirms us in life, a hug, a walk outside, a chance to touch a tree, a leaf, to feel the texture of dirt and the list can go on and on. The head of the virtual university some years ago told a group of environmental educators, we now have a glove you can put on that simulates touching a tree. We all clamored, “Why don’t you just go outside?” She could not answer because virtual experiences are just that, simulations. And this person thought that virtual was better than real. Granted there are some things you have to simulate for various reasons, but when you have a tree right outside, why not take advantage of the ACTUAL experience.

    Then we are confronted with the current trend at universities. One university boasted, ” we now have a Master’s degree program where you never have to leave your computer, it is ALL virtual.” It made me wonder, how can people have a sense of humanity, proximity, affect or feelings, in a virtual world that exempts us from the interpersonal, nonverbal behavior, communication that is other than speaking? Then I wondered how do we model for teachers behaviors they must display with children in the classroom that are real? I know, let’s get a virtual glove for everyone so they can reach children virtually? And we must clamor…why don’t we just have real experiences with one another?

  2. Thank you, Rich, for highlighting an old-time favorite: the county fair. Up here in Alaska we don’t have counties, so our annual pilgrimage happens at the Kenai Peninsula Fair. Last weekend we drove up the highway in another family’s van, the kids all excited about carnival rides, junk food, racing pigs, and the rodeo. For an afternoon, we made the most of all that this year’s outdoor celebration of agriculture, horses, and family time had to offer. My daughter petted her first alligator. She got pelted with driving rain while riding on The Swings carnival ride, the wind and other elements creating “compass head” (hair in every direction) and an ear-to-ear grin. She ate cotton candy while watching 4-H kids auction off their prize pigs and laughed with gusto at the chickens resembling Phyllis Diller and David Bowie. She nearly had a cowby, riding a wild horse, land in her lap at the rodeo and swore to me that she’d NEVER take up bronco riding when she got older. Whew! And she won ribbons for her raspberries, flowers, purple potatoes, jellyfish drawing, and painted ladybug rock. Driving home, the kids – worn out from their fair adventures – listened quietly to a CD story of Huck Finn and plotted their mushroom collection plans for next year’s fair. There really is nothing quite like a summer day at the fair!

    • Richard Louv

      Thanks, Carmen! Hope all’s well in Alaska.

  3. The more ways we can get people exposed to the real world (though, to be fair, the most concrete of urban jungles is plenty real too), the better. But your goat farmer concerns me: the more those “in the know” consider the questions of those who honestly DON’T know as “stupid” (and trust me, no matter how careful you try to be, it will show in your response), the more people will stay away, feeling unwelcome.

    There are no stupid questions. There are surprising questions, and thoughtful questions, and questions borne of ignorance. But the only stupid question is the one you didn’t ask.

    • Richard Louv

      Good point, Frances. I took her statement with a grain of salt. I agree with you completely that the only stupid question is the one that isn’t asked.


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