So many of our communities are governed by fear — fear of risk, of strangers, of strange lawyers, of nature itself. But still, the new nature movement is fueled by hope, and by the knowledge that life needs life, and life is good. Or can be.
Sarah Walker, a recent college graduate who lives in Kingston, Ontario, helped create the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada. She’s also one of C&NN’s Natural Leaders. She recently wrote about her special place in nature, one near her home, from which a nature-rich future is visible: “I am sitting on a hill overlooking a wooded forest that defines the landscape of my favorite place in the whole world. I lie with my back against a snowdrift and my snowshoes are strapped to my feet,” she wrote. As she gazed up into the cloudless sky, she found herself trying to put a name to what she was feeling.
“Today, for the first time, I can tell you with one word why I fell in love with the children and nature movement. It is also the same reason I sit outside in this frigid weather: security.”
She continued, “As I sit atop this hill, I’m about to finish school in the next couple of months and I’m not really sure what my next step will be. In spite of this, I know that no matter what life brings my way, I can sit in this spot and watch the sun rise and set below this tree line.”
Security. Before I read Sarah’s piece, I had never particularly connected that word with experiences in the natural world. But there it was, and true.
Frederick Law Olmsted, the great landscape architect, who created or co-designed America’s great urban parks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, would have known exactly what Sarah was talking about. Olmsted did not need a stack of studies to prove his point of view. But in the 21st century, those studies are rolling in. At least one indicates that urban parks with the greatest biodiversity—the most species of other animals, in addition to humans—are the parks that have the greatest beneficial effects on psychological health and well-being. Studies also suggests that when we interact with animals, the neurochemicals and hormones associated with social bonding are elevated. People who spend time in more natural environments in cities tend to nurture closer relationships with fellow human beings and to value community. Encounters with other species can help children develop empathy.Nature, as it turns out, can be a civilizing force.
One reason for this, I believe, is that when we are in the presence of other species, and aware of them at a deep level, we do not feel so alone. The widely used term “social capital” refers to how well people look out for one another, and the sense of belonging and meaning that come with that. When we consider the social capital of a community, why do we include only one species? The biodiversity around us can help us maintain a sense of place and a larger companionship. Natural places can give people a sense of peace, meaning, security, not only in wilderness, but in the most densely populated urban neighborhood. I’ve called this phenomenon “human/nature social capital.”
Now the challenge is not only to preserve the last remaining natural places, but to create more of them — and to make sure all children and adults, not just a few, receive the gifts of nature.
Perhaps we’re on the cusp of a great revival of Olmsted’s thinking, a remembering of lost wisdom.
Years ago, I spent a morning with the biologist Elaine Brooks, a sensitive and, like the rest of us, an occasionally lonely person. I wrote about her in “Last Child in the Woods.” She described how she had spent years of her life studying the last remnant of native habitat in La Jolla, California.
We climbed one day to the highest knoll of these few acres. She told me how she would often go there, and sit alone, and look out at the blue or grey or fog of the Pacific Ocean. This was her special spot. As I described in Last Child in the Woods, she would inhale the sea air, and watch. “One day I caught a movement out the corner of my eye,” she said, smiling. “A tiny brown frog was sitting on a bush next to me. I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ Elaine admired the work of scientist E. O. Wilson, whose biophilia hypothesis holds that human beings are hard-wired to have an affinity for the rest of nature. According to this hypothesis, it’s no accident that we are attracted to certain views of special places in nature – in particular, the savannah. We are grounded in the origins of our species. Or lifted into the trees.
Sometimes Elaine would sit on that knoll and imagine herself as her own distant ancestor. In her revery, she would see this: One step ahead of something large and hungry, she leaps into branches and shinnies up a tall tree. At these times she looks out over the rooftops toward the sea, but does not, she says, see the cityscape. She sees savanna — the rolling, feminine, harsh yet nurturing plains of Africa. She feels her breath slow and her heart ease. “Once our ancestors climbed high in that tree,” she said, “there was something about looking out over the land — something that healed us quickly.” Something that calmed the adrenaline rush of potential prey, and offered a sense of security.
Biologically, we have not changed. We are still hunters and gatherers. “We knew how to kill, yes, but we also knew how to run and climb — and how to use the environment to recover our wits,” she said.
Not long after I climbed the hill with her, Elaine passed away. When I read Sarah Walker’s words, I could hear Elaine’s voice again, her loneliness lifting. From high on that knoll, perhaps she heard the wind from a distant savannah, or another shore, a faint and distance music.
Richard Louv is chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. His ninth book, VITAMIN N, will be published in 2016. He is currently working on his tenth book, about the evolving relationship between humans and other animals.
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