History is littered with the good intentions of cultural movements that never reached their full potential.
Or were forgotten for decades, then belatedly born again.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the nature study movement, which took place in the late 19th and early 20th century. In 2009, Kevin C. Armitage published a fine book on the topic, “The Nature Study Movement: The Forgotten Popularizer of America’s Conservation Ethic.” He tells how it emerged from progressivism, blending science exploration, spiritual self-improvement and the enrichment of the home and school. It influenced Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson.
And then it faded. Few people remember the nature study movement today. It became a fad with benefits.
During the same historical period, Frederick Law Olmsted and others helped popularize a public health approach to urban design. New York employers and civic leaders believed that the presence of urban nature would help workers become healthier and more productive, so they commissioned Olmsted to design Central Park. Often, urban planners included nature in their planning, prescribing the ideal number of steps that families would need to take to visit a neighborhood park. That philosophy of urban design faded, too, giving way to the kind of suburban development that bulldozed every tree first and asked questions later.
A case can be made that the ghosts of both movements have returned. Old wisdom has been rediscovered, renamed and packaged anew. But why, in both cases, did these movements nearly disappear?
That’s a question that proponents of the children and nature movement (or the “new nature movement,” because it does include adults) might want to ask.
No easy answers here, but here’s something to consider. Cultural movements are diminished when they become too professionalized, too dependent on programs and experts (who sometimes obscure the original passion with opaque language), or on policy debates; these are important to the pursuit of change, but they’re not the goal. When movements fail to enter our everyday lives, to become contagious on a personal, family level, they lose their grassroots energy.
Will the children and nature movement follow that pattern? I don’t think so, but I’m not sure.
Government or large institutions alone cannot create a nature-rich civilization. A long-lived movement requires the rapid contagion of small actions taken daily by individuals, families, churches, schools, grandparents, and many others — actions encouraged by but not dependent on organizations, programs, public policies and experts.
The key ingredient for our movement’s longevity will be to build on the public awareness that has grown rapidly over the past decade and more, but to move faster toward showing people how to take action now, at the individual, family and community levels.
What we need most is self-replicating cultural change. That happens when individuals, families or small groups of people take the kinds of actions so enticing that other people want to replicate them.
Putting nature time on the family calendar, or taking a break from electronics, or learning how to develop our “supersenses” in nature are a few of the hundreds of steps we can take. Creating a family nature club is another. Using blog pages, social networking sites, and the old-fashioned instrument called the telephone, families are reaching out to other families to create virtual clubs that arrange multi-family hikes and other nature activities. They’ve downloaded thousands of free C&NN toolkits to learn how to create a family nature club. One club, in San Diego, now has a membership of well over 1500. These parents aren’t waiting for funding or permission; they’re doing it themselves. Now.
Of course, we also need the commitment, action and leveraging power of large organizations, institutions, and government. For example, through Cities Connecting Children to Nature, C&NN and the National League of Cities are encouraging some 19,000 mayors and other municipal leaders to help make their communities nature-rich.
We need charismatic ideas, not only charismatic leaders. Here’s one idea with growing resonance: The greening of schools may represent the real cutting edge of education. To some, that statement is unexpected (but wait, isn’t technology supposed to be the cutting edge?) and a bit contrarian. It also happens to be true. Achieving that vision begins with individual action. A single teacher who insists on taking students outside to learn can change a school, but thousands of networked “Natural Teachers” can transform education at school and at home. Working with parents, they can make real the vision of a natural playground or garden at every school, of schools that invest as much in the real as they do in the virtual.
This is the power each of us has. One person, one family, one school, by connecting to the natural world, can make a difference for generations to come.
One librarian can plant the seeds for “Natural Libraries” across the country, ones that connect families to nature, and touch the lives of children with disabilities, and become hubs of bioregional awareness. One pediatrician who prescribes Vitamin N can lead to an international network of pediatricians who do the same. One artist who shares the beauty of the natural world with others could lead to a “Natural Artists” network. On a single inner-city block, one resident can organize neighbors to restore a patch of wildness or create a community garden, and feed an entire city’s spirit. Think of the difference that one faith-based organization could make by promoting a little Vitamin N for the soul, and then reaching out to other churches, synagogues and mosques.
We need a network of mentoring grandparents and older grandfriends who remember what it’s like to build a fort or dip their toes in a stream or look up at the clouds and dream of the future, who do not want to take those memories with them when they leave this earth — and who commit to passing them on to the next generation.
We need a broader definition of green jobs, and an international career guide to connecting people to nature. We need to pursue Doug Tallamy’s charismatic idea: the creation of a Homegrown National Park (or better yet, a Worldwide Homegrown Park), by planting ribbons of native plants that lace through our cities, nurturing biodiversity and human health — beginning in our own yards.
We can make this dream of a nature-rich civilization real, lasting and alive. One seed at a time.
Richard Louv’ newest book, VITAMIN N, offers 500 ways to build a nature-rich life in urban, suburban and rural communities. His other books include: LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age. He is co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network. Follow Richard Louv on Facebook and @RichLouv on Twitter.
Photo credits: Top, Jon Baldivieso; center, Elizabeth Renton
Tuesday, April 19 at 6:30 PM – 9:30 PM, Point Loma Nazarene University, San Diego, CA.
Net proceeds from the event and book sales will go to local initiatives connecting children to nature.