PEACE LIKE A RIVER: There’s a Time for Hyper-vigilance and a Time to Pay a Different Kind of Attention

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 ten books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," "The Nature Principle," and "Vitamin N." His newest book is "Our Wild Calling: How Connecting to Animals Can Transform Our Lives — and Save Theirs." In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal. He speaks frequently around the country and internationally.

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In the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy, Richard Louv was asked to speak in that community about the healing power of the natural world. This column is drawn from those remarks.

Chased by an unending stampede of 2,000-pound automobiles and 4,000-pound SUVs, we cocoon inside our homes. The assault continues. Unsettling, threatening images charge through the television cable and overwhelm us. Hyper-vigilance trumps mindfulness. Where do we find respite? The poet Wendell Berry offers direction:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be . . .
I come into the peace of wild things . . .
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Berry found peace by going to “where the wood drake/rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds…” As a boy, I found peace in the woods behind a suburban tract, when life at home became too difficult, too loud, too much. I found it sitting beside a creek, holding as still as I could, waiting for the leopard frogs to reappear, like ghosts.

Interviewing children and adults for the two recent books, I heard that theme often. I visited my own grade school, in the same classroom where I had once daydreamed while watching the spring branches wave and bow. There, as an adult, I listened to a young girl say softly, firmly: “When I’m in the woods, I feel like I’m in my mother’s shoes. It’s so peaceful out there and the air smells so good. I mean, it’s polluted, but not as much as the city air. It’s like you’re free when you go out there. It’s your own time. Sometimes I go there when I’m mad — and then, just with the peacefulness, I’m better. I can come back home happy, and my mom doesn’t even know why.”

If we’re lucky, these places remain available in our hearts. A psychiatrist who works with children with the symptoms of ADHD related how he sometimes slides into mild depressions. “I grew up fly-fishing in Michigan, and that was how I found peace as a child,” he said. “So, when I begin to feel depressed, I use self-hypnosis to go there again, to call up those memories.” He calls them “meadow memories.” We can create new meadow memories. Tina Kafka, a San Diego teacher, described the impact of a new school garden: “The garden has been much more than simply planting vegetables and taking care of them … When we go to the garden as a class at the end of the day, there is a strong feeling of shared joy and peace no matter howhard the day has been.

Swaisgood boys
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In these times of Sandy Hook and Columbine, such talk of meadow memories and the peace of wildness may seem beside the point. Or frivolous. Erring on the side of fear seems to make more sense.

But ongoing research suggests just how restorative those memories can be, how vital they are  to a child’s or an adult’s resilience. As I’ve reported elsewhere, earlier studies have suggested a variety of benefits, among them: children who spend time in natural areas show reduced symptoms of ADHD; people who live in proximity to more natural areas produce less cortisol, a stress hormone. And parks with the highest biodiversity offer the most psychological benefits to human beings.

Many other studies point in the same direction, and a new pilot study, published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine, takes science another small step. Researchers in Edinburgh, Scotland used portable EEGs, connected to backpack computers, to measure the brain waves of young adults as they walked through three environments: a pedestrian-friendly historical urban district with light car traffic, a commercial district with high traffic, and a park-like setting. Guess which environment calmed the walkers.

In so many ways, however, society seems to be walking backwards — trusting only the electronic or pharmaceutical fix. Just this morning, The New York Times reported that “nearly one in five high school age boys in the United States” has received a medical diagnosis of ADHD, fueling growing concern that the diagnosis and its medications “are overused in American children.” Why the rise? Over-diagnosis? Or an actual increase in symptoms, which may be due to any number of causes, from the neurological to radical changes in childhood?

There’s a time for hyper-vigilance and there’s a time to pay a different kind of attention. In a recent op-ed, Larry Rosen, M.D., a champion of the children and nature movement, shared this definition of mindfulness from The Three Questions, a children’s book based on a story by Leo Tolstoy: “Realize that the most important time is now, the most important person is the one you’re with and the most important thing to do is what are doing right here, right now… that you will never make all the stress in the world disappear….Take time to look someone in the eyes, listen to her story, and let her know that you hear her. Be willing to sit in the mud until it settles and the water clears.”

The path through the woods is not the only route to mindfulness. And nature experience is no panacea. But our kids deserve a break. So do we. To create meadow memories that can last a lifetime, we can start by taking our children and grandchildren on a hike. We can help plant school gardens, rethink the environments of our neighborhoods, prescribe nature, and much more. Even as we debate gun control and a hundred other issues, we can create a more peaceful life for our children — and at least for a while rest in the grace of the world. We can do this.


Richard Louv is chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and author of VITAMIN N, THE NATURE PRINCIPLE, and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

Photo: Shutterstock.

 More reading

Restoring Peace: Six Ways Nature in Our Lives Can Reduce the Violence in Our World

Green Havens from Toxic Stress for Students and Teachers

After the Tragedy: Will we still hear the laughter of play on our school grounds?

The Whole Child: A Pediatrician Recommends the Nature Prescription


  1. We can do this. Nature can help us do this. Thanks for the re-minder Rich.

  2. Rich,
    Thank you for this wise and beautiful piece! You make such an important point that not only our children, but we parents and grandparents, need to practice mindfulness – full presence – to the loved one we are with, to the natural world of which we are a part, and to that part of ourselves that yearns to slow down, to breathe, and to create our own meadow memories. It’s never too late!
    All the best,

  3. Awesome! I hope every parent and teacher across the world reads this. I am all in favor of keeping students safe, but “as safe as necessary” not “as safe as possible”.

  4. What a lovely essay. I bet you all have read Undoing Perpetual Stress, an amazing book I just accidentally unearthed during a move. The struggle I have is that my 2 sisters and my mother never got the fortitude and respite from nature that my father and I did. I don’t know if nature has the same effect on everyone.

  5. This is one of the most meaningful messages I have ever received. So genuine and deep. Thank you. My commitment to connecting children with nature has definitely been reaffirmed.

    Note: I am a Nature Based Learning and Development Consultant/Advocate. Currently working with Office of Head Start to encourage Head Start and Early Head Start programs to naturalize their outdoor play environments for the purpose of connecting children with nature. We’re talking about over one million children birth to five years of age!! Also, doing a bit of work with Robin Moore and Nilda Cosco (landscape architects) at The Natural Learning Initiative at NC State U., Raleigh, NC.

  6. Wonderful to hear you talking about something that’s close to all of our hearts.

    Nature is a wonderful thing and both children and parents should realise it’s there for all of us, all of the time.

  7. Richard,
    I am so glad that you are pioneering this very simple concept that we are human beings, a very natural part of this world. If you take that one part of the equation for happy and healthy away, there are bound to be affects. Our M.D.’s, doctors of medicine, can’t make a pill to replace nature.

    I grew up in the Rocky Mountains with a stream out my back door. I left to go do life for 25 years, became depressed and lost focus on my dreams. Now I am fortunate enough to be back at my childhood home and have found happiness and my focus again. I’m starting a non-profit fly fishing a riparian education center for the local children and couldn’t be more excited and back into life.

    Thank you again for your work that reminds us that Mother Nature knows best!

  8. A few weeks ago, I posed a question on LinkedIn in the Sustainability professionals group in response to my blog “I was a free-range kid.” I asked the question, “I wonder how many sustainability professionals were free-range kids?” The responses are still coming in! People are sharing their stories about connecting with nature. They believe it shaped their commitment to sustainability.


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