IF YOU CAN'T LIVE IN THE LAND YOU LOVE, LOVE THE LAND YOU'RE IN: Searching for Authenticity in a Virtual World

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, "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.

“You can’t know who you are until you know where you are.” —Wendell Berry.

My wife, Kathy, was raised in San Diego. I moved here from Kansas in 1971, just out of college. She had spent little time exploring the natural habitats of this region, and I viewed it as a resort city, beautiful in its way, but I missed the green woods and plains of the Midwest. So when I looked for nature here, I saw less than met the eye.

For years, we were restless. We bored our friends with all our talk of moving, of finding our one true place. We even bored ourselves. One day Kathy said, “Our tombstones are going to say, ‘We’re moving.’”

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Today, I feel differently. I may never bond to this region as I did to the woods behind my boyhood home, and who knows, we may yet move. But I no longer have quite the same reaction when people ask me where I am from. In the past, I might have said Kansas or Missouri. But now I say that California is my home.

Given a chance, I will tell them about the richness of my region, and the strangeness and beauty born from its biodiversity. I will tell them of our nascent sense of natural purpose.

What if urban regions across the country, or world, fully exploited – in the best sense of that word – their natural history? What if our museums, the zoo, the universities, media, business and government were to perceive, preserve and market our regions in a new way? We are more than beaches, zoo or sunshine. Yes, our county is one of the most densely human-populated places in the United States, but it also is rich with species, the most biodiverse county in the lower 48 states.

Here is a land of microclimates, of ring-tailed cats and mountain lions, condors, whales, sea turtles, great white sharks, waterspouts and firestorms. Anza-Borrego and Pacific; Cuyamaca, Laguna, Palomar. Our mountains hold canyons so deep and yawning that when we camp in them in midsummer, we can awake in the morning shivering in frost. In hidden streams, a diminutive Adam or Eve may still swim, the genetic remnants of the founder rainbow trout that migrated north thousands of years ago to populate, with human help, so much of the world. In Northern Baja, also part of this region, isolated sky islands jut above the clouds; there, life remains “a relic of the Pleistocene,” as one biologist describes it, “Ethereal … primeval.”

I had no clue how otherworldly my adopted corner of the world was, until, as a journalist, I made it my job to dig deeper. Until then, I had place blindness.

Perhaps I was afraid to attach to this place because of the pace of human change. But today, development has slowed, and we have a chance to fully realize our home as one of the unique bioregions in the world. When I describe my home now, I point to local efforts to create natural corridors for animal migration, protect endangered species, produce more local food, and green our schools and neighborhoods. I tell about our river conservancies and Mission Trails Park and San Diego Canyonlands, a farsighted group working to dedicate 10,000 acres of our unique topology of urban canyons as a Regional Canyonlands Park. I describe the San Diego Children in Nature Collaborative, one of America’s leading campaigns to connect children to nature. I point to our expanding network of family nature clubs.

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And I tell the stories of how nurturing this strange new land has been for my sons. To them, this land is home. This land is part of who they are.

Meanwhile, Kathy and I work to reduce our own nature-deficit disorder. If you can’t live in the land you love, love the land you’re in.*

In an increasingly fabricated culture, we yearn for authenticity. The more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we will need. So the value of nature will, or should, grow. If we honor this hunger and the place we live, our sense of regional and individual identity will be shaped as much by natural history as it is by human history.

Where I live, perhaps we should give our border-spanning bioregion a unifying name, something romantic and mysterious, a name that would draw visitors from all over the world, help our economy and increase the odds that future generations will protect this natural wealth. Perhaps an ancient Kumeyaay word. Or, call it Cuyabaja? Possibly Pandora? By any name, this would be our found world, our purposeful place.


Richard Louv is chairman emeritus of The Children and Nature Network and the author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS. This updated piece, which first appeared on C&NN in 2012, was adapted from “THE NATURE PRINCIPLE.” A version of it originally appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune. Top Photo by John Johns: R.L. overlooking the Anza Borrego Desert  near  San Diego. 

More Resources 

The Purposeful Place: A Video from the Conversations on Beauty series,
sponsored by the Ilan-Lael Foundation, an arts education foundation
inspired by artist James T. Hubbell


The Wisdom of One Place: Why We Need to Know Where We Are

The Powerful Link Between Conserving Land and Preserving Human Health

Peace in Nature: Aylee Tudek, 16, Shares Her Sense of Wonder

What’s Good in Your Hood? Nearby Nature and Human Hope

Books of Note: “In the First Country of Places: Nature, Poetry and Childhood Memory” by Louise Chawla “Biophilic Cities” by Tomothy Beatley; “Biophilia” by E.O. Wilson; “Biophilic Design” by Stephen Kellert

Exploring a Sense of Place: Program and Guidebooks for Getting to Know Where You Are 

* With apologies to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The song’s original phrase was “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”


  1. Gaining a deeper understanding of the places in which we live almost invariably (inevitably?) brings with it a sense of responsibility to seeing that place continue to exist (in its ever-changing forms) for others to see and experience and know. Some of the best ways to get connected and gain a deeper understanding of a particular place are to participate in outings hosted by your local trail maintenance groups, watershed councils, nature-serving non-profits (e.g., Riverkeepers, Trout Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, etc.) and various State and Federal government agencies. Don’t know how to get in touch with them? Your local, public library almost always has a community bulletin board and the librarians can steer you in the right direction. Or call your local natural resource agency office (e.g., Fish and Game, Dept. of Natural Resources, Dept. of Ecology, etc.).

  2. Thanks for this little story. Your second paragraph has been the story of my life for the past three years. I lol-ed when I read Kathy’s statement about your tombstones. We moved from our beloved lakes and rivers of central Texas to the middle of the Mojave Desert and I know our friends and colleagues have grown tired of hearing us rave about TX. When we first arrived, my husband said “It looks like the moon out here” and I agreed. I was so sad and homesick. I was not able to truly appreciate this place until, as you said, “I made it my job to dig deeper.” I took a naturalist class, spent time on hiking trails and learned about the natural and cultural history. Now it is both my husband’s and my job to connect people with nature. Though we still feel that Central Texas is still our native habitat, we have a deeper appreciation for the Mojave and the life here. And though our TX pride is still strong, we brag a little less. The Mojave is a love it or leave it kind of place but those that give it a chance are rewarded. It is pale at first glance but spend a little time and the color comes alive.

  3. I also laughed out loud when I read Kathy’s comment about your tombstone because for years and years we would tell our friends how badly we wanted to move from South Florida to Maine. We viewed Portland, Maine as idyllic and full of nature from mountains to the West and the coastline to the East….but, the move never happened and to compensate for this I try to surround myself wi th as much nature as possible every day. The simple nature observations are the best, like tracking down a snail from the slimy trail it leaves on the sidewalk in the morning or hunting for caterpillar chrysalises on milkweed plants. Looking for and finding nature everyday has made me truly appreciate MY place and made me realize how lucky I am to live in a place with so much abundance and diversity.

  4. I love your statement, “In an increasingly fabricated culture, we yearn for authenticity.” Yes we do! We do, and yet many of us aren’t sure what this longing means or how to fulfill it. This is why your message is so pertinent because it gives people direction and possibility.

    I grew up in the mountains of Utah, and I now live in Washington State. I have three young daughters, and they each have a little nature notebook in which they draw something they find in nature each day. They have a 6-7 year old learning plan, inspired in part by Charlotte Mason, a British educator in the 1890’s. I love the idea that they will be more rooted in their place here by exploring their natural habitat. Here’s the list. Thank-you for inspiring me!

    1. To know the points of a compass in relation to her own home.

    2. To know when and where the sun rises and sets.

    3. To know the way the wind blows.

    4. To describe any lake, river, pond, ocean, and island within easy reach.

    5. To be able to describe through experience three nature walks in her area.

    6. To be able to describe three distinct views of nature.

    7. To mount a scrapbook of a dozen common wildflowers. To name these, describe them in their own words, and where they found them.

    8. To do the same with leaves and flowers of six local trees.

    9. To know six birds by song, color, and shape.

    10. To care for and tell three stories aloud about her own pets.

    11. To learn about different kinds of seeds, and different kinds of soil.

    12. To have a small garden plot and plant, grow, and care for at least five vegetables and three herbs.

    13. To keep a caterpillar, and tell the life-story of a butterfly from her own observations.

    14. To visit and describe the closest ocean, and collect, name, and describe five specimens.

    15. To locate the Big Dipper and the Northern Star in the sky.

    • Richard Louv

      Wonderful, Melanee. Who wrote this great list?

  5. Thanks for this terrific piece Rich. I applaud your efforts to “dig in,” as poet Gary Snyder says, and become more intimately acquainted with your home environs. For most of us, this process of becoming native to place is never fully complete, and of course when it comes to a newly adopted home, it’s never to late to start digging in! People often speak of “finding wonder in the familiar,” but doing so takes some real effort. So it’s inspiring to hear about the journey that you and Kathy have undertaken in your place.

    As a relatively recent immigrant to Northern California (seven years), I have been engaged in exactly the same process. Multiple walks per week in the Marin Headlands are my bread and butter, and I also have the pleasure of bringing my daughter Jade along on many local adventures. I’m happy to report that she seems to be digging in just fine (though she doesn’t even know it). Just in case anyone’s interested, here’s a link to a recent blog post of mine on this very topic:

    Keep up the good work, and sincere thanks for all that you’re doing on the road right now to promote the nature movement!

  6. Enjoyed your writing, Rich. I try to make people aware and appreciative of nature through my published books (see list on, and now and then a piece in a children’s magazine.

  7. Recently, several of us (Pocono environmental Education Center) have and are engaged in conversations about our ‘sense of place’, a topic that has been near and dear to me throuhgout my career/life. Many, many years ago I had the privilege of meeting, listening to and sharing time with (the late) author, artist and conservationist, Alan Gussow. The first time I met Alan he was delivering a keynote address to over 400 educators at the New York State Outdoor Education Association’s annual conference. His topic was, of course, ‘A sense of place’, and I am still inspired. This quote has lived on my desk for decades and used in many a note, article, brochure, training and workshop…seems timely to share it once again.

    “A sense of place…”

    There is a great deal of talk these days about saving the environment. We must, for the environment sustains our bodies. But as humans we also require support for our spirits and this sis what certain kinds of places provide. The catalyst that converts any physical location – any environment if you will – into a place, is the process of experiencing deeply. A place is a piece of the whole environment that has been claimed by feelings. Viewed simply as a life-support system, the earth is an environment. Viewed as a resource that sustains our humanity, the earth is a collection of places. We never speak, for example, of an environment we have known; it is always places we have known – and recall. We are homesick for places, we are reminded of places. It is the sounds and smells and sights of places which haunt us against which we often measure our present.

    Alan Gussow
    Founder – Friends of the Earth

  8. Hi Richard~

    The easiest way to share information about the list is to direct you to Charlotte Mason’s original “A Formidable List of Attainments for a Child of Six.” You can find it at

    I created my own list of nature/science attainments for my daughters using ideas from this list, changing it a bit, and expanding it. The list inspires me and my girls love it too. Thank-you for being a light to so many!

  9. Robert Michael Pyle

    With respect to Charlotte’s wonderful list of “Formidable Attainments,”
    and your good post, Melanie, and Rich’s fine “digging in” essay, it is worth remembering the words of Anna Botsford Comstock in the introduction of the 1911 edition of her magisterial “Handbook of Nature Study”: “The author feels apologetic that the book is so large [937 pp.!]. However, it does not contain more than any intelligent country child of twelve should know of his environment; things that he should know naturally and without effort, although it might take him half his life-time to learn so much if he should not begin before the age of twenty.” This, written 101 years ago, is what we have to work back toward today. Melanie’s list is a good place to start.

    • Richard Louv

      Thanks, Bob. Wish I knew the smallest fraction of what you know about the natural world, which I’ll bet is even more than Anna Comstock knew!

  10. Richard,
    Thank you for this post about the value of connecting to the places where we live. After eight years of residing in the Georgia Piedmont, I finally decided that I needed to get to know my home place much better. On January 1st of this year, I began a year-long project studying my home place by visiting the same 4/10-mile gravel road near my house every day, and taking photographs of it. One month in, I am amazed at how much there is to see and experience, once we slow down and really look. A nondescript country lane that I never thought much of (even though my wife and I have walked our dogs there several times a week since we moved here) has become a place of wonder and discovery. To get a sense of some of my experiences this month, I encourage you to visit my blog at

  11. I’m trying to save nature education for children in New Jersey. Too bad NJ Audubon is on the wrong side of this fight! A direct quote from their president: “We are moving toward web-based interfacing with schools,” he said, “along the lines of the Eco-Schools program created by the National Wildlife Foundation.” The goal, Stiles explained, “is to engage schools and their students at no cost to them. Have corporations fund the programs,” he went on, “and take them directly to the schools via the Internet.”

    So much for getting kids a hands-on nature experience.

  12. Charlotte Mason’s work on nature study is quite profound and relevant today, as is the American Nature Study Movement so elegantly put forth by Liberty Hyde Bailey in “The Nature Study Idea” and tackled directly by Anna Botsford Comstock in her “Handbook of Nature Study.”

    As I ponder Thomas Berry’s “Dream of the Earth” and read the sweet compilation of his ideas called “Evening Thoughts” (which sits open before me as I write), I can’t help but concur that we need a complete revival of the Nature Study Ideal brought into modern times via both on-the-ground activities and the wondrous possibilities of the internet.

    I have an idea: Let’s throw a big party and invite all the luminaries to share their views concerning what we should do at this point in time. Thoreau and Emerson, Whitman, Burroughs and Muir, Leopold and Carson, Berry, to name a few, and of course all those who remain living and who celebrate the sacredness of the Earth and all life around us.

    The world may seem hopelessly out of balance … koyaanisqatsi … but there undoubtedly exists a positive undercurrent that gives me hope in the midst of profound craziness.

  13. Found your website as follows: I woke up this morning, with a phrase “In the forest there is no WiFi, but the connection is much better!” I saw that phrase by Irene von lippe Biesterfied (Sister of the Dutch Queen mother) and also remembered an article onby Thomas Berry in the same magazine. So I looked him up and saw your quote meeting him, in the NY Times on his passing. My last days are filled commenting on an important book for ecological agriculture. Enclosed website is from a study buddy (U of Minnesota) and great fan of Wendell Berry. We are both very concerned about the destiny of our children on this poor managed planet. I don’t know if you are familiar with the book of Dave Montgomery, simply called DIRT! Topsoil is our most valuable commodity of which we have already lost 13 in the last 100 years. Imagine alone when this curve crosses the population boom curve! He has on youtube also a hour presentation!

    I looked up your site, because I am in the process setting up a foundation to make kids aware of their most valuable possession health! Nature has all the answers and realizing that Thomas Berry is right, we have a huge responsibility towards our kids!
    Change our Consumption Depending Economy into a Resource Related Economy, if we don’t there will be no future for their kids on mother Gaia!

    I would like to discuss with your organization, how accomplish this best.

    Salute e Saluti from Tuscany Italia

    • Richard Louv

      Thanks much. I share your admiration for Thomas Berry, and was honored to get to know him and learn from him. Cheryl Charles heads C&NN’s international efforts. I’ll ask her to contact you. Thanks for the note!



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