The Wonder of Nature

By Bob Peterson

Illustrator: Henrik Drescher

A review of three books

The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

by Richard Louv
(Algoquin Books, 2008)

The Sense of Wonder

by Rachel Carson
(HarperCollins, 1998, originally 1964)

A Sand County Almanac

by Aldo Leopold
(Oxford University Press, 1987, originally 1949)

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovers four feet from my head as I sit mesmerized watching its flight against the shimmering waters of Wisconsin’s Flambeau River in the late afternoon sun. I don’t know whether to focus my binoculars on the iridescent acrobat as it beats its wings 50 to 60 times a second seeking food from the hummingbird feeder or turn my gaze 200 yards up river where two deer stand knee-deep in the water grazing on waterweeds.

I flip through one of my bird guides and realize that it’s no surprise these hummingbirds — the Ruby-throated male and the White-throated female — have been visiting the feeder all day. They must consume 50 percent of their body weight in sugar daily just to stay alive. Granted, they don’t weigh a lot — one tenth of an ounce — but eating 50 percent of one’s body weight in sugar would be an insurmountable challenge for even the most ardent, sugar-addicted preadolescents whom I teach.

As I read more about the hummingbird and watch it fly vertically, horizontally, forward, and even backwards at times, stopping instantly and turning with near perfect precision, I am filled with a sense of wonder. This little bird, whose relatives have been on this planet far longer than the species I was born into, is only 3 and 3/4 inches long and yet has a heart that beats about 1,260 times a minute. Talk about hyper! Even more incredible, come fall this little critter in northern Wisconsin flies south — not in a flock, but usually singly — and winters in Mexico or Central America. It flies nonstop over the Gulf of Mexico, able to store enough fat beforehand to make the trip. Barring catastrophe, it will return to my feeder next summer.

Last summer while staying on the edge of the Flambeau River in a small shack without electricity, running water, or cell phone coverage, I had time to read a new book and revisit two others that seem particularly poignant given increasing recognition that we are causing irreparable damage to the planet.

The book that I’ve spent the most time with is Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Originally released in 2005 and updated in 2008, writer and environmentalist Louv asserts that “within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically,” with nature increasingly “something to watch, to consume, to wear — to ignore.” Louv marshals an impressive set of data from studies around the world and anecdotes from his personal experience to show that “at the very moment that the bond is breaking between the young and the natural world, a growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature — in positive ways.”

Louv examines several factors that contribute to our “spectator” society that separates children and youth from the natural world. He looks at the loss of the natural habitat and the effect of urbanization and suburbanization on children’s relationship to nature. He reviews what he calls the criminalization of natural play, making apt criticisms of schools that are obsessed with scripted curriculum and testing and of urban settings with a paucity of parks. Louv notes that only 30 percent of the people of Los Angeles live within walking distance of a park, and that children are too often “over-scheduled and over-organized” leaving little time to interact with nature.

The book’s power rests not only in Louv’s basic message, but in how he weaves together many psychological, educational, and environmental insights from poets, scientists, and parents who have worked or reflected on ecological matters. The well-organized 388-page book makes a convincing case that for the sake of our children’s mental and physical health and for the sake of our planet’s future — today’s children will be the ones making key decisions in the not too distant future — we must radically change how we as communities relate to nature, and in particular, how we help children relate to nature.

Louv gives many examples of the alienation of children from nature, such as a 4th grader from San Diego who told him, “I like to play indoors better, — cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” This “electrification” of our senses has radically changed how we perceive the world. When combined with non-natural environments many children experience, the consequences can be alarming. As the subtitle of the book suggests, Louv argues that a major reason we are finding increasing incidents of attention deficit disorder is this disconnect with the natural world.

A much shorter book, but one that has in many ways the same message as Louv’s and was written a half-century earlier, is Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder. Originally written as an article in 1956, this seminal work is available in a number of editions, including a few with stunning nature photography. In this slim volume, Carson, who died of breast cancer in 1964, uses her relationship with her nephew to urge adults to help develop in children a sense of wonder of nature and the universe. A biologist by training and probably the most acclaimed science writer of her generation, Carson was mercilessly attacked by representatives of the chemical industry in the ’60s after the release of her book Silent Spring. Now seen as one of the foremothers of the environmental movement, her wisdom regarding connecting nature and children should not be ignored.

She writes: “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.”

Carson’s nearly poetic narrative provides simple ideas of how to engage the senses and the curiosity of a young person. She speaks directly to parents (and implicitly to teachers) who themselves might have had an abbreviated interaction with nature during their own childhoods. She writes:

Parents often have a sense of inadequacy when confronted on the one hand with the eager, sensitive mind of a child and on the other with a world of complex physical nature, inhabited by a life so various and unfamiliar that it seems hopeless to reduce it to order and knowledge. In a mood of self-defeat, they exclaim, “How can I possibly teach my child about nature — why, I don’t even know one bird from another.

I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If acts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the sense are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.

While I am recommending Carson’s easiest and least scientific “book,” one can’t go wrong reading anything by her. For example, the anthology Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson, edited by Linda Lear (Beacon, 1998), includes an eclectic mix of articles, notes, letters, and speeches.

The other book that I reread last summer was Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, which was published 15 years before Carson’s A Sense of Wonder. Leopold, a native of Iowa, was an ecological activist who was a relentless defender of the land, and one willing to admit mistakes (like his original position advocating the elimination of predators in some national parks). He saw curiosity as a real virtue and suggested following one’s curiosity as a way to fill your life with adventure. He argued strongly for people to learn about the interrelationship between animals, plants, and soil. He used the terms “human animals” and “nonhuman animals” as well as “ecology.” Fundamentally he was an activist writer who believed in mass education as the way to make people care more about the earth. He wrote, “Like wind and sunsets, wild things are taken for granted until progress began to do away with them.”

Leopold criticized the “Abrahamic” concept of land — the Judeo-Christian belief that God “gave man [sic] the earth to have dominion over it and its creatures.” It is due to this concept that, Leopold wrote, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us” instead of seeing the “land as a community to which we belong.” I interpret Leopold’s “land” as meaning the biosphere upon which we circle the sun — “mother earth” as some Native Americans call our planet.

Leopold writes of two important things: relations between people and relations between people and land. In my life as a 5th-grade teacher and social justice organizer I’ve spent most of my efforts in improving relations between people, paying little attention to relations between people and land. In the past few years I’ve realized that this has to change — both in terms of what I do politically, but even more importantly how I emphasize certain things in my classroom. I am talking about moving beyond the traditional science teaching, and weaving issues of ecological justice and sustainability throughout my curriculum.

All three authors — Louv, Carson, and Leopold — write about the need to change public opinion. Leopold emphasized widespread, in-depth “ecological education” to change assumptions about land and society’s cultural values. He suggested in the ’40s that “perhaps every youth needs an occasional wilderness trip.” Louv is chairman of the Children and Nature Network (www.cnaturenet.org) and is an indefatigable speaker and advocate for nature education.

But both Louv and Leopold seem to shy away from a deep enough analysis to challenge the economic and political structures that reproduce the very environmental degradation they decry.

This is particularly disappointing on the part of Louv, writing six decades after Leopold. He makes a fleeting reference to building a movement, and has numerous creative and useful ideas in his appendix of “100 Actions We Can Take,” but he falls short in two key areas.

The first area is Louv’s lack of awareness or at least emphasis on race and poverty. For example, he acknowledges that “dangerous parks in lower-income neighborhoods” are one factor in inhibiting children’s interaction with nature, but doesn’t probe beyond that to obvious racial and class divides that limit some children’s opportunities to interact with nature more than others.

My experience teaching inner-city 5th graders for nearly three decades has taught me that safety is a huge problem for some kids and that parents are correct in putting limits on their children’s options to roam free and engage in natural play. Lots has to happen in our cities — in terms of family-sustaining jobs, decent housing, and social services — before that is going to happen. There is also a disappointing silence on the matter of environmental racism, how toxic dumps and most contaminated living conditions are often found in neighborhoods of color.

The failure to interrogate environmental racism contributes to an emaciated notion of what it will take to turn around schools, communities, and state and federal governments on these issues. Nothing short of a social movement rivaling the Civil Rights and the labor movements will bring about the kind of rapid change the earth and we need.

And that is where the other major weakness lies in what is otherwise a brilliant book. While Louv musters research studies from around the world regarding the effect of nature and free play on children’s development, and gives examples of “green urbanism” and “green villages” from different parts of the world, he fails to note that if U.S. children can’t get educated to the point of appreciating and defending their own backyard environments, how will they ever connect to global environmental issues such as the decades-long poisoning of the Ecuadorian Amazon rain forest by transnational oil companies?

In other words, to build a movement for environmental education in the country that is the wealthiest and greatest polluter in the planet’s history, we should make direct connections to global ecological justice movements around the world. I know my 5th graders need closer contact with nature and our school attempts to provide that through our work with the Urban Ecology Center and by taking our 4th and 5th graders to Camp Upham Woods on the Wisconsin River. But I also know that my students become highly motivated as they learn how children and adults throughout the world are fighting for social and ecological well-being. Connecting our own back yards and concerns about our air and water to those of the rest of the world is key for educators as we attempt to increase our students’ ecological awareness and activism.

My sense of wonder is always reignited when I watch the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. I look forward to this summer’s reunion with the pair after they travel thousands of miles, crossing many borders. As they travel I’ll share with my 5th graders my sense of wonder of not only these international vagabonds but of the dozens of other birds that summer in our state — like the red-winged blackbird, the turkey vulture, and the rose-breasted grosbeak — and then cross borders to winter in Mexico, Central America, or South America. Needless to say all these border crossings are done without documents. We have lots to learn from nonhuman animals.

Bob Peterson (repmilw@aol.com) is an editor of Rethinking Schools.