Thursday, January 21, 2010

Reasons To Be Left Behind: Get Outdoors

The author and her forester father on the Plumas National Forest, 1950

Recently I read a statistic that shocked me: children spend only 30 minutes outdoors enjoying our natural habitat each week and a hundred hours attached to computer, television, or cell phone screens. 

Now I’m not knocking technology. Living in tech-savvy Seattle, I quite enjoy my iPhone, iMac, PC, and iPod. Yes, I’m a Mac AND a PC. But being wired or surfing the Web is not as real for me as keeping track of the daily tides of my backyard Salish Sea or sitting on the beach keeping watch over a seal pup while his mother is out fishing.

Or walking with my neighbor, Tracey, and her drop-dead gorgeous Siberian husky, LuLu, through the neighborhood or ambling deep into the fern and moss-worn cedars of Schmitz Park -- the only old-growth forest left in Seattle. Yesterday, a coyote ran right down the middle of Tracey’s street, chasing a squirrel. Coyotes keep the urban rodent and squirrel populations in balance. And out of our attics.

Perhaps the reason I find rapture almost everyday outdoors is because nature was my first mother. Everything human – well, it was just a plug-in. As I wrote in Nature and Other Mothers about growing up on a High Sierra forest station:
“It never occurred to me during those early years in the forest
that I was human . . .Before I learned words, I listened to the piercing
language of hawks and hoot owls, of thunder cracking tree limbs . .
I knew then before any human ever whispered the words to me,
that I was loved by nature, as I first loved her.”

Those of us raised in the 50s and 60s still ran wild in the woods or played on the shores for hours each day. We were not lost children on milk cartons, children who had to make “play dates” or manage a schedule that rivals that of a successful CEO. From dawn until dinner, we were “out” – as my parents used to say. Out, in tree forts, or sledding down snowy hills or sliding down blonde grassy slopes on cardboard. Out, riding bicycles without cell phones or any other tracking devices. We enjoyed a freedom and a trust that has almost vanished, except in rural areas.

What has also disappeared is familiarity with one’s backyard habitat – the birds, animals, and flora that our ancestors had hard-wired into their memories for survival. E.O. Wilson calls this bond with nature that is our birthright, “ecophilia” or the “love of nature.” In a fascinating article “Beyond Ecophobia,” by David Sobel, author of Children’s Special Places, writes: “children are disconnected from the world outside their doors and connected with endangered animals and ecosystems around the globe through electronic media.”

Sobel argues that instead of inundating children with the harrowing burden of ecological loss, we must foster their “biological tendency to bond with the natural world.” His solutions: Get outside into one’s own home habitat and connect with the living world through what Rachel Carson calls our “sense of wonder.” Sobel offers ideas for exploring one’s landscape, empathy for other animals, and the social action of saving one’s neighborhood. Most of all, he says, allow more time for nature.

We can navigate the Web, but not our own habitat. If suddenly we lost electricity and all our electronics were useless, how well would we survive? Without a GPS in our cell phone, how would we find our way? In other words, get outdoors and learn the lay of the land. See oneself reflected, not in a screen, but in a calm lake or the radiant eyes of another animal.

And yes, you can bring your cell phone. Nature and technology can actually go hand-in-hand. Which reminds me, it’s low tide and time for a walk along the beach. Must bring my binoculars and look for the seal pup my own neighborhood grassroots naturalist group, Seal Sitters, said was hauled out. I heard about the pup this morning – a bulletin on my iPhone. And a head’s up from our intrepid Seal Sitter first responder, Robin. Here’s her Blubber Blog from our beach neighborhood.

Read the full article, “Beyond Ecophobia,” from Yes magazine, adapted from the Orion Society Nature Literacy Series.

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