“Things that you and I take for granted, we can’t take these things for granted,” said Gural, as she gazed over tea-tinted waters and listened to green frogs calling to each other in the late afternoon heat. “There are children who look at this and are simply afraid of nature. We see beauty and they see fear. We can’t have that.”
That’s the contention of Richard Louv, author of the international bestsellers, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” and, most recently, “The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age.” Devoured by environmentalists and nature-lovers alike, Louv’s books make the case for restoring people’s connections to the natural world, even if only in their backyards. Also, he argues, society is starting to realize it has lost something precious, something worth fighting for.
There are two urgent reasons for that connection, he said, during a recent phone interview from Portland, Ore., where he was to deliver a talk that evening at the Biomimicry Institute. “One is, we only protect something we love. We only love what we can know. So part of this has to do with reducing the destructiveness that human beings do to nature,” Louv said.
“The other part of this is preserving our own humanity. When we are disconnected from nature, we begin to disconnect from our own humanity, our assets, our sense of wonder, our sense of awe, our ability to feel fully alive. “We don’t want to do either of those things. By reconnecting with nature, whether we are 8, 18 or 80, we can help preserve nature around us and, in fact, create more of it. We can also help preserve and create more of our own sense of humanity and ability to feel alive.”
In recent years, he has noticed a shift in thinking as he travels around the country delivering talks and discussing solutions with others. He calls it the New Nature Movement. “Overall, there’s a growing awareness that our relationship with nature has something to do with our health and our well-being — our psychological health, our physical health and our ability to think and create,” said Louv.
“I’ve seen a lot of evidence of that … There are more stories every day about schools that are doing things to get their kids outdoors, and families that are creating nature clubs. There’s more research now than there was a few years ago, thankfully, and there’s more political awareness of its importance.”
A sea change in thinking can’t come quickly enough for some folks. Since 1967, Moorestown Children’s School has offered lots of outdoor time for its small charges, who range from infants to kindergarteners, and up to age 9 in the summer months when their elder siblings join them. The 11-acre farm has a barn with horses, chickens and a 12-year-old gray tabby named Kito. Years ago, kids were allowed to dip their toes in the little stream that trickled through the property, though it’s off-limits now.
Last year, a state inspector told director Sue Maloney that she needed to trim her trees. All limbs lower than 7 feet off the ground had to go if she wanted to keep the center’s license. At first blush, it appeared she was in violation of the regulation on trees in children’s play areas. It’s a perfectly reasonable rule, Maloney still believes, when it’s applied as it was intended to trees near swing sets, slides and jungle gyms.
Trouble was, her school’s play area included just about the whole property. She has a lot of trees. And those trees happen to be an integral part of her school’s curriculum. So she poured over the regulations, elicited advice from a volunteer lawyer and dug in her heels.“When you cut the limbs of a 50-foot tree, you can’t just glue them back on when someone says, ‘Oh, never mind,’ ” said Maloney, whose license was eventually renewed with tree limbs intact.
Besides, her school’s philosophy was centered on the idea that “quality outdoor time benefits children’s academic learning and social interactions,” she said. It was something she and her staffers learned by observing “that children who spent time outside were more inquisitive, exhibited better self-regulation and were more efficient learners.”
That belief is shared by Deanna Fahey, the Mount Holly mother of 21-month-old Mae. A former science teacher now working on a master’s degree on teaching biological sciences, the 43-year-old has launched a website and a campaign on Change.org to give children more access to natural play areas and outdoor play time during the school day. She, too, was inspired by Louv’s work.
“The more I research that, the more I get disappointed, disgusted almost, at the lack of time that kids have outside due to technology and fear and all that,” said Fahey, who takes her toddler on weekend hikes in state parks and twice-daily jaunts to play outside.
“There are a lot of schools incorporating some form of outdoor play. If parents are educated or informed about these options, I think they would be more inclined to really push for that option in their school system.”
Schools that take away recess time are doing a disservice to children, she said. Better are schools that incorporate curriculum into outdoor play.“Those kids need that outdoor time playing to help them to learn better,” Fahey said. “If you take it away, it’s actually not healthy. You can add all the curriculum time you want, and it’s not going to help.”
At 59, Gina Carola of West Deptford is working to accomplish her life’s goal. She wants to visit every national park in the country. “That’s my mission, to see them all before I die,” said Carola, a software developer who spends eight hours a day cooped up in an office. “I’ve been to over 30. Next month, I’m going to Carlsbad Caverns (in New Mexico) and Guadalupe Mountains (in west Texas).”
“When you go out into a park, it renews your spirit,” said Carola. “Especially if you’ve been to one you’ve never seen. You realize just how beautiful the planet is . . . I’ll be gone for 12 days and I’ll completely forget my job. I’ll have to write my password down because I won’t remember it.”
She has slept out in the open, beneath the stars in the Grand Canyon and hiked a 1,000-year-old Inca trail in the Andes. She has vivid memories of driving into the mountains of Idaho and Montana, turning off the air-conditioning, and rolling down the windows to breathe in the intoxicating scent of pine trees. The smell was so overpowering, she said, “it hit us like a ton of bricks.”
Twenty-five years ago, she joined the Sierra Club, lured by its outdoor hikes and activities. She has since become chairwoman of the club’s West Jersey section, and now advocates to protect the environment. “Some people would still rather sit on the couch and watch TV,” said Carola. “I don’t think people understand how important it is to get the sun on your face.”
If more people did, she thinks, they might be more inclined to vote with the environment in mind. “They need to see nature,” Carola said, “and they need to see what we’re doing to it.”
Mother deer, mother rabbits, mother birds — they all leave their babies “parked” while they search for food. Rabbits return to the nest just twice a day to feed their young. Most likely, Gural said, those babies are just fine. To be sure, she tells callers, gently lay yarn or string in a star pattern over the nest and come back to check it. If it’s been disturbed within 24 hours, the babies haven’t been abandoned. Leave them be.
And stop killing the snakes that slither into your basements, garages and backyards, she pleads. Fewer snakes mean more rodents, more deer ticks, more Lyme disease. Instead, leave them alone, or remove them with a pillow case or a bucket, or call in a professional and let them go. There is only one venomous species in New Jersey, the timber rattlesnake, and it’s endangered. But all play a vital role in the balance of nature.
“People are so disconnected with the natural world,” said Gural. “They think they need to control everything that comes into their yard.”