Thursday, May 22, 2008

Into the Woods

The charming thing about having a 12-year-old who is a good reader is that if you leave books lying around, he'll pick them up. I've been reading Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv, and for the last couple of days, Walker has read sections of it. So I don't have to read it and then try to change my parenting; my kids are old enough to read it themselves and then decide if they think it's true. Last evening Walker, who has a good case of poison ivy already, went out to the woods in back of our house and climbed a tree. "And it did make me feel better, mom" he said.

One of the odd effects of building on to the back of our house is that it has seemed to bring the woods closer, because we can see less yard and more woods from the new bathroom window. I have the best view of our unusual orange azalea, which is just about to burst into full bloom, that I've had in years.

So I've enjoyed reading Keith Donohue's The Stolen Child, which is about hobgoblins who live in the woods and creep into a house to steal a child and leave a changeling in its place. It's enjoyable in the same way that singing "Teddy Bear's Picnic" in a low growly voice while you're in the middle of the woods is enjoyable (the changeling actually sings this song in the novel)--it gives me a little shiver late at night, looking out into the fragrant darkness from the window that, as yet, has no blinds over it.

The interesting thing about The Stolen Child is that the point of view begins with the changeling ("Don't call me a fairy" he begins) and then each chapter alternates between him and the child he replaces, who joins the hobgoblin band. Their attempts to hold onto and even recapture memories are the focus of the novel. The stolen child, formerly named Henry Day but now referred to as Aniday, discovers his "faery powers," like his ability to appear to bring a deer that was struck by a car back to life: "the to breathe into its mouth. It's not dead at all, but in shock." The changeling, now known as Henry Day, discovers more about his original self as he grows up in the world of houses, and eventually discovers that in his first life, he was an autistic musical prodigy. The boys take parallel paths, and the culmination of the novel is their meeting, although in all the meetings throughout the novel, neither the human nor the faery can understand each other.

I found this novel at the library on Sarah's recommendation, and May turned out to be the perfect month to settle into its green reverie.


lemming said...

Funny how certain books are better at certain times of year than others. Julia Spencer-Fleming's theology is a bit odd, but her descriptions of winter chill me in summer. In the winter, I find In The Bleak Midwinter dull.

Mike Vandeman said...

Last Child in the Woods ––
Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,
by Richard Louv
Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.
November 16, 2006

In this eloquent and comprehensive work, Louv makes a convincing case for ensuring that children (and adults) maintain access to pristine natural areas, and even, when those are not available, any bit of nature that we can preserve, such as vacant lots. I agree with him 100%. Just as we never really outgrow our need for our parents (and grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.), humanity has never outgrown, and can never outgrow, our need for the companionship and mutual benefits of other species.

But what strikes me most about this book is how Louv is able, in spite of 310 pages of text, to completely ignore the two most obvious problems with his thesis: (1) We want and need to have contact with other species, but neither we nor Louv bother to ask whether they want to have contact with us! In fact, most species of wildlife obviously do not like having humans around, and can thrive only if we leave them alone! Or they are able tolerate our presence, but only within certain limits. (2) We and Louv never ask what type of contact is appropriate! He includes fishing, hunting, building "forts", farming, ranching, and all other manner of recreation. Clearly, not all contact with nature leads to someone becoming an advocate and protector of wildlife. While one kid may see a beautiful area and decide to protect it, what's to stop another from seeing it and thinking of it as a great place to build a house or create a ski resort? Developers and industrialists must come from somewhere, and they no doubt played in the woods with the future environmentalists!

It is obvious, and not a particularly new idea, that we must experience wilderness in order to appreciate it. But it is equally true, though ("conveniently") never mentioned, that we need to stay out of nature, if the wildlife that live there are to survive. I discuss this issue thoroughly in the essay, "Wildlife Need Habitat Off-Limits to Humans!", at

It should also be obvious (but apparently isn't) that how we interact with nature determines how we think about it and how we learn to treat it. Remember, children don't learn so much what we tell them, but they learn very well what they see us do. Fishing, building "forts", mountain biking, and even berry-picking teach us that nature exists for us to exploit. Luckily, my fort-building career was cut short by a bee-sting! As I was about to cut down a tree to lay a third layer of logs on my little log cabin in the woods, I took one swing at the trunk with my axe, and immediately got a painful sting (there must have been a bee-hive in the tree) and ran away as fast as I could.

On page 144 Louv quotes Rasheed Salahuddin: "Nature has been taken over by thugs who care absolutely nothing about it. We need to take nature back." Then he titles his next chapter "Where Will Future Stewards of Nature Come From?" Where indeed? While fishing may bring one into contact with natural beauty, that message can be eclipsed by the more salient one that the fish exist to pleasure and feed humans (even if we release them after we catch them). (My fishing career was also short-lived, perhaps because I spent most of the time either waiting for fish that never came, or untangling fishing line.) Mountain bikers claim that they are "nature-lovers" and are "just hikers on wheels". But if you watch one of their helmet-camera videos, it is easy to see that 99.44% of their attention must be devoted to controlling their bike, or they will crash. Children initiated into mountain biking may learn to identify a plant or two, but by far the strongest message they will receive is that the rough treatment of nature is acceptable. It's not!

On page 184 Louv recommends that kids carry cell phones. First of all, cell phones transmit on essentially the same frequency as a microwave oven, and are therefore hazardous to one's health –- especially for children, whose skulls are still relatively thin. Second, there is nothing that will spoil one's experience of nature faster than something that reminds one of the city and the "civilized" world. The last thing one wants while enjoying nature is to be reminded of the world outside. Nothing will ruin a hike or a picnic faster than hearing a radio or the ring of a cell phone, or seeing a headset, cell phone, or mountain bike. I've been enjoying nature for over 60 years, and can't remember a single time when I felt a need for any of these items.

It's clear that we humans need to reduce our impacts on wildlife, if they, and hence we, are to survive. But it is repugnant and arguably inhumane to restrict human access to nature. Therefore, we need to practice minimal-impact recreation (i.e., hiking only), and leave our technology (if we need it at all!) at home. In other words, we need to decrease the quantity of contact with nature, and increase the quality.


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