Monday, 3 August 2009

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE (or aren’t!) – Dianne Hofmeyr

I grew up fairly free. I knew each mountain path behind my house and every rocky outcrop on my beach. My backyard seemed to demand engagement and a certain fearlessness. I suppose it was before ‘stranger danger’. So I was struck by a recent article that said 38% of UK children spend less than an hour outdoors daily. One boy said he liked to play indoors because that’s where all the electrical connections were!

Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods uses a term ‘nature deficit disorder.’ There’s a disconnection. Children can probably tell you about deforestation but do they know a real forest… its danger and its freedom?

I can’t imagine growing up without this sort of wild freedom. There are so many layers of memory I can hardly begin to choose one experience over another. Camping in summer… the smell of canvas and wood smoke, collecting alikreukels to roast (like a very large periwinkle) the crickets loud and the voices of the adults murmuring on in the dark until I finally fell asleep. The smell of the sea, the waves beating in at the river mouth bringing mountains of foam that frothed across the brown river water like an enormous coke float… don’t swim beyond the shadow of the bridge or you’ll be sucked out to sea! The incense smell of the mountain fynbos that we packed under our sleeping bags and the day someone was bitten by a scorpion… would she die? And the scary sound of the round rocks rolling along the riverbed with the incoming tide.
I felt thrillingly alive.

Not just the real wilderness, but wilderness in books fed me too… and still does. Myths of forest and icy wastes. The deep dark cave. ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit...’ that’s all that’s needed. I’m sorry I got to know the Greene Knowe stories so late. But I remember being mesmerized by Gerald Durrell’s Overloaded Ark… all those secret animals in pristine forests.

I think stories that encompass the wild are like maps that orient you to respond to the world. It would be interesting to know if other writers have wild places or wild stories that are special. What I do know is… I’m connected to my inner child when I’m exposed to an older, wilder world of animals, stone, wood and water. And I feel sorry for any child suffering from ‘nature deficit disorder’!

This is the Golden Orb spider that shared my backyard…totally harmless but fascinating... it's called the 'writing spider' because of its intricate orb-shaped web spun in golden thread. The other is of an alikreukel picked off a rock ready to be roasted.


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.

For the rest:

Yunaleska said...

I feel some children are less in touch with nature. I'm fortunate that the families I know, although they won't let their children play out on their own, they are out every weekend/holiday camping, visiting national parks, woods, the beach, to give their children these experiences.

I think writers unconsciously (most of the time) include what they wish others to love about the world in their books. Your love of the countryside is clear in the well described two books I've read of yours :) If you weren't so passionate about it, the books would be more character driven.

I could name some books which don't focus so much on the environment. It doesn't make them bad books - their style is different. But when I read vivid descriptions of places (the more exotic the better) my brain gets thinking about those areas of the world/universe (if they, or similar ones exist). Reading is definitely fuel for the brain.

catdownunder said...

I pass a local 'playground' on a regular basis. It is almost always empty. It is a sterile place - designed to be 'safe' rather than a play space. There is nothing for children to explore.
These types of playgrounds were commented on by an 'expert' in our media recently...with the comment that they do not provide a worthwhile play experience. Even reading about these things has given way to books about 'social issues' in some settings. Children are not supposed to "waste time" playing outside or reading about doing the same!

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