I grew up on a lake–practically lived in the woods–and did all kinds of things outdoors that these days would be considered too dangerous. There was little on TV (we got maybe two stations) and no electronic “gizmology.” Books were my best friends, and I often read them outside. Last week my husband and I spent the better part of several days by, on, in, and under salt water–sitting, swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking. We walked for miles, took meals outside and came home slightly sunburned and mosquito-bitten (I’m the sweeter one) and more relaxed than we’ve been for weeks, maybe months.
According to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, today’s kids (and many adults), suffer for lack of direct nature exposure, and it’s affecting their physical, emotional, and spiritual health. There’s even some evidence that its deficit may contribute to ADHD–and that nature immersion can help treat ADHD. The fourth-grade boy who said, “I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are,” breaks my heart.
We’re discussing the book over at Tweetspeak Poetry this month, so head over there to read more. Here I’m just sharing a few passages from the first couple of sections that impressed me in terms of their writing–the way they stirred my senses, the way they made me think, or the way they made me smile.
She trotted down a narrow footpath and then over a rise. A red-tailed hawk circled above. On a slope ahead, rivulets of fire-retardant, non-native ice plant had turned into a flood and would soon cover the hillside. But clusters of native agave–a cactus-like succulent from which tequila is made–made their stand. The agave blooms once in its long life; it grows for two decades or more and then in a final burst of energy shoots up a single, trembling flower stalk that can be up to twenty feet high. At dusk, bats dance in the air around it and carry pollen to other flowering agave.
Brooks stopped below a small hillside covered with original native bunch grass, a species that dates from pre-Spanish California, from a time before cattle were introduced. Just as tall grass prairie once covered the Great Plains states, bunch grass carpeted much of Southern California. (In the Great Plains, botanists can still encounter remnants of tall-grass prairie in deserted pioneer graveyards.) There is something about touching this grass, in knowing it. (p. 42)
“Here we have the home of the dusky-footed wood rat,” says Andrea Johnson, a docent who lives on a ridge overlooking this land.
She points at a mound of sticks tucked under poison oak. A wood rat’s nest looks something like a beaver’s lodge; it contains multiple chambers, including specialized indoor latrines and areas where leaves are stored to get rid of toxins before eating. The nests can be as tall as six feet. Wood rats tend to have houseguests, Johnson explains. “Kissing bugs! Oh my, yes,” she says. Kissing bugs, a.k.a. the blood-sucking assassin bug.
“This is one reason you might not want a wood-rat nest near your house. Kissing bugs are attracted to carbon dioxide, which we all exhale. Consequently, the kissing bug likes to bite people around their mouths,” Johnson continues, fanning herself in the morning heat. “The bite eats away the flesh; my husband has a big scar on his face.”
One of the Urban Corpsmen shudders so hard that his pants, fashionably belted far to the south of his hips, try to head farther south. (p. 56)
Leaving the wood-rat’s lair, the docents lead the Urban Corps members through clusters of California fuchsia and laurel sumac into cool woods where a spring seeps into a little creek. Carlos, a husky six-footer with earrings and a shaved head, leaps nimbly from rock to rock, his eyes filled with wonder. he whispers exclamations in Spanish as he crouches over a two-inch-long tarantula hawk, a wasp with orange wings, dark-blue body, and a sting considered one of the most painful of any North American insect. This wasp is no Rotarian; it will attack and paralyze a tarantula five times its size, drag it underground, plant a single egg, and seal the chamber on its way out. Later, the egg hatches into a grub that eats the spider alive. Nature is beautiful, but not always pretty. (p. 56)
Over the weeks, Carlos has observed closely and sketches the plants and animals in notebooks. Along with the other students, he has watched a bobcat stalk game, heard the sudden percussion of disturbed rattlesnake dens, and felt a higher music. “When I come here, I can exhale,” says Carlos. “Here you hear things; in the city, you can’t hear anything because you hear everything. In the city, everything is obvious. Here, you get closer and you see more.” (p. 57)
“Yes, we’re enamoured of our gadgets–our cell phones connected to our digital cameras connected to our laptops connected to an e-mail-sprewing satellite transponder hovering somewhere over Macon, Georgia. Of course, some of us (I include myself here) love the gizmology. But quality of life isn’t measured only by what we gain, but also by what we trade for it. (p. 60)