Richard Louv writes: A few years ago, I visited Southwood Elementary, the grade school I attended when I was a boy growing up in Raytown, Missouri. I asked a classroom of children about their relationship with nature. Many of them offered the now-typical response: they preferred playing video games; they favored indoor activities—and when they were outside, they played soccer or some other adult-organized sport. But one fifth-grader, described by her teacher as “our little poet,” wearing a plain print dress and an intensely serious expression, said, “When I’m in the woods, I feel like I’m in my mother’s shoes.” To her, nature represented beauty, refuge, and something else.
“It’s so peaceful out there and the air smells so good. For me, it’s completely different there,” she said. “It’s your own time. Sometimes I go there when I’m mad — and then, just with the peacefulness, I’m better. I can come back home happy, and my mom doesn’t even know why.” She paused. “I had a place. There was a big waterfall and a creek on one side of it. I’d dug a big hole there, and sometimes I’d take a tent back there, or a blanket, and just lay down in the hole, and look up at the trees and sky. Sometimes I’d fall asleep back in there. I just felt free; it was like my place, and I could do what I wanted, with nobody to stop me. I used to go down there almost every day.” The young poet’s face flushed. Her voice thickened. “And then they just cut the woods down. It was like they cut down part of me.”
I was struck by her last comment: “It was like they cut down part of me.” If E. O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis is right — that human beings are hard-wired to get their hands wet and their feet muddy in the natural world — then the little poet’s heartfelt statement was more than metaphor. When she referred to her woods as “part of me,” she was describing something impossible to quantify: her primal biology, her sense of wonder, an essential part of her self.
Recently I began asking friends this question: Does a child have a right to a walk in the woods? Does an adult? To my surprise, several people responded with puzzled ambivalence. Look at what our species is doing to the planet, they said; based on that evidence alone, isn’t the relationship between human beings and nature inherently oppositional? I certainly understand that point of view. But consider the echo from folks who reside at another point on the political/cultural spectrum, where nature is the object of human dominion, a distraction on the way to Paradise. In practice, these two views of nature are radically different. Yet, on one level, the similarity is striking: nature remains the “other.” Humans are in it, but not of it. [Continue reading…]