By today’s standards, some aspects of my upbringing would be considered parental negligence.
Those were the best parts of my childhood.
I grew up less than a half-mile from the border between southern New Mexico and the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The border was calmer then, but our neighborhood wasn’t quiet. Smugglers and undocumented immigrants streamed back and forth across the ragged barbed-wire fence that marked the boundary. From our yard we could watch hundreds of illegal crossings in a day. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials staked out the hilltops and patrolled the sky in their aircraft, but they couldn’t hold back the tide. Crime rates were high, primarily because the wealth differential across the border made mundane U.S. possessions immensely valuable if they could be smuggled south.
Then we had the neighbors to consider. As kids, we were routinely told to avoid the trailer where “the pervert” lived. So we did. If I wanted to walk past the shack inhabited by another neighbor, an elderly, trigger-happy alcoholic known as “Old Man Pat,” my grandfather would call Pat on the phone. I vividly remember one such conversation. “Pat, are you drunk?” Grandpa asked. He listened to Pat’s response. “Well, OK. My grandson is going to walk past your house in a few minutes. Don’t shoot at him.”
Did I mention that the area was also infested with rattlesnakes?
That I was encouraged to wander the village and the surrounding sand hills with my friends is remarkable in retrospect. My mother would literally tell us to go outside and play “until the sun goes down.” So we did. We dug forts in the sand. Our parents just said, “That’s liable to cave in on you.” We hunted for arrowheads. (“Watch for snakes!”) We shot our BB guns. (“Don’t put an eye out!”)
I took a job helping with a neighbor’s goats, taking them to graze in the desert. By the time I was 11, I had my own horse and I could wander much farther, up onto the mesas or down to the Rio Grande. Out there in that rugged landscape, among the sandblasted shacks and junked cars, I was enchanted. I fell in love with nature.
Every naturalist and conservationist throughout history has shared a single inspiration: a love of the natural world.
“In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.” — Aristotle (384 B.C. – 322 B.C.)
Can we learn to love nature from inside a house or a speeding car? Possibly, but it seems unlikely.
“Our children no longer learn how to read the Great Book of Nature from their own direct experience or how to interact creatively with the seasonal transformations of the planet. They seldom learn where their water comes from or where it goes. We no longer coordinate our human celebration with the great liturgy of the heavens.” — Thomas Berry (1914 – 2009)
I would never have fallen in love with the natural world if it weren’t for the seductive danger and excitement I felt when wandering alone in wild places.
“Reading about nature is fine, but if a person walks in the woods and listens carefully, he can learn more than what is in books, for they speak with the voice of God.” — George Washington Carver (1864 – 1943)
My own children had much less of that kind of freedom out in nature. My wife and I were typical parents of the 1990s. We believed we needed to know precisely where our children were at all times. That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But it meant my kids never had a chance to wander alone in the woods listening to the voice of God. They walked in the woods with us, but that’s not quite the same thing.
“Keep close to Nature’s heart, yourself; and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean. ... Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” — John Muir (1838 – 1914)
In his groundbreaking 2006 book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv suggests that our kids are suffering from something he calls “Nature-Deficit Disorder.” He believes that firsthand experience of nature is a critical part of human education.
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” — Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)
Wise people throughout history have recognized that nature provides intellectual stimulation, aesthetic satisfaction and spiritual solace.
“Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life. Whatever the vexations or concerns of their personal lives, their thoughts can find paths that lead to inner contentment and to renewed excitement in living.” — Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964)
“Come forth into the light of things, Let Nature be your teacher.” — William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850)
“Believe me, you will find more lessons in the woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you what you cannot learn from masters.” — St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153)
If exposure to nature has been a formative experience for so many of our wisest teachers, how can we deprive our children of that instruction?
On the other hand, a child alone in nature is vulnerable.
I don’t question the vulnerability of children. Part of the magic of the natural experience, for a child, stems from the fact that the experience — and the danger — is vital and real. It’s instructive to note, however, that children often may be safer alone in the natural world than in their own homes. Medical conditions, car wrecks and shootings make up more than 60 percent of all child deaths, none of them the result of being alone in nature. About 90 percent of sexually abused children are victimized by someone they know at home.
We have cooped up our children to keep them safe, but safe from what? Wilderness is, arguably, safer than home for a great many children.
Clearly there’s no simple answer. But if my exposure to sunshine and wind, creosote bushes and yuccas, rattlesnakes, and the danger and exhilaration of empty places had always been directly supervised by adults, then I would not have loved the experience as I did. Between the ages of 8 and 13, I was in the desert every day, not just on special occasions when the adults could come along.
“What is the good of your stars and trees, your sunrise and the wind, if they do not enter into our daily lives?” — E.M. Forster (1879 – 1970)
I think I’ll join Richard Louv in calling for universal experiences in the natural world as a fundamental part of every child’s education. Exposure to nature is at least as important as exposure to mathematics or literature. And I’ll do my best to give my grandsons the gift my own parents and grandparents gave me: unfettered, solitary time in God’s creation.
Photos by Laura Husar Garcia.