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Out of the Woods (Rough Draft column)

Because we need more to worry about, here comes a new ailment: Nature-Deficit Disorder. It's the subject of a new book, by Richard Louv, called Last Child in the Woods, which basically says our children stay indoors too much, are alienated from nature and are going a little crazy.

Certainly every parent today has had the experience of begging a child to go outside. The child always asks, "And do what?" And we always say, "Climb a tree!" From the way we talk about it, all we did as children was climb trees, build treehouses and swing on vines. We were arboreal. But these days, when you ask a kid to climb a tree, there's a pause while the child tries to figure out a tactful way to point out that people don't do that anymore. It's like you've asked the kid to churn butter or boil up a vat of lye.

At some point you'll deliver the entire canned speech about how, as a child, you were always building forts, exploring forest trails, roasting squirrels over a fire, and so on, the classic Huck Finn sort of existence, and the only thing you'll forget to mention is that you were nearly fatally bored....

Click here to read the entire column.

By Joel Achenbach  |  June 1, 2005; 2:53 PM ET
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If I may suggest a recent Fred Reed column....

Posted by: Les E | June 1, 2005 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Maybe my kids are weirdos, but they like climbing trees. In fact, they like being outdoors, period -- even in the rain. Maybe because they don't have sense. Sometimes, when it's not raining, they'll manufacture rain by turing on the sprinkler.

They play video and computer games too. Sometimes even in the same day.

Perhaps this explains why they don't always do their homework.

Posted by: KB | June 1, 2005 3:09 PM | Report abuse

We didn't climb trees back when I was young but we did play in the dirt. There was a corner of the backyard, next to the house, with no grass growing, and we called it "the dirt pile." We (two sisters, a brother and me) would dig big holes and play with our Tonka trucks for hours until the dirt caked on our hands and knees. Then we'd scrape it off with our fingernails. It was lots of fun.

We also ran under the sprinkler on hot days. When we got older we rode bikes around the neighborhood (banana seats!) and played kickball or kick the can out in the street.

Of course we also watched countless hours of Get Smart, Green Acres and The Mothers-In-Law on TV. We were nothing if not well-rounded.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 1, 2005 3:23 PM | Report abuse

Joel, you were in Florida but it could have been me in Houston 'cept we would complain it was too hot to go outside so we would be banished to the heat of the patio to play away the afternoon at Monopoly. Best time was after dinner, riding the bikes and playing a game we neighbor kids invented called 'Death Ray'. If you got in a cars headlights, you had been 'rayed'. Amazing I lived to be this age.....

Posted by: whadyano | June 1, 2005 3:35 PM | Report abuse

I was definitely one of those in Florida with a pool and unlike all of my other friends my parents actually let us kids use it. How cool is that!!! Spending those lazy summer days playing war with buddies and then going back to our pool to play war in the water (i.e. cannonballs and water fights and just a little attempted drowning).

Kids these days don't know what they are missing! The great outdoors is the one place to escape your family and run wild and use your imagination (which I know is not as cool as seeing the video of someone elses imagination with special effects but then again I like books - anachronism!).

Great column...

Posted by: DC Fan | June 1, 2005 3:35 PM | Report abuse

When my daughter was three or four, we went for a walk in the woods with my brother the herpetologist. She asked him where salamanders lived. He answered that some kinds lived under rocks and picked up a rock. There was a salamander under the first one! Moses parting the Red Sea could not have impressed her more. Two years later when the dog killed her hamster (stepped on it, totally unintentional, we kicked it down from hamstercide to hamster slaughter 2 and he beat the rap), she skinned the hamster and stuffed it. Five years after that she returned from a summer visit to my brother in Arizona where she helped him study rattlesnakes, happily striding off the plane with a tarantula in her pocket, Careful what you wish for, Joel.

Posted by: kurosawaguy | June 1, 2005 3:38 PM | Report abuse

One of the ways that America is better than Europe (there has to be something to make up for the bread and cathedral inequalities)is that we have a lot of NATURE. Even in urban areas, yes, there are manicured parks like the Europeans have, but we also have empty spaces with plants and animals growing wild. I live in a very densely populated area and this weekend I had an encounter with a family of raccoons and saw lots of birds and butterflies in a nature preserve about 1/2 mile from my house. When I lived in Boston, I had a book that told how to get to natural spaces (they call them "reservations") via public transportation. So, my point is, I encourage parents to take their kids out to their local nature spots, not to wait for vacation or even a long weekend. It's really fun to explore what is right in your area.

Posted by: kbertocci | June 1, 2005 3:49 PM | Report abuse

I grew up a poor redneck kid in north Florida. All I did was play outside. Rode a horse bareback to the 7-11 to get Fun-dip and Dorritos. And I had a cinderblock pool, 3 feet deep and 12 feet square. 8 pet mallard ducks. I swam in duck poop. That could explain alot, now that you have me thinking about it....

Posted by: mc | June 1, 2005 4:26 PM | Report abuse

We grew up in a house abut half a mile off a main road, on an unpaved dirt road. There were 6 houses on that road. We kids knew everybody in those houses and their cars, so if a strange car started down the road we knew they were lost. We had 6 acres of vegetable garden, woods with a stream, and open field. A neighbor owned an open pasture with a pond. He rented out the field to a man who owned a few head of cattle that grazed the field. My brothers learned to drive a tractor before they could drive a car.

Dad always planted a vegetable garden big enough to feed an army, so his strategy to keep us out of trouble was to make us weed, hoe and tend the garden. Most of it wasn't so bad, but I hated picking beans. You had to stoop over in the hot sun to do that. Second worse was picking up potatoes from behind his tractor. Always ended up with clods of dirt in our shoes. Picking fresh corn and tomatoes wasn't so bad -- you could stand up to do that, and we would take a salt shaker to the garden and eat tomatoes warm from the sun right off the vine. Mom canned and froze vegetables all summer so we had veggies to eat all winter. She could feed a family of 6 on $25 a week; not gourmet stuff, but we didn't starve. I never ate pizza until I left home. We're talking 1955-1965 here, folks.

My brother mowed the lawn for the older man who owned the field and earned spending money during the summers. How many kids actually work to earn money nowadays?

Dad worked nights, so he'd sleep all day, get up for supper, go to work, then come home and work in the garden before going to bed again. I think he did it to keep away from my mother. He was always OUTSIDE the house; she was always INSIDE the house.

We rode bikes on the dirt road, had tea parties in the storage shed, built tree houses from scrap lumber, waded barefoot in the stream, looking our carefully for snakes all the while. A neighbor boy had a sadistic streak. He'd catch salamanders from the stream and twist them in half. It was a big deal to ride up to the corner country store and buy Cokes out of the vending machine for 10 cents.

Now that land has been sold to developers who built $750,000 houses on it. The dirt road has been paved; water and sewer are provided. Those kids living there now spend all day on video games, X-boxes, TV (Jerry Springer, Oprah, reality shows -- pure garbage)inappropriate movies and God knows what else. Rich kids -- humpf! Don't know what a good life is.

Posted by: WASP | June 1, 2005 4:32 PM | Report abuse

[Meanwhile, back under the "Hilary vs. McCain in '08" entry, SouthernDem and Peggy are channeling YardleyBoy et al. from the "Class Differences in America" discussion.]

Posted by: Achenfan | June 1, 2005 4:39 PM | Report abuse

I grew up in a small community south of Pittsburgh that was essentially built on top of the old coal mines. We stayed outside all summer, mostly because the woods were magical. There were ravines and monkey vines to swing on. There were old abandoned structures to push over. Lots of blackberries around. There were the caves from which impressive bellows of smoke issued. There was the black hillside. There was the smoking hole by the edge of the stream. Why go to Yellowstone with all these natural wonders around? Of course, after I left for college, the state had to spend millions of dollars to put out the fires in the old abandoned coal mines which threatened many of the houses in the area. A few years ago, a new interstate was built right through the middle of our woods.

Posted by: matt | June 1, 2005 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Dave Barry called; he wants his column back. ;-)

But seriously, I think that the irony is that nature seems to be coming more and more to us whether we like it or not.

I live in the middle of Denver--a literal stone's throw from the busiest mall in Colorado (well maybe not literally, but have you ever been down to the Rappahannock? If George Washington could throw a silver dollar across it, then I could definitely hit Cherry Creek Mall from my house. I digress).

We have a large population of foxes in our neighborhood. I grew up in a suburb with huge open spaces, low density housing and tons of wooded areas, and I never saw a fox once. Not until I moved into the middle of Denver.

The other night, I almost ran over a coyote on my way home from the gas station. My red neck brother in law in the DC suburbs went bow hunting for deer from his patio because there were so many (which I don't necessarily condone, and may be in violation of several Virginia statutes, but do think it goes to show how humans and wildlife seem to be on each other's turf).

So, if kids are too busy playing XBOX these days, it's certainly possible that all they need to do anymore is take a quick look out the window to see all types of fauna that our "outdoors generation" never saw except in the zoo--or as roadkill.

Posted by: AW | June 1, 2005 5:18 PM | Report abuse

I took my 2 year old hiking along a local trail--it was only a little muddy and a little steep--and people looked at me like I was nuts. I think early exposure to discomfort is necessary for a life-long appreciation for the outdoors.

Posted by: Chris | June 1, 2005 5:19 PM | Report abuse

Chris: Your post reminds me of my dad's often repeated story of his first camping trip. It would have been about 1935, with the Boy Scouts. The tent leaked and he spent a wet miserable night and in the morning he was sitting in the rain, eating soggy Post Toasties for breakfast, and he looked around and said to himself, there's got to be a better way. He's been a lifelong hiker, camper, backpacker. At age 77, he regularly volunteers to clear trails at a local state park, and enjoys week-long bike-camping trips in the Oklahoma summer. I think you are right, Chris. You are giving your 2-year-old a precious gift.

Posted by: kbertocci | June 2, 2005 7:28 AM | Report abuse

Love your writing. This column doesn't cheat us with an easy slam on nature, so I like it too.

Did you know that the grades of adolescent girls who can see even SOME green vegetation from their windows -- go UP?

Humans need habitat. Fact of nature. It's good for you -- just like snap beans and home-grown tomatoes.

I highly, hihgly recommend the writings of Gary Paul Nabhan. Two books stand out:

The Geography of Childhood with Stephen Trimble, 1994

Cultures of Habitat: On Nature, Culture, and Story, 1997

Posted by: RichF | June 2, 2005 12:49 PM | Report abuse

Love your writing. This column doesn't cheat us with an easy slam on nature, so I like it too.

Did you know that the grades of adolescent girls who can see even SOME green vegetation from their windows -- go UP?

Humans need habitat. Fact of nature. It's good for you -- just like snap beans and home-grown tomatoes.

I highly, highly recommend the writings of Gary Paul Nabhan. Two books stand out:

The Geography of Childhood with Stephen Trimble, 1994

Cultures of Habitat: On Nature, Culture, and Story, 1997

Posted by: RichF | June 2, 2005 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Did you ever camp out in the backyard? No tent or sleeping bags, but Mother let us use Dad's old army blanket to sleep on which itched like heck and made my eyes water. She wouldn't allow a camp fire, but did let us poke a candle in the ground over which we roasted marshmallows stuck on the end of a straightened out wire hanger (NO WIRE HANGERS!!)while she stood anxiously by with a pitcher of water. Great fun, lying there looking up at the stars, but we never even made it to midnight. Either the ants, mosquitoes and other night bugs started crawling on us, or my sister, the Beauty Queen, would pick a fight with me, the Little Creep (an excuse for her to storm inside), and we'd end up going in the house, each accusing the other of being too chicken to stay out all night.

Posted by: Nani | June 2, 2005 4:20 PM | Report abuse

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