A Corps of Engineers Ranger told me a worried camper asked that question about Lake Sam Rayburn here in East Texas. I didn’t believe him at first, but it was true. The answer, of course, is “no, there are not sharks in the lake.” We are often asked if we aren’t scared of the coyotes in the woods that surround our house and that walk through our backyard. “Aren’t you afraid to live out there so far from town, with all those wild animals, snakes and stuff?” Well, all those “wild animals” are the least of our fears. Wild and weird people – well that’s an entirely different question! What I really want to know is why my friend isn’t scared to death living in town surrounded by so many strange and dangerous folks.
The thing is, questions like this asked of the ranger are indicative of a far deeper and, I believe, serious problem with today’s human population. They simply have little if any experience in the outdoors. When I was a kid, back in the days of dinosaurs, most of my waking hours were spent outside. We roamed and rambled through vacant lots, followed trails into the woods, found animal tracks, watched clouds form castles in the sky, and gazed awe-struck at the star-studded night sky. But no more. Parents and teachers (don’t get me started on these latter folks) are simply freaked out at the very idea of kids making spontaneous treks into the great outdoors. They might get chiggers. Moms and Dads think it’s too dangerous, and teachers – bless ‘em – think blood is blue and there is way too much legal liability involved to allow Jane or Johnny to go on field trips. They might trip and scrape their knee and get a deadly MRSA infection. Or, they’ll get poison ivy and transmit it to the entire student body, faculty and staff. (It’s neither contagious nor infectious and can’t be spread from person to person from the rash, oozing or not!)
The sad truth is that our children are growing up knowing practically nothing about nature. They don’t climb trees because they might fall out. They don’t collect butterflies because the eco-freaks might come after them. They’ve never sat by a campfire roasting marshmallows and making S’Mores. They’ve never whittled a piece of wood with their very own pocketknife because the school bans such dangerous weapons, and besides they might cut themselves.
Have your kids been on a hike – ever? Have you sat with them and watched the sun set over a beautiful lake? Have you laid on your back and watched the stars or seen distant heat lightning or heard the hoot of a great-horned owl? Do you let your children play in the fields and forests? Or are they always cooped up in the artificial, temperature and humidity controlled environmental chamber you call home, with their eyes glued to a glowing boob tube, computer screen, or idiotic video game? Even scarier is the fact that increasingly I see cars on the highways with TV screens in the back so the kids never have even a slight desire to look out the windows.
One of the things that worries me most is that with this profound lack of experience with the natural world comes a lack of interest in it. What we don’t experience, we certainly don’t understand, and definitely will never treasure. No wonder that our cities do little or nothing to preserve dark, starry skies. No wonder that our forests are disappearing and the very future of municipal, state and national parks are in dire jeopardy. At the rate we’re going, Yellowstone National Park will one day be reduced to a blacktop parking lot intermingled with condominiums and Starbucks and McDonalds, with Old Faithful (that’s a geyser folks, not a brand of whiskey) squeezed into one small patch of viewing area about 50 by 50 feet square.
Richard Louv has recently written a book that ought to be on the required reading list of every parent and educator in this country. It’s called Last Child in The Woods – Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. He reiterates what I have said for many years, that people need nature in order to maintain their sense of adventure, curiosity, mental growth, and balance. Experiences in the outdoors can help stabilize us, reduce our stress, anxiety and depression, increase our sensitivity and awareness, and even salvage our sanity. Louv agrees with me when he says our kids are growing up warped because of little experience in nature.
John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, said, many years ago, that we ought to go to the mountains and “get their glad tidings.” He suggested that if we did, our cares would fall from us “like autumn leaves.” We would be renewed and rejuvenated. Lacking easy access to mountains, just go outdoors and take your kids with you. It’s okay if they chase butterflies and collect caterpillars, even though some of the latter can sting. It’s okay if they get dirty and scraped up. Let them gum up their hands and clothes with pine pitch, and catch crawdads with bacon rinds. Let ‘em be kids, for crying out loud. They’ll never do that if their only entertainment is adult TV sitcoms, dramas, and R-rated movies. Give ‘em a break. They don’t have to have every waking minute taken up with singing, piano, clarinet, marching band, ballet, gymnastics, Scouts, football, baseball, soccer, and a myriad of other things that we try to jam into their already overloaded lives. Relax a little. Let ‘em out into the fields and forests. And maybe, just maybe, you adults ought to go once in a while, too. Then, perhaps there is a chance that we’ll get a whole generation back on track so they can understand that intangibles like the sky, the wind, the flowers, bird songs, sunsets, and clouds are critical to a balanced, satisfying, and stress-free life.
Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click firstname.lastname@example.org to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.