Saturday, October 25, 2008

Last Child in the Woods

Working their way through a large stand of tall reeds near the edge of a small pond, my son and his friend are drawn in by the lure of the "green green forest". Urged further and further into the unknown, wondering what lay ahead, they make their way toward a group of large trees swaying in the distance. They have never pushed this far into the forest before and the fear of what they may encounter makes them become more and more hesitant with each step. Suddenly, a large roar leaps out at them and the ground begins to shake. They turn around and are about to run when they realize it is only a freight train lumbering nearby on the Union Pacific tracks bound for Chicago.
But the scare is enough to make them turn back and take refuge in their tree fort, leaving the forest and pond to explore another day. Their fort, assembled in a large oak tree, just down the embankment from the railroad tracks, has been built and abandoned by different neighborhood kids over the years. It is somewhat of a community tree fort, owned by nobody, but loved by all. This scrap of the natural world in which the tree fort resides, bounded by railroad tracks, a pond and a parcel of undeveloped land, is a haven for not only wildlife but for nature deprived kids growing up in the suburbs of Chicago.

Most suburban kids being raised on poison perfect lawns don’t experience the wildness of nature, the beauty of it. Their yards don’t offer up many opportunities to explore and figure out how the natural world works, to fall in love with the rough bark of a tree, the rushing of a stream, or being tucked deep into the woods. How can these children learn to appreciate nature, fall in love with it, and consequently want to protect it, if they can not spend time in it?

That was my concern for my own son when I first read “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder” by Richard Louv. Louv speaks of how important it is for our children to have wild places to explore at their own pace, a place where they can spend time digging in the dirt or building a tree fort which will in turn help them to build a lifetime of love for the out-of-doors. He talks about how children today spend most of their time in front of televisions or computers and are missing out on the lessons that can come from being in nature. That nature can soothe and nurture- exactly what the stressed-out, over-scheduled kids of today need.

After reading Louv’s book, I became concerned that my son did not have a wild playground in which to explore. My small prairie garden was wild compared to the suburban lawns that surround my yard, but would not present enough “wildness” to satisfy a 12 year old boy. It wan’t much later that my son asked if he could visit the "green green forest" adjacent to the railroad tracks. This scrap of land, about two blocks from my home, has been left wild as a buffer between the railroad tracks and our neighborhood. Fear of the trains and tracks have kept me from letting my son play in this place. But, older now and more responsible, I feel he is ready to explore amongst the reeds and water and trees of this natural area. Though the area is small, to a kid, it appears huge and full of wonderment and I am glad that he wants to spend time there. He and his friends are making their mark on the tree fort and hopefully each successive generation of kids in this neighborhood will find their way to this place. To glean from it what the magic of nature will bring.

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