In February of 2007, I read an article about Richard Louv and his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, in The Sun magazine. It started me thinking about how I raised my children and how I was shaped by the freedom of being alone outside.
A Minister’s Childhood in Nature
I grew up in a time when all the kids in my neighborhood spent time outside and most of us came to feel at home in the natural world. The outside drew us to play, to wander, to daydream, and to imagine. The woods at the end of the street, the fields near Grandpa's, and the solitary walk home from school opened us to the enchantment of the natural world.
For me, growing up in the urban setting of an Atlanta neighborhood, there were two magic outdoor places: the poplar tree with its long rope swing in my own back yard and the creek at the end of the street. I ran away to that creek and spent hours alone daydreaming. My mother forbid me to go there and said there might be kidnappers. However, I wanted to be down at that creek more than I feared punishment or kidnappers. Those woods called to me. Getting there was completely worth the whipping I got when Mama found out. And she most often found out, as I almost inevitably got wet and muddy slipping into the water. I wasn't a particularly graceful child, or clever about covering my tracks. I was simply and irresistibly drawn to that green sanctuary.
When my own kids were young, we were lucky to live out from town on a bit of land. I was grateful that being in the woods was almost unavoidable for my kids, but I still worked to help them notice the beauty of the natural world. There was enough wilderness nearby that we had regular visits from deer and a black snake, which literally hung out in the shed waiting, I suppose, for mice. There was one particular possum that came onto the porch in the afternoons in hope of finding cat food. We didn’t ordinarily see possums in the daytime. The local wisdom was that they were ashamed of their tails and preferred to come out after dark.
Every summer abundant, sweet concord grapes on an old vine lured my daughters to gorge until stomachaches slowed them down. Every August we spent a couple of nights sleeping on our porch roof watching for shooting stars from the Perseid meteor shower. At the first snow we simmered chili on the wood stove to eat when we came back from a walk. By the time my kids were teenagers, other kids from school made it out to the house and camped with us until the roads cleared.
A Minister’s Concern for the New Generation
I worry that my children’s children, this generation of wonderful, curious, lively, enthusiastic, children, do not have much opportunity to be outside unsupervised. I worry about keeping our kids so safe and controlled they can’t experience with all of their senses the beauty of the natural world that is my guiding light, my true north. I worry that they don’t get to play outside until it is really dark outside, not just grown-up dark but real dark, when it is no longer possible to play hide and seek and the world is just a little deliciously scary with deep shadows and unfamiliar night noises. I worry that they do not have enough time to move through boredom and into the pleasure of playing without supervision.
- Do they know how to lie on the ground and watch clouds?
- Do they get to build tree houses and damn up a stream with stones to make a wading pool or a little waterfall?
- How often do they come home with a box turtle or a garter snake or swing from a tree as high as they can while singing the sun down?
My personal resolution is to be alert for opportunities to take kids outside. At last year’s church retreat, we had a magical walk under the full moon. Covering our flashlights with red plastic so the night animals would not scurry away, we carefully climbed the trail to the top of the hill and then sat together in total silence for several minutes. Even our youngest children were awed enough to honor the quiet.
I hope our kids have a sustained and leisurely opportunity to just be with the world and see what comes next. To play outside, to smell the rich loam of earth, to taste a too sour apple straight from a tree, to make a lean-to with an old blanket and lie under it on the grass.
City dwellers will find nature breaking through cracks in the pavement. “God bless the grass.” What clearer expression of the irrepressibility of life could we have? Isn’t there a message of hope just there? A walk through an empty lot can be filled with miracles if we are attentive.
Healing Through Nature
There is something in these encounters with nature that nourishes us from the inside out, that builds reverence for life. There is something there that holds us and heals us, which sustains us throughout our lives when everything else falls away, that allows us to revel in our own aliveness and feed our imagination. In a world which pushes us to be more and more committed to work and projects and good causes, finding a way to engage regularly with the natural world is life-saving. In a world in which we are so often bombarded with what is broken and out of balance, connecting with the natural world is a balm to our bruised and aching hearts.
Healing and restoration are possible. Look around - the evidence is everywhere. Making sure that our children have unstructured time outside will build their awareness and trust. Nature can be sustaining to them throughout their lives.
Repetition and Rhythm
Repetition is important; think of it as spiritual practice. Like hearing uncommon musical forms or tasting exotic foods, kids may not know what to do without structured outdoor time at first, but they will gradually build their capacity and appreciation.
- Go outside.
- Sit in the sun.
- Walk in the rain.
- Taste snowflakes.
- Don’t make elaborate plans; just be outside. Just be.
Spirituality and Nature
Whatever your idea of God or the infinite, time outside, especially time without special planned activities, or even talking, helps us to see that we are part of the unfolding of something beyond ourselves. We are part of the great story of creation.
I know I can regain my own balance when I visit the woods. I know I will find some of the healing I seek. Savoring the natural world is, in itself, a healing prayer of gratitude. When despair grows in me, I need to be with the beauty of the natural world. Like Wendell Berry, I need to rest in the “grace of wild things.” From that place, I trust I will eventually find my way back to my community. Then together, with all of our collective friendships and creativity and learning and love, I can imagine a healed world and work to make it so.
The Rev. Julia Older grew up in Atlanta, Georgia several blocks from a small creek. Now she lives in a cottage, which actually overlooks a creek. A graduate of Starr King School for the Ministry, she is happy and proud to be serving as the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Redwood City, CA (http://www.uufrc.org/). Her two extraordinary daughters are married to equally wonderful men and have each given her two fabulous grandchildren.