The cult of spring: Perspectives on mamas' need for nature
I have just negotiated a new quasi-peace in the house -- Monroe, I declare, is no longer allowed to use the iPod touch to play fruit matching games due to tearful angry meltdowns when he gets even a taste, while depriving him wholly keeps relative calm -- when I open the newest issue of Brain, Child. The cover story takes me several hours to begin; honestly, it sounds as bent for artificial controversy ("let's get mommies talking!") as any of the other mommy war-type content that has lately been flooding the journal's pages. Titled "Guilt Trip into the Woods," it starts as all long essays in mothering magazines do: with a little anecdote. Family, consisting of blogging journalist mama, dad and seven-year-old son adopted from Asia (this seems relevant to the writer), must decide where to go on vacation: nature, or New York? They pick New York, kid loves it, can't get enough of Times Square and the 10-story movie ads. He's just not a nature guy, says mama.
She's feeling bad about it, after all; she's been reading and seeing stuff online about getting kids out to nature. The focus of much of her ire is the echo of the headline, Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods, with generous distaste left for the National Wildlife Foundation's Green Hour (for which, incidentally, I wrote a blog post last year). But writer Martha Nichols is not a believer. "...perhaps most disturbing for environmentalist moms and dads, I’m discovering that the nature movement—green and forward-thinking as it appears at first blush—looks an awful lot like a conservative message cloaked with some liberal fig leaves." She goes on to explain that she's feeling guilty, in the "morning when there’s barely enough caffeine in my system to cope, NPR seems to pummel me with stories about why our multi-tasking, Internet-chained pace isn’t good for kids..." but "whether nature is the only solution is the question," and though she connects with the concept of loving nature herself -- remember that pine tree I used to climb when I was a kid? she asks -- " long before I finished Last Child in the Woods, I wanted to chuck it across the room."
What comes down to it is this: her son isn't the nature journaling type. "He’s never been one to draw daisies in a journal if I suggest it. Instead he’d sketch a jousting tournament or a new comic strip, no matter how much I burble about the veins of a leaf. Or he’d rip the leaf apart—which for Louv might be just the ticket for a young naturalist—except that what fascinates Nick is the landscape inside his own head." She begins to describe the "fellow believers" of Louv as sectarians, they "present themselves as valiant nature warriors facing a horde of technology Visigoths," they're "nature evangelists," they're "polemical."
She's frustrated that Louv and other writers about getting kids into nature are making the assumption that parents need to "get religion" if they don't like nature (instead "maybe we're into updating our status lines with five hundred digital friends," she argues -- as defense?); she finds it ironic that Green Hour began on the web, but doesn't encourage the use of much technology (it's supposed to?); she's upset that nature believers won't enter debates about multiculturalism and feminism.
In other words, she feels targeted (she's being pointed too, obliquely, as the responsible party, "fear, worry, hovering—when these labels are leveled at “parents,” they’re not very subtle code for female"), she doesn't have enough time to get outside (making the assumption that she needs to live "by a canyon" or in "a suburban existence that implies a long commute" -- why? -- to get nature), the "virtual worlds these kids might also want to explore" aren't given their due.
I try to put my finger on what frustrates me so much about her piece about her frustrations with the nature cult. At the end she is conciliatory, mentioning an essay by Rachel Carson (the mother of all environmentalists) and giving a nod to nature -- "Here is my Asian child, not born of my body, his dark eyes taking in ninja cartoons and clouds scudding across the Halloween moon with equal awe." After all, I too am considering letting my sons watch The Last Airbender. Everett has an account on Runescape, a virtual worlds game, with my (qualified) blessing. He (very rarely) tweets for goodness' sake!
I think it is this. "Any form of intensive-parenting advice—and Last Child in the Woods is as intensive as it gets—comes down to a lot of work on the part of adults. These days, both moms and dads are putting in the hours. But ignoring the fact that women do the majority of childcare, and by extension much of the staring at stars and nature journaling, doesn’t make the inequity go away." That's it, isn't it: taking kids into nature is a lot of work, and we're busy, what with our Important Feminist Ceiling-shattering Work and our status updates.
I don't think the nature believers are cultists; I don't see that we're protecting any important social equity line by foregoing outside play so we can get in our Facebook time; I think the balance needs to be more than just watching clouds scudding across a moon upon occasion. I do believe in the Green Hour, although I don't time my kids; we do very little nature journaling; in truth, I haven't read any of these cult-of-nature books.
What I'd tell Martha, were she to stop by and read my blog post in the course of her time not spent outside mucking in the pesticide-free mud, is that I have discovered that, even more than my children, I need time in nature. And by "nature" I do not mean a canyon or a carefully manicured acre of Japanese gardens or a house in the suburbs: often I mean, looking up into the tree-lined streets and alleys as I bike, sitting in our muddy, messy backyard-in-progress stalking caterpillars. I don't have much in the way of "economic means" (really, my family qualified for free lunch last year) and yet, still, I have found a way to get nature in, a lot of nature in, my family's life.
Here's how my own seven-year-old with a penchant for ninjas and virtual worlds does nature: outside, with a stick for a spear and piles of branches for a fort, leading a crusade with his little brothers against imaginary bad guys whose powers would set the airbender on his ear. They have powers, too, a mix of Pokemon and martial arts and medieval chivalry. To see them out there makes my heart thump-thump with "all is well" and the corners of my eyes screw up into almost-tears.
I don't think "nature is the only answer" but without a lot of nature I'd be less of a parent and, I've seen it in my kids: a day spent keeping the play focused around wired media is a day that ends badly. And this is where I'd share something from Dominique Browning that appeared in yesterday's New York Times Sunday Magazine, about her sudden period of unemployment. Her children were, at the time her 35 years of office work ended with the shuttering of House & Garden, grown. And once she shook off the initial depression, this is what she wrote: "Spring blew in so wildly that year that it seemed unnatural, or perhaps I just noticed what spring feels like once I wasn’t sealed in a climate-controlled building all day. Weather — the actual experience of it, not the forecast — is one of the more dramatic discoveries to come with a slower pace of life. There were days at the office when I didn’t know whether it was muggy or cool, or if it had rained. It dawned on me that there was something unsavory about having been so cut off from nature that I was surprised by the golden hue in the slant of light at four in the afternoon — on a weekday, no less." Later, "as I stop struggling so with fear and simply accept the slow tempo of my days, all those inner resources start kicking in — those soul-saving habits of playfulness, most of all: reading, thinking, listening, feeling my body move through the world, noticing the small beauty in every single day. I watch the worms, watch the hawks, watch the fox, watch the rabbits. I open my heart to new friends."
Is it ok to say this? I believe that Browning (slow down, watch the worms) is right and Nichols (my own romance with nature does not mean my son needs to feel the same attachment) is wrong. She's not completely wrong, but I think she could do with a bit of discovery, a bit of opening up. It doesn't need to be hard and forced and blindly faithful; but a healthy portion of reverence for the "soul-saving," the letting your "body move through the world" isn't at all misplaced. Let's not set our stopwatch, clocking in and out of nature every day; let's do whatever work it takes to stalk a caterpillar or the bud on a plum tree now and again.