Nature-bugs like me avidly bemoan nature-deficit-disorder, the concept that today’s children grow up in a nature vacuum sucked dry by video games, sterile air conditioned gated communities, and overly structured upbringings.
All true of course, but thinking back to my own childhood in industrial Wheeling, West Virginia followed by Detroit, I don’t recall childhood companions terrifically fascinated with spiders and warblers. I do recall adult concerns about kids getting too soft and indoorsy, but then again in my recent readings of 1920s nature writings, they worried back then too about the kids losing their grip on nature. That worry must go back all the way to the transition from a land of farmers to the Industrial Revolution, and I kinda suspect 19th Century farm kids were more interested in the attractions of the big city than in wildflowers and butterflies. The hippies talked about “back to nature” in the 60s, but that was mostly some silly affectation with no substance. Were the ancient Romans interested in nature?
But even if it is long-standing human nature to ignore Mother Nature, things seem extra screwy to me when I teach a botany class with students afraid to touch a flower because it might house a bug. When the Boy Scouts seem more concerned with silly exclusive policies than in bringing kids outside. When lightning bugs and salamanders decline and nobody notices. When “outdoor activity” becomes golf and soccer. When fishing became more expensive than leisurely. When to see butterflies I go to “Butterfly World.” And when a college can’t teach ecology without flying everyone to Costa Rica.
Something has even happened to gardening. Forever, hasn’t gardening been more about beauty, flowers, soil, fresh air, exercise, wind, and worms? A personal experience, or a family experience, often multigenerational. It was for everybody. So when did gardening become “landscaping”? When did ostentation loom large? When did ego creep in? Who in the world ever thought there’d be “garden celebrities.” Oh come on! Let’s dig the dirt and plant some flowers.
I don’t think it is as simple as, “when I was a kid we played outside in the hills and meadows, and now we don’t.” (Although that may often be quite true.) What worries me more is a slightly different shift in values, a lost ability to enjoy basic simple pleasures, nature or whatever it may be. Life has gotten so fast, so specialized, so complex, so competitive, and so driven by some sort of new values coming at us electronically.
Enviornmentalists are fond of explaining attitudes about nature in terms of World View. Seems to me that collectively our big World View has homogenized around an unnatural core through the electronic media bath in which we live: giant TVs, WWW, cable news 24/7, pundits, gurus, satellite radio, political polarization, stock reports, sports fixation. Reminds me of my college days ca. 1970 when Marshall McLuhan with the “medium is the message” was hot classroom fodder. I just looked him up on Wikipedia and found a comment that seems to say so much: “Key to McLuhan’s argument is the idea that technology has no per se moral bent—it is a tool that profoundly shapes an individual’s and, by extension, a society’s self-conception and realization.”
It isn’t that our “self-conception and realization” is anti-nature, but rather merely a narcissistic cyber-world ever-evolving away from the small tangible pleasures, individual pursuits, and the values they engender. Even our conversational social lives meld into Facebook, texting, and Twitter. Celebrities tell us what to value. Nature is not in the back yard—it is on the Discovery Channel.
And here I sit on a beautiful Florida summer afternoon with my face buried in a laptop computer.