Or I can think of this Wilderness 50th anniversary year, which gives us hope. Amidst all the Great Society social justice legislation of President Lyndon Johnson, the Wilderness Act of 1964 may appear “below the fold,” but I cannot remain hopeless for long in reading again the thoughts of the Act’s author Howard Zahniser:
“We are a part of the wildness of the universe. That is our nature. Our noblest, happiest character develops with the influeance of wilderness. Away from it we degenerate into the squalor of slums or the frustration of clinical couches. With the wilderness we are home. ..It is good and sound to realize that in preserving areas of wilderness we are recognizing our own true human interest. It seems good, ethical, to consider ourselves as members of a community of life that embraces the earth – and to see our own welfare as arising from the prosperity of the community.”
So, Adirondack Wild and its partners the Rockefeller Institute, DEC and SUNY ESF, and many New Yorkers are busy celebrating Zahniser, Marshall, the gift and the hope of wildness, the Wilderness Act 50th in our cities, on campuses, in town halls, in the woods, and I am very glad that we are.
But what of Zahnie’s “embracing the earth”? How far we have fallen since ‘64 in terms of our earth’s human population, embattled and endangered life forms and life support systems, and in our politics.
To take this a step further, noted author Richard Louv said at a Wilderness 50th Anniversary lecture in New Paltz recently, “the number one mental health issue facing Americans is that we are addicted to despair.” And environmental organizations are also addicted to it, he noted. That got my attention.
Speaking to a packed audience at SUNY New Paltz, Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods, also celebrated Wilderness, but said there is no going back to ours and earlier generations that took childhood immersion and education in our neighborhood woods and fields and streams for granted. The woods and streams used to be our country’s educational and developmental laboratories, but not any longer. For young parents today the desire to have their children engage in “nature play” must now compete with technology screen time, virtual worlds, stranger danger, residential and commercial sprawl, nature loss, lyme disease…and hopelessness. It is a vicious circle. With less nature play, there is less balance in our lives, in our minds and in our emotional worlds. We are addicted to despair, he said. The economic incentives are all working against nature play. Digital technology is commercially driven, and there is no end of public and private money to research it, develop it, promote it, buy it. There is comparatively little money to research its negative mental and physical health impacts, and the positive results of nature play.
Yet the positive impacts of nature play have been out there for some time, and Louv’s writing and networks like the Children and Nature Network have accelerated that understanding: that from unstructured play and exploration in the outdoors comes improved school test scores, better emotional balance, faster social skills development, detectable growth in self-esteem, and in skill competence. Even our country’s astronauts understood this, Louv noting that one astronaut said he would trust digitally-minded youth to design space technology, but not to drive it. He would only trust those who have grown up in nature to understand how to navigate in space. Louv is after the “balanced, hybrid mind” that only develops through autonomous, encouraged, free time in the American outdoors.
“Our parks and wilderness areas are now among our best pharmacies, and our park rangers are also now health practitioners,” Louv said.
With nature play as part of growing up a thing of the past, what are families to do? They now need to support each other to gain the courage, and consciously make the time to engage with their children in nature play. “There’s safety in numbers,” Louv said. “Form nature clubs. Meet up in parks. Design new ways and make the time to connect to the natural world.”
“Take Ansel Adams,” Louv said. The great American landscape photographer grew up isolated and appeared to have attention deficit disorder. “Imagine if he had been merely prescribed with Prozac and discouraged from going outside, Louv said. We would not have the gift of Ansel Adams if little Ansel and the people around him had turned inward. But Ansel Adams found his gift in the larger world around him.
For environmental organizations and their aging memberships, Louv’s point is also that they must try to document and promote the progress our society is making towards a healthier world, cleaner waterways, protected wilderness, less sulfur dioxide and acid rain, productive bald eagle nests. To recruit younger members today, we must offer them information with a strong dose of hopeful progress. And don’t forget the nature clubs.
Today, I need to hear the words of Howard Zahniser as if freshly delivered, from his address to the New York State Conservation Council in Albany, October 4, 1957, a year after his first Wilderness bill had been introduced in the Congress:
“After all, it is not so important to know where wilderness began as it is to know that it is going on and on for generation after generation. You have a wonderful phrase here, ‘forever wild’, which is an inspiration and characterization of the nature of our own undertaking. We are not fighting a rear guard action. We are not simply trying to delay the inevitable taking over of all our wilderness lands by a fast moving civilization. We are trying in this time of emergency – which is also opportunity – to fashion a policy and to develop a program that, if successful, will persist in perpetuity so that we will always have these areas of wilderness. Let us not think we are a minority fighting against a great majority which is inevitably going to crush us. We are not. We are representatives of a great majority.”