In Our Nature

To one who has been long in city pent,
‘Tis very sweet to look into the fair
And open face of heaven, – to breathe a prayer
Full in the smile of the blue firmament.

~John Keats, Sonnet XIV
Or maybe to look into a volcano.
“Outbreak of the Vesuvius”, painting by Johan Christian Claussen Dahl (1826), 
collection Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main.
You can probably tell from a number of my recent posts that I have a goal to get myself and my family into nature, to confront it, embrace it, wallow in it. Nature is a transformative force. It is possibly far more important that we realize. Non-nature, those places we create that keep nature at bay, make us feel safe and make life seem more predictable, but we also lose out on something (or many things) intrinsic to ourselves and our sanity. An overly safe and controlled world is a pathway to a troubled mind and, I would argue, a troubled soul. Confronting the less predictable and sometimes frightening wildness of nature has got to be a key aspect of the mind’s design. We need nature. I believe John Muir was right when he said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” But are we raising our children to love nature?

“I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”

~ spoken by a fourth grader, reported in Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv
A grove of trees along the bike path near our home.
Feel free to just stare at it for a while.
We often hear people say they feel more alive when they are in nature, or facing into the kinds of ambiguity that adventure brings. What does this mean? Certainly one is not truly more or less alive in a strict sense. And yet, in nature one’s senses come more alive. One’s spirit is lifted or engaged more fully. There is something about the infinite variety, the ambiguity, the perfection of nature that seems to be ideally suited to the needs of our brains and spirits. That has got to be one of the reasons we own pets and buy potted plants, but also why we need wilderness. Could it be that the wildness of nature is a kind of correlative to the wildness of God?
Being in nature is important for children. We often have fears about letting kids run wild in the wild. And yet, when we do, we find kids come alive in nature in a way they never do (nor never will) in school, at home, playing video games, etc. It is as though nature was made for kids, or maybe it’s the other way around. I am convinced that many of the apparently psychological/emotional issues with children today stem from not enough nature time. Richard Louv takes this on in his important book Last Child in the Woods. He describes that the last few years have seen a significant shift in how, and how often, kids interface with nature. Here is a clip where he talks a bit about this topic:
My problem is that I am lousy at getting off the couch. I have a talent for dreaming but not so much for doing. But I’m trying to change that. I and a friend are starting a kids outdoor club of sorts. We hope to do lots of outdoor activities, but mostly just get kids and nature together and let the magic happen. Of course we will bring along lots of bandaids and bactine. What is critical is that there is, at least, a repeated experience of nature and a moving away from radically lesser forms of play and entertainment, such as video games and television.
Now, with this in mind, a Cub Scout can earn awards (“Belt Loop” and “Academics Pin”) in video games. Gasp! I find this disturbing. Below are the requirements taken from the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) web site.
REQUIREMENTS
Tiger Cubs, Cub Scouts, and Webelos Scouts may complete requirements in a family, den, pack, school, or community environment. Tiger Cubs must work with their parents or adult partners. Parents and partners do not earn loops or pins.
Earning the “Belt Loop” award
Complete these three requirements:
  1. Explain why it is important to have a rating system for video games. Check your video games to be sure they are right for your age.
  2. With an adult, create a schedule for you to do things that includes your chores, homework, and video gaming. Do your best to follow this schedule.
  3. Learn to play a new video game that is approved by your parent, guardian, or teacher
Earning the “Academics Pin” award
Earn the Video Games belt loop and complete five of the following requirements:
  1. With your parents, create a plan to buy a video game that is right for your age group.
  2. Compare two game systems (for example, Microsoft Xbox, Sony PlayStation, Nintendo Wii, and so on). Explain some of the differences between the two. List good reasons to purchase or use a game system.
  3. Play a video game with family members in a family tournament.
  4. Teach an adult or a friend how to play a video game.
  5. List at least five tips that would help someone who was learning how to play your favorite video game.
  6. Play an appropriate video game with a friend for one hour.
  7. Play a video game that will help you practice your math, spelling, or another skill that helps you in your schoolwork.
  8. Choose a game you might like to purchase. Compare the price for this game at three different stores. Decide which store has the best deal. In your decision, be sure to consider things like the store return policy and manufacturer’s warranty.
  9. With an adult’s supervision, install a gaming system.
In my opinion this an important failing on the part of the BSA as well as a symptom of a deeper malaise in our culture. In fact, I would argue the huge popularity of video games in our culture is the result of a profoundly pervasive nihilism. This is not to say video games are bad, or that anyone playing them is a nihilist, but the ubiquitous nature of video games is not unlike other forms of popular drug use. It seems that we have become a society of mass dissipation and escapists from life. Who we are, what we value, and what our world view is, comes to the fore in the kinds of entertainment we choose. If life is meaningless then playing video games hours on end (or watching television hours on end, or many other things) might makes some sense. But life is not meaningless and we need to teach our children that fact (and live that fact ourselves). We need to lead our kids away from cheap, easy, and empty escapism and toward the fullness of an examined life. Frequently unplugging from the electrical outlets is important. Getting into nature is a part of the solution.

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