I come from a big, loud family who loves big, loud holiday gatherings. We’re from New Jersey, so when I say big and loud, you know I mean it. Thanksgiving meant traveling to an aunt’s house for a raucous dinner where someone was likely to set some part of the table on fire. And for my parents, the ideal Christmas day involved a conveyor belt of friends, extended family, and co-workers rotating through our home. Games in this context meant splitting into two teams who yelled at each other, so you can imagine the culture shock when I met my husband’s family and we quietly played a card game. No shouting involved. I still admire and appreciate the hospitality that seems to course through the veins of my extroverted, kooky family, but as a quiet, introspective kid, it required some creative coping mechanisms.
Louv asks us to pay attention to nature for our own good, not because we ought to worship nature or devalue human needs, but because nature is fundamental to human health — physical, emotional, and spiritual.As I got older, I learned that I could value the rowdiness of my family’s celebrations more by contrast — by taking to the woods early in the morning before the festivities got going. Remembering those mornings now is like a deep, clean breath. I’d run down the suburban street on a cold, gray morning. I’d look carefully before dashing across a major road that, in a few hours, would be filled with holiday travelers. But not yet. There’s a small forest near my parents’ home, and I think I knew every entrance, every rabbit trail, even as it sprawled across three towns. I took to the trails, heading uphill along a gravel path that slithered beside a rolling creek. I can still picture it: the rush of water over rocks, the trees swaying overhead, the crisp breeze at my face and crunching leaves beneath my feet.
Maybe by Christmas I’d take the road if the trails were too icy, and with all the leaves fallen, I’d clearly see the path of the creek winding its way up the hill like a friend keeping pace with me. These mornings and these places were sanctuaries for me. On holidays, they became a kind of church for me in spite of my un-churched family. They became a kind of peace with me that I carried like a talisman in my spirit for the rest of the hectic day. I never lost my love for the woods, and the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve sought it out. During the soul-crushing days of graduate school, I used to run in the woods on winter evenings, imagining myself in Narnia. My favorite family holiday memory so far is a snowy hike we took early on Christmas morning; though I didn’t know the verse until I was an adult, my spirit has always responded to the cry that “all of Creation testifies.”
It probably comes as no surprise, then, that I’ve taken to Richard Louv’s work, given that he created the term “nature deficit disorder.” So, when I learned that Louv would be visiting my university as part of the Distinguished Speaker Series, I knew I needed to be in the audience. There was standing room only as Louv took his place at the podium, opening his talk with self-deprecating remarks about his aged resemblance (or lack thereof) to his press photos. The rest of the talk was likewise sprinkled with Louv’s good humor and amiability, but the resounding message I took with me when I left the auditorium bore a strong resemblance to that feeling of leaving the forest: light and hope.
Louv talked about six key areas where we need to restore and revitalize our relationship with nature: childhood; healthcare; education; environmental jobs; cities, homes, and gardens; and the future. A couple of key principles arose to connect these sweeping areas, both of them echoed in Louv’s book The Nature Principle. In that text, Louv stresses that he does not oppose technology and he understands the centrality of machines in the modern world. He calls instead for the development of “the hybrid mind”:
The ultimate multitasking will be to live simultaneously in both the digital and the physical world, using computers to maximize our powers to process intellectual data and natural environments to ignite all of our senses and accelerate our ability to learn and to feel; in this way, we could combine the “primitive” powers of our ancestors with the digital speed of our teenagers.
In this description, Louv recognizes the potency of both the “natural” and the “technological,” though I think he too would question the false binary that we often use to separate those terms — thus the emphasis on hybridity.
He also stressed (in both the lecture I attended and The Nature Principle, where this quote comes from) that:
Our society must do more than talk about the importance of nature; it must ensure that people in every kind of neighborhood have everyday access to natural spaces, places, and experiences. To make that happen, this truth must become evident: We can truly care for nature and ourselves only if we see ourselves and nature as inseparable, only if we love ourselves as part of nature, only if we believe that human beings have a right to the gifts of nature, undestroyed.
His vision here is not nature as addendum or corollary but as essential, as inextricably intertwined with all aspects of human life. He imagines a kind of seamless interweaving between the so-called natural and technological spaces, where our cities, homes, and workplaces teem with the sounds of life instead of (or at least along with) the hum of machines. And the consequences of failing to actualize this dream, Louv cautions, are considerable.
He repeated a number of times during his lecture that “despair is our number one mental illness.” He cited 24-hour news coverage that behaviorally conditions us to fear and paranoia as well as an environmental movement that’s focused on sustainability even though, he quipped, “who’d want a sustainable marriage?” Indeed, environmental coverage from either extreme feels alarmist; we are either already at the brink of the apocalypse or we must press on with business as usual, blissful in our ignorance. Yet Louv’s experience also reminds us of our history — that we once thought smog and acid rain were insurmountable terrors as well, and still we’ve made progress. Indeed, my university president Donald Christian mentioned in his introductory remarks that Louv’s invitation to SUNY New Paltz is part of commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. That legislation plays a key role in protecting wilderness for generations of Americans to enjoy — and we can do more.
In Louv’s concluding remarks, he asserted that we as a nation “are addicted to oil and despair.” He referenced a student who told him “I’m 20 years old, and all my life I’ve been told it’s too late.” What we need, Louv argued, is not just a change in our policies and our behaviors (though we need those, too) but a change in our language. We need, he reminded us, a vision that’s better than sustainable, more than survivable. We need, he exhorted us, to talk differently to ourselves and our children about our future, to “conjure beauty, wonder, greatness, and health” in the dream of a “nature-rich world.” It is a beautiful vision indeed, where we replace our debilitating despair with an active hope.
And though Louv’s message is not affiliated with any religion, it resonates with the Christian message of stewardship, of tending to the earth and all God’s creatures. Yet it goes beyond that point as well, calling on us to rethink our approaches to life itself as nature heals us in all areas of our lives and we, in turn, help nature heal. Louv asks us to pay attention to nature for our own good, not because we ought to worship nature or devalue human needs, but because nature is fundamental to human health — physical, emotional, and spiritual. The reminder to turn from despair bears a distinctly environmental stamp in Louv’s work, but it echoes through the ages of Christian teaching as well. We are not called to live in this world as despair addicts but as children of the light, heirs of the Resurrection, people of hope. Wherever we walk or hike or run or garden, we are instructed to be the light. And that means that while we are called to live on this earth for some time at least, we must consider the way that Creation itself testifies to the glory of the Lord.
What are we to do with that glory? Do we hide or cower or panic? Our answers shed light on our theology as well as the environmental movement. For me, the woods have served as my refuge, my sanctuary, for too long for me to abandon hope. I don’t want to sustain the forests; I want to share them with my children and my children’s children so that future generations can walk forward — in hope — to an earth that testifies how much humans care to preserve, protect, and pass on the glory of God and His creation.