Willem Lange: A Cure for Nature-Deficit Disorder

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

I recall vividly my first conscious encounter with nature. It was during the late ’30s, in Albany, N.Y.’s Washington Park, a lovely gem designed by a former associate of Frederick Law Olmsted. Great-Grandmother Lange took my baby sister and me there about once a week. Walking along the edge of a gently sloping beach of dark gray fine gravel, I spotted a dozen or so little fish finning in about three inches of water just off the beach. Probably habituated to grabbing bits of popcorn thrown by other walkers, they watched me expectantly. I don’t know what they were exactly — sunnies, bluegills, pumpkin seeds — but I desired them acutely.

By our next trip I had made a fishing rig from a bent T-head pin tied to a few feet of twine from my grandfather’s pharmacy. For bait, I had some white bread, which I rolled into balls and stuck onto the pin. To take home my catch, I’d brought a mason jar. Nobody advised either for or against my scheme, so I proudly carried home two or three of them to our fourth-floor flat. I fed them bread crumbs. In a couple of days they turned translucent, died, and floated to the surface. I flushed them down our old-fashioned toilet (water tank high on the wall with a chain hanging down) and scrubbed out the mason jar, which my mother insisted stank of dead fish.

All the Langes at that time were city folks, born and bred; not an outdoorsperson in the bunch. The only comments I got about my sudden passion for fishing were logistical or hygienic, and not at all in reference to humane treatment of the other creatures sharing the planet. In this philosophical vacuum, my subsequent personal ontogeny recapitulated the phylogeny of the human race. I obtained age-appropriate weapons as I grew, and used them on almost any creature within range that caught my attention. Without realizing it at the time, I amassed a tremendous debt to the animal kingdom, which I’ve been trying for decades to repay. I’ll probably die still in debt.

On an almost completely unrelated note, I spent some time, about three years ago, filming birds on an island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. On a warm evening, as the sun sank toward the west shore, I sat on a veranda overlooking the lake, sipping a cold lager. Waves lapped on the beach a few yards away; the constant east wind rustled in the palm fronds above; flocks of parrots zoomed screeching like salvos of bullets toward their roosts for the night; a few native fishermen in dugouts quietly pulled their nets just off shore; two or three vigilant urracas — a bold-as-brass Middle American jay — perched above the tables hoping to spot unguarded or proffered treats below. I gazed contentedly about me at my 20 or so fellow lovers of nature, and saw that almost every other face on the veranda was illuminated by a screen — iPad, laptop or iPhone.

Two completely different reactions to exposure to the natural world, one exploitative, the other clueless. But on the other side of the world, metaphorically, is the look on a young child’s face the first time he sees a crayfish among the rocks at the bottom of a clear pool, or briefly holds and then releases a bobolink, or hears a barred owl hooting in deepening twilight. Time was, many kids had experiences like that just in the normal course of their lives. That time has pretty much passed. I think now of all the little bits of wisdom I’ve picked up over the years (“A really good fish is too valuable to be caught only once.” — Lee Wulff; or “Without ethics, there can be no sport.” — Roderick Haig-Brown) and can only wish I’d heard them as a child from people who believed and lived them.

Richard Louv’s fascinating best-seller, Last Child in the Woods – Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, praised by The Boston Globe as “an absolute must-read for parents,” describes poignantly the results of a whole generation being “raised without meaningful contact with the natural world.” In the past few years I’ve had the chance to see the catastrophic result of trying to squeeze three cuttings of hay out of fields where grassland birds nest; of building winter vacation resorts (think Sandals) on land previously occupied by mangrove swamps, sea turtles, saltwater crocodiles and dozens of species of migratory birds; of kids growing up with slingshots in their back pockets reprising my own youthful misadventures, but with endangered species. The people who perpetrate these felonies against nature aren’t bad people; most of them (there are a few greedy types who know just what they’re doing) are just ignorant.

The obvious answer to the pandemic of ignorance that’s all but upon us is, as with most ills of humankind, education — early and engrossing education. We saw kids in Nicaragua who routinely killed songbirds changing their behavior when each “became” a particular bird, drew pictures of it, learned to imitate its call, and then shared their experiences by Skype with kids in similar classrooms in the United States who were studying habitat degradation. And who of us can forget planting lima beans between a piece of wet blotter and the sides of a water glass, or watching wriggling tadpoles turning into frogs, or cheering on a turtle laying her eggs in dry gravel?

I went recently to the North Branch Nature Center, just outside Montpelier, on 28 acres beside the North Branch of the Winooski River. The center is doing exactly what I’m describing: exposing kids directly to natural wonders, as well as running workshops for parents and teachers and birding tours for adults. Its success is crowding it out of its 18-year-old facilities, so it’s launching an ambitious capital campaign. Difficult as it always is to choose which good works to support, out of all those asking for our help, I can think of few more valuable than one that educates young people about the natural world that ultimately sustains us, and directly attacks the dreaded Nature-Deficit Disorder already evident in some of our country’s current leaders. There’s no time to waste in this effort, and no better place to take action than here at the center of the civilized world.

Willem Lange’s column appears here every Wednesday. He can be reached at willem.lange@comcast.net.