Repeated experience makes us more comfortable. Airplane traveling, driving in rush hour on roundabouts, or speaking in front of a crowd can be unnerving experiences at first. Amazingly, sometimes, they become second nature with exposure and practice. I never realized until recently however, that an experience I took for granted, that I assumed to be a human birthright, is in fact becoming rare enough to warrant concern. I am talking about the simple experience of children playing outdoors.
“What if ants come when I sit down?” “I wouldn’t climb a tree ‘cause I’d probably fall out and break something.” “ I’m not sitting under a tree; I’d get covered with ticks.” “I am going inside when I get home.”
These are just a few of the comments expressed by my fourth grade students a few years ago on our nature trail. That my students felt this way toward nature and the outdoors troubles and saddens me. Being a natural scientist may well be our first profession in life as we try to make sense of the world around us. As a teacher, I care about students becoming active adult citizens of their community. As an ecologist, I know community is inclusive of all living organisms in any environment, not just the humans. How are children going to be active members of a community they are uncomfortable experiencing?
I recently read a personal memoir of a woman and her family’s experience with Lyme disease. It was a wonderfully written book, both in its research into the politics of Lyme disease, as well as detailing her heroic fight against the devastating impacts of the disease on her and her family. But her solution has unsettled me and has continued to haunt me. Perhaps her conclusion – to retreat to a high-rise apartment in a concrete jungle – is a satisfying solution to her illness. For me, however, I read it with astonishment.
I have had Lyme disease. I may still have it. The spirochete (Borrelia sp.) that causes Lyme disease is an insidious bacterium. It occurs in many areas of the world and causes a wide range of chronic illnesses that, in my opinion, are not being effectively addressed by the mainstream medical community. It is also sneaky (I am not suggesting any sort of premeditated action on its part, just describing its adaptations by natural selection). Borrelia’s partner in crime, the tick, which ultimately transmits the spirochete to us, or other mammals, can also be described anthropomorphically. I never saw the tick that caused my illness. The spirochetes replicated and spread, causing ill effects on my body that gradually emerged over eight years. By the time I went to a doctor, it took two more years to discover the problem, and at least two years to treat. I say at least two years because I am not convinced I am completely spirochete-free.
Because of my experience, I would readily say that I do not like Borellia sp. However, I also consider Borellia sp. a remarkable organism. If not for Borrelia’s ill effects, we may never have discovered its existence. It is remarkable to me because of its clever survival adaptations. I also admire it just as I admire the tenacity of invasive species on my property. I weed, they return, I weed, they return bigger or with a whole army. When I am not nursing my sore back from weeding, I can almost smile at this small role I am playing in the community dynamics of my yard. I am much happier when I see myself as part of nature and all its mysteries, rather than as an outsider attempting domination.
Could I choose to settle in a large city so that I could be free of future contacts with disease-born ticks? I think not. I’m just not city-dweller material. I have lived in cities, the most recent being Barcelona, Spain. My delight in the immersion of another culture and the chance to explore city life was strong. However, when we arrived, I found I could not take more than a week in the heart of the city. All my senses were flooded, and I really like uninterrupted sleep (tough to find in the center city). So we ended up outside Barcelona in an apartment facing the Mediterranean. These peaceful views of blue and green helped mitigate the frenzy of days in the city. I felt very lucky to be able to walk from my apartment to a trail with access to the sea and a small tract of green space.
And, yet, this space was not wild enough for me. To walk there was very different from a hike in a U.S. forest. The commuter train and the constant presence of people preclude the sense of ‘getting away’ that I need. I wonder constantly how people can live their whole lives in large cities – though I know people have done so for generations. I understand that many people are tied to a city because of work commitments, and they many not have the money to live elsewhere or even to get away on weekends. For those with money and choice though, it must be enough to get away on weekends or holiday. Just as I could not relocate to a large city, they may not like country life. Perhaps they appreciate nature and their need for it more vividly because it is not a regular part of their day.
But do they get enough practice with nature? In Barcelona, I saw toddlers walking along the sidewalks stooping to pick up cigarette butts instead of sticks and caterpillars. I am in awe that the noises and lights and smells do not overwhelm their senses in the same way they overwhelm mine. They have a lot more practice with sensory overload than I do. But ultimately is this healthy? Can city life remove us too much from something we are a part of, fears or dislikes aside? How much natural experience gets removed from every generation of city dweller? And does any removal of natural experience have consequences for our evolving societies?
Nature advocates Robert Michael Pyle and Richard Louv talk about the extinction of experience. At what point will people have too much fear of the unknown natural world to care about it, to protect it, or to even want to go there? Going there is the first step. And it is this step that we owe to all children.
These questions cannot be debated or answered well until we address a more basic question. Do humans need nature? I am not a philosopher, and countless writings and opinions exist on this subject, but my heart and head say we cannot deny that we need nature. We breathe oxygen and drink water and eat from the soil. We cannot survive without these resources. This is basic survival. Then there is quality of life to consider. Studies document that the color green promotes peace and reduces stress. Hospitals and long-term care centers are increasingly utilizing green spaces to promote healing in patients. Intuition tells me nature is ingrained in us in ways we may never be able to prove scientifically.
Two more pertinent questions exist for me. Do children have a right to experience nature because it is an integral part of their existence? And, if an extinction of natural experiences occurs, what might that mean for humanity in terms of our collective and individual health and culture?
I have spent the last two years hating ticks, and by extension, the Borellia spirochete. I will always vehemently remove ticks and kill them. I will fret afterwards, “What if my symptoms return?” But I would stop short at removing myself from the natural environment in order to protect myself from future tick-born illness. Would I support complete eradication of the tick or the spirochete from our world, as we know it? This is not as easy a question to answer as one might expect. My gut response would be, “Yes!” So much pain and suffering could be prevented. This answer though, leaves me with nagging doubt.
My understanding of just an inkling of the complex ecological systems that work together to sustain food webs would not allow me to agree easily, or at all, with such an act. Our collective, limited understanding of playing with some of these strands of the web of life, of snipping them away, tells me we shouldn’t. Where would we stop? How much purposeful extinction of nuisance species would it take to cause real problems in food chains?
My brain has been slowly trained to think of ticks and outdoors synonymously. I may travel with Lyme disease the rest of my life, but it will not define how I live this life. I will not be able to adapt like the deer species has – deer can be covered with ticks, yet they do not suffer from Lyme disease. However, I would rather live with the complications of Lyme disease than have a life without regular forays into nature, or a life being afraid of nature. I don’t want to belittle anyone else’s experience with Lyme disease; I am merely trying to express my personal need for nature.
What I do want is to create a dialogue about our needs and rights regarding natural experiences, especially with regards to our responsibilities to future generations. Do we owe children a chance to make their own decisions about nature? Do they have a right to play outside without fear? Children are smart. If we teach them responsible play in the outdoors, they will understand. If we join them in their play and explorations outdoors, I trust we will all find something we need in our lives.