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The Wonder of Nature

By Bob Peterson

A review of three books

By Bob Peterson

The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder
by Richard Louv
(Algoquin Books, 2008)

The Sense of Wonder
by Rachel Carson
(HarperCollins, 1998, originally 1964)

A Sand County Almanac
by Aldo Leopold
(Oxford University Press, 1987, originally 1949)

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovers four feet from my head as I sit mesmerized watching its flight against the shimmering waters of Wisconsin's Flambeau River in the late afternoon sun. I don't know whether to focus my binoculars on the iridescent acrobat as it beats its wings 50 to 60 times a second seeking food from the hummingbird feeder or turn my gaze 200 yards up river where two deer stand knee-deep in the water grazing on waterweeds.

I flip through one of my bird guides and realize that it's no surprise these hummingbirds — the Ruby-throated male and the White-throated female — have been visiting the feeder all day. They must consume 50 percent of their body weight in sugar daily just to stay alive. Granted, they don't weigh a lot — one tenth of an ounce — but eating 50 percent of one's body weight in sugar would be an insurmountable challenge for even the most ardent, sugar-addicted preadolescents whom I teach.

As I read more about the hummingbird and watch it fly vertically, horizontally, forward, and even backwards at times, stopping instantly and turning with near perfect precision, I am filled with a sense of wonder. This little bird, whose relatives have been on this planet far longer than the species I was born into, is only 3 and 3/4 inches long and yet has a heart that beats about 1,260 times a minute. Talk about hyper! Even more incredible, come fall this little critter in northern Wisconsin flies south — not in a flock, but usually singly — and winters in Mexico or Central America. It flies nonstop over the Gulf of Mexico, able to store enough fat beforehand to make the trip. Barring catastrophe, it will return to my feeder next summer.

Last summer while staying on the edge of the Flambeau River in a small shack without electricity, running water, or cell phone coverage, I had time to read a new book and revisit two others that seem particularly poignant given increasing recognition that we are causing irreparable damage to the planet.

The book that I've spent the most time with is Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Originally released in 2005 and updated in 2008, writer and environmentalist Louv asserts that "within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically," with nature increasingly "something to watch, to consume, to wear — to ignore." Louv marshals an impressive set of data from studies around the world and anecdotes from his personal experience to show that "at the very moment that the bond is breaking between the young and the natural world, a growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature — in positive ways."

Louv examines several factors that contribute to our "spectator" society that separates children and youth from the natural world. He looks at the loss of the natural habitat and the effect of urbanization and suburbanization on children's relationship to nature. He reviews what he calls the criminalization of natural play, making apt criticisms of schools that are obsessed with scripted curriculum and testing and of urban settings with a paucity of parks. Louv notes that only 30 percent of the people of Los Angeles live within walking distance of a park, and that children are too often "over-scheduled and over-organized" leaving little time to interact with nature.

The book's power rests not only in Louv's basic message, but in how he weaves together many psychological, educational, and environmental insights from poets, scientists, and parents who have worked or reflected on ecological matters. The well-organized 388-page book makes a convincing case that for the sake of our children's mental and physical health and for the sake of our planet's future — today's children will be the ones making key decisions in the not too distant future — we must radically change how we as communities relate to nature, and in particular, how we help children relate to nature.

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