‘Physical pain has no voice, but when it at last finds a voice, it begins to tell a story….’[i] In the book, The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry writes that a person experiencing pain is often bereft of the resources of language, because pain is, in its very essence, utterly inexpressible. Even with the most vivid vocabulary, it remains impossible to know someone else’s hurt.
When I was a child, a family member abused me. This person did not understand how much pain I felt from being slammed into walls, from objects being hurled at me, or from being grabbed forcefully. That this person had been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder may have meant we articulated our pain in different ways, but I do not believe that he genuinely wanted to hurt me physically.
To say that our relationship was defined by abuse would be a mischaracterization though, as there were certainly moments of nurture as well. No matter how many hotlines were offered in school, I never would have even termed our relationship as abusive, let alone asked for help. Such is the burden and blessing of never having known anything different. If our relationship sounds confusing and muddled, that is because it is. How could someone who is supposed to love you unconditionally harm you at the same time? This underlying contradiction still baffles me to this day and I am afraid I cannot rationalize it.
While abuse played a critical role in my identity formation, I am not writing this to earn your sympathy. This is not about accusation or victimization, and in fact, I would not look back at my adolescence as being a particularly sad or difficult time in my life. Where I found comfort and relief from my home life was in outdoor spaces.
I would find solace in the surroundings of the forest canopy: enveloping me in shade and soothing me with the lilting melodies of songbirds. I would spend hours laying in tall, grassy fields, my body sprawled out amongst the clover, sedges, and rushes, as I casually let insects crawl up my legs and bees buzz around my head.
I could rattle off many reasons as to why I loved those spaces, from the corporeal to the nostalgic. Nature was an actual escape from my reality at home. Outside of built structures, I was free to run, to yell, to exist, to construct my own world and imagine a life with a slightly different cast of characters. Nature was simultaneously my shelter and my chance to explore boundaries – my safe space and my space to throw caution to the wind. It was my opportunity to find my voice.
As a teenager growing up in rural America, I remained involved in outdoor pursuits and began to take an interest in environmental education. At that time, around the mid-2000s, Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, was a bestseller in the US, highly influential for educators, in policy spheres[ii] and in popular media[iii]. Louv argued that children’s increased interaction with screens and electronic media, coupled with adult concern for ‘stranger danger’ and promoting more structured modes of play (e.g. sports leagues), led to a noticeable absence of ‘nature’ in their lives[iv][v]. As someone who had found necessary refuge outdoors, this phenomenon deeply concerned me.
In the UK, the 2012 Natural Childhood report from the National Trust wrote that the growing dissociation between children and nature impairs their capacity to learn experientially[vi]. When children are taught outdoors, their level of education improves, symptoms associated with ADHD are reduced, and some children even report that doing so makes them happier than simply receiving the latest fashionable gadget.
Louv’s thesis was not without relevant critiques, though. His cure was that we simply needed to get out from in front of our television sets and into the outdoors, but it maintained a long-standing, problematic nature-culture divide. Critics said his argument was reductive, in that it did not fully address the scope of our disconnect with the outdoors. Rather, it merely tried to capture statistical measures instead of discussing the quality of our engagement with nature at a societal level[vii]. The book did make me question though, what if I hadn’t been able to disappear into my backyard and beyond? How would I have turned out?
Distinct from my peers of the ‘cotton wool’ generation, who were swaddled in cotton and never allowed to take risks[viii], I was told to be back before dinner. Other than that, I could roam free, and I did. Even now, I can retrace the mental maps I made as a child, complete with the landmarks I used as guides. I tracked the changes in my surroundings throughout the year, from the different feels of the soil under foot, to the water levels of the pond after it rained. Each event is etched into my memory, complete with a vivid sensory picture. The small, curled-up fawn I almost tripped over one spring day, the copperhead that darted under a rock as I leapt from stone to stone across a creek, the rocky overhang I would lay on during sunny afternoons – they are all distinct features in my mental reconstructions of these topographies. These experiences taught me the lessons of self-sufficiency, to know when to accept help, to relish the familiar, to accept change, to be a careful observer, and to take that daring leap.
Despite a battery of recent studies showing the benefits of children getting a more balanced diet of indoor and outdoor play, and a litany of grassroots organisations working to affect this change, has Louv’s hypothesis of ‘nature deficit disorder’ gained much traction with policy-makers?
Besides the work done by the National Trust, the policy front seems to be lagging, but recently chief medical officers across the UK have updated recommendations on the amount of physical exercise children should be getting each week, including through outdoor activities[ix]. New types of school programs are burgeoning, encouraging children to climb trees, build shelters together, and use the forest like a classroom[x]. Successive heads of the Health & Safety Executive, an independent UK watchdog organisation, have actually advocated for an increased measure of risk-taking in children’s lives, suggesting that perhaps a scraped knee or bit of poison ivy is not so bad in the grand scheme of things[xi][xii].
I do not want to give the wrong impression. I am not anti-technology, or some Luddite bemoaning the inevitable changes humanity undergoes. I do wonder if there is a way to create a hybrid form of engaging with nature, where technology does not hinder our encounters with it, but rather enhances them. After all, in my experience, outdoor enthusiasts can fetishise their gear in the same way investment bankers would their respective devices. Is there some way we can harness the benefits of facilitated access to information and communication from technology without stripping away what we gain in that momentary separation from the busy-ness of the built world? Consensus is that screens are not the problem, as much as the sedentary lifestyle associated with them, which is correlated to numerous other health problems, including anxiety and depression[xiii]. Rather than keeping nature and culture separate, perhaps they could go hand in hand. The critical question is how can we re-imagine a better world for our children? Their health and well-being is just as tied to these outdoor spaces as it is to technology.
Over a century ago, John Muir wrote that, ‘Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home…’[xiv] Being near my abuser still puts me on edge – my jaw locks up, my body clenches and I barely breathe. That brief interaction sends me running back to respite. Nature is my lifelong form of therapy. Now, when I leave the built structures of the city, I take in that first breath of fresh air and I feel my mind clear and my entire body relax.
To this day, my other family members do not know of what I endured. My story was born out on the physical spaces I encountered outdoors. The stones I overturned, the geodes I collected, the leaves crunched under my feet, these were my unread manuscripts. I may never be able to describe the physical pain I felt, but I can talk about my healing. I can personally advocate for the benefits of unstructured, creative, imaginative outdoor time, for children and adults alike. I can passionately support the need to seriously consider the ways in which we engage with nature. As Calvin, the iconic representation of the child inside all of us, says, ‘…if your knees aren’t green by the end of the day, you ought to seriously re-examine your life’. [xv]
[i] Scarry, Elaine, The Body in Pain. (Oxford: Oxford University, 1985), 3.
[ii] Bruyere, Brett, Teel, Tara, Newman, P, “Response to ‘More kids in the woods: Reconnecting Americans with Nature.” Journal of Forestry (Oct/Nov 2009).
[iii] Stead, Margaret, “Field Study.” Guardian. (July 2009). http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/jul/11/last-child-woods-richard-louv
[iv] Duerden, Matthew, “Last Child in the Woods : Review.” Journal of Leisure Research (2007).
[v] Louv, Richard, The Last Child in the Woods. (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2005).
[vi] Black, Richard, “Nature deficit disorder: Damaging Britain’s children.” BBC News (March 2012). http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17495032
[vii] Dickinson, Elizabeth. “The Misdiagnosis: Rethinking nature deficit disorder.” Environmental Communication (2013). http://www.unc.edu/~dickins/DickinsonTheMisdiagnosis.pdf
[viii] Bingham, John. “’Cotton wool’ generation denied the chance to take risks, warns head of Scouts.” Telegraph (2013) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/10525632/Cotton-wool-generation-denied-the-chance-to-take-risks-warns-head-of-Scouts.html
[ix] Kinver, Mark. “Does outdoor play help keep the doctor away?” BBC News (February 2012). http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16963807
[x] I realise that I have not even begun to speak about the children who have no access to green spaces, a highly relevant issue spanning beyond merely an environmental injustice. For an introduction, see Strife and Downey (2009) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3162362/.
[xi] Health and Safety Executive, “Children’s play and leisure: Promoting a balanced approach. (July 2012). http://www.hse.gov.uk/entertainment/childrens-play-july-2012.pdf
[xii] Black, BBC News.
[xiii] Shapiro, Jordan. “Children internalize parents’ guilt about screen time.” Forbes. (January 2015). http://www.forbes.com/sites/jordanshapiro/2015/01/14/children-internalize-parents-guilt-about-screen-time/
[xiv] Muir, John. (1901) Our National Parks, 1. https://archive.org/details/nationalparksour00muirrich
[xv] Watterson, Bill. Calvin & Hobbes. Retrieved from: http://unfetteredpotential.com/2014/08/green-knees/