In the early 1960s, Mama and Papa leased an old, rundown gas station in Liberty, N.Y., in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, and spent every weekend of one winter and spring converting the property into our summer "retreat." We lived in Brooklyn at the time, but my parents were determined to get my sisters and me out of the city as much as possible, especially during the summer.
The office they turned into a room for my grandmother. Walling off about seven or eight feet in the back of the auto bay, they put in a kitchen and sleeping quarters. Papa built a sleeping loft and painted it red. That's where my sister, Inga, and I slept foot to foot above our parent's bed below.
The main bay became the "Pastel Beauty Salon," where my mother spent three summers doing hair for the city ladies who summered at Brown's Hotel up the hill and at other nearby resorts (think "Dirty Dancing"). On weekends, my father made the trip from the city to be with the family.
My oldest sister, Lisa, took a job at a nearby horse farm, leading trail rides and grooming the horses. Inga and I hung out with the hotel workers' kids during the day, roaming the countryside in little packs with our dogs, playing make-believe and picking wild strawberries from the fields and raspberries from hedge-row brambles. We swam in the hotel pool while the guests ate dinner.
The best days, though, were Lisa's days off from the farm. She would wake me before dawn to go to the woods. In the cool, early morning fog, our footsteps silenced by moss, we'd explore. Lisa would lift a log to show me all the bugs and worms that lived there. She put caterpillars in my hand, and I giggled as they tickled their way up my arm. We'd take off our shoes and stand in a shallow stream to feel tiny fishes nibble at the air bubbles caught in the little hairs on our legs. We froze in place not to scare a fawn or to let a sleepy garter snake cross our path. We were great hunters of the elusive red eft, a quick little juvenile salamander with bright, red-orange skin. The efts hid from the mid-day heat under rocks and moss. Dawn was the only time they came out.
When the family moved to a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C., outdoors was where all the kids hung out. We caught crawfish and minnows in a creek and once rescued a drowning bird. One day I wore as a corsage a blue butterfly that landed on my T-shirt. We never went far without permission, and as long as we were home by dark, Mama didn't worry. Personal computers and video games were still a few decades away. TV was a special treat reserved for Sunday night, for "Walt Disney," "Bonanza" and the "Ed Sullivan Show."
I grew up curious and unafraid of the natural world. That curiosity extended to the books I read and the subjects I loved in school. It also made me fearless when it came to trying new things--unless it involved heights. Boredom was not an issue when I had the whole world to explore. I was connected to nature then, and I have never lost my awe for her.
On the first Earth Day in 1972, my friends and I walked the roughly two miles to and from school without a second thought for the distance. We weren't afraid to cross yards and busy streets. Instinctively, we understood the importance of making our small stand for the earth. We pored over the "Whole Earth Catalog," a heady combination of counter culture and back-to-the-land ethos that put forth the revolutionary idea--to us at least---that we are all one, made of the same cosmic stuff and part of the same grand universe.
Kids don't grow up that way any more, of course. In an age when children have cell phones and computers, the connections they make lean toward the virtual. Parents are uneasy letting their kids out in what they perceive to be a dangerous world, confirmed by breathy horror reports on the nightly news. Instead of the outdoors, kids find amusement in bits and pixels. Technology is awe-inspiring. Nature is an abstraction outside the window of the SUV, especially when you're lucky enough to have a DVD player with the latest movie to watch instead of interacting or--heaven forbid--looking at the world going by.
I think we've lost a lot in the transition.
In 2005, Richard Louv coined the term "nature-deficit disorder" in "Last Child in the Woods" (Algonquin Books, updated 2008, $14.95). Research shows that we may actually need our connection to nature, Louv says.
"The postmodern notion that reality is only a construct--that we are what we program--suggests limitless human possibilities; but as the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, physiologically and psychologically, and this reduces the richness of human experience," Louv writes.
"Yet, 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. Several of these studies suggest that thoughtful exposure of youngsters to nature can even be a powerful form of therapy for attention-deficit disorders and other maladies. As one scientist puts it, we can now assume that just as children need good nutrition and adequate sleep, they may very well need contact with nature."
Independent research supports Louv's premise. Kids who grow up getting dirty and interacting with animals have stronger immune systems, for example, and fewer chronic illnesses such as asthma. They also learn that taking care of the Earth and all of its inhabitants is real and necessary.
In this issue, we welcome Jim PathFinder Ewing to the Jackson Free Press. Among Jim's expertise is organics, and his inaugural column traces the organics movement from its origins in the 1960s. Growing and eating local foods is so much healthier--for us and the earth--than what we've become accustomed to.
Also in this issue, long-time JFP freelancer and nature lover Kelly Bryan Smith introduces her parenting column with a piece about camping with kids.
It's all connected. Love and reverence for the earth grows when we nurture it. Without a sense of awe for nature, we're all a little poorer, and everything is a lot less bright and healthy.
April 22 is the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. Make it a day to celebrate, to remember where we came from and how we're connected. The natural world is a wonder and a mystery, as are we all.