Thursday, September 27, 2012

Dear Rachel

September 27, 2012

Dear Rachel,

Fifty years ago to this very day—September 27, 1962—your world-changing book Silent Spring was first published. Though you did not live to see the full revolution that ensued, rest assured that the book’s impact has been immense: the environmental movement, Environmental Protection Agency, banning of various pesticides, Earth Day,  . . . on and on.

It’s not surprising, then, that for most people, the name Rachel Carson still brings to mind an ardent activist bravely confronting chemical companies in defense of human and environmental health.

Yet others, including me, think of you differently: poet, beach walker, scientist, lover of nature (sea creatures in particular), and someone with a deep passion for connecting children with the natural world. Oh how I wish you had been given the time to write your “wonder book,” as you affectionately called it. Instead, I must delve time and again into your essay, “Help Your Child to Wonder,” reading about that stormy night when you ventured down to the seashore with your baby nephew Roger to witness the booming surf. I am still struck by the clarity and verity of your vision; give children abundant outdoor experience in wild places together with at least one adult mentor to share the journey.

I was a year old when Silent Spring came out, and only three when breast cancer prematurely ended your life. One decade later in 1974, my father was taken, also by cancer while in his mid-50’s. It is a terrible irony that those chemical pollutants you documented so carefully, wrote about so eloquently, and rallied against so fiercely may have been responsible for cutting short your time with us. On this auspicious day, we celebrate your life and mourn your departure.

Rachel, though I am far removed from your esteemed standing, I think it fair to say that we have some things in common. I too am a biologist and a science communicator. I too possess a lifelong passion for nature, and oceans in particular, having spent most of my five decades in close proximity to one coast or another. And I too am passionate about connecting children with nature. Indeed nature connection has become the focus of my professional life and, thanks to my daughter Jade, a wonderful part of my personal life as well. 

But I have a confession. I’ve felt haunted by your spirit.

The decades since your death have witnessed an utter transformation in childhood—in the wrong direction. Here in the early 21st Century, North American children are lucky to spend a few scant minutes outside each day, on the order of 90% less than their parents did. Indoors, reality has been replaced by virtual substitutes, with youngsters succumbing en masse to the siren call of glowing screens housed in powerful, often hand-held gadgets. Together with rampant rates of obesity, attention deficit disorder, and depression, this indoor migration has left us with a gaping chasm between children and nature, critically endangering the health of both.

Sometimes as I’ve paused to gaze out the window, or walked to the kitchen for another cup of tea, I have felt your melancholy presence, saddened over the state of the world and our failures in nurturing the children-nature bond. Lacking substantial signs of progress, I’ve been unable to face you directly.

To be fair, there have been a number of bright spots along the way. Brightest of them all, perhaps, is another book, Last Child in the Woods, a 2006 bestseller penned by journalist Richard Louv. In this well-researched volume, Louv spotlighted the dangers of our current alienation from nature—what he termed “nature deficit disorder”—as well as the many health benefits of nature connection. Perhaps for the first time since Silent Spring, a book became the vital seed for a new environmental movement, this one focused on children.

Under the care and attention of grassroots supporters led by the non-profit Children and Nature Network, this seed has taken root and sent shoots skyward. Nevertheless, until recently it seemed that the tender seedling could succumb at any moment, overheated by the warming air or simply crushed by the technology gargantuan.

Then, in 2012, by coincidence a half-century after Silent Spring’s debut, the “new nature movement,” as it has been dubbed, suddenly matured into a robust, thriving sapling. This unexpected growth, speeded by nutrients from many quarters, has emboldened me to fill you in on recent events.

In 2011 and 2012 alone, the new nature movement has witnessed the following:

  • The Children and Nature Network documents more than 100 regional campaigns and 130 family nature clubs in over 80 regions around North America, reaching over 3 million children per year.
  • Several research compendiums of peer-reviewed studies are released, including the “Children and Nature Worldwide Summary of Research,” documenting a global spike in nature deficit disorder, as well as critical reasons to connect children with nature.
  • The Walt Disney Company, through their Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, honors five organizations for their work in connecting children with nature, giving each a grant of $100,000.
  •  President Barack Obama (an African American President!) launches the America’s Great Outdoors initiative, with the vision of connecting all Americans to the natural heritage of this country.
  • The U.S. Forest Service commits $1 million to getting kids outdoors around the country.
  • The federal America’s Great Outdoors and Forest Service initiatives are backed by various state level programs—including the Rocky Mountain Greenway project in Colorado and Twin Cities Parks project in Minnesota—aimed at connecting urban populations to local nature.
  • The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) adopts a resolution stating that every child has “the inherent right to connect with nature in a meaningful way, as a substantial part of his or her everyday life and healthy development, and to enjoy, maintain, and strengthen this connection through the direct and ongoing experience of nature.”   
  • Conservation leaders from around the world at the 2012 IUCN meeting sign the “Jeju Declaration,” resolving to work collectively through a new global campaign aimed at connecting people with nature through national parks and protected areas.

As if all this weren’t enough, in August I attended the 2012 Children and Nature Grassroots Gathering, which took place at the verdant National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. While staying several nights in a lodge named in your honor, I listened to over 100 committed people from the US, Canada, and Australia speak about their efforts to connect children with nature. David Room told us of his “Pacha’s Pajamas” project, which combines music, media, and celebrities to create a “cool” fictional story aimed at inspiring kids to get outdoors. Betsy Townsend spoke of her remarkable Cincinnati-based efforts to coordinate organizations and demonstrate the essential human health benefits of nature. Rue Mapp, Brother Yusuf Burgess, and Juan Martinez all spoke eloquently about connecting at-risk urban youth with nature. Martinez, born and raised in south central LA, did not even experience nature until his teen years; today he is a spokesperson for the Sierra Club and an outdoor company called North Face; he’s also a National Geographic Explorer and directs the Natural Leaders program of the Children and Nature Network. Together, all of these individuals convinced me that the new nature movement is ready to transcend its largely white, affluent base to become a truly diverse, global revolution.

Finally, I know you’ll appreciate hearing that your message of awe and wonder is finally beginning to sink in. More and more, people are realizing that the standard gloom and doom approach (focused on warming climates, disappearing habitats, and vanishing species) does not engage kids or adults. Instead there is growing awareness that a sustainable path into the future demands that we talk about love, about nurturing the emotional bond between kids and nature so that it becomes an invincible force capable of upending cultural norms. Why will people care for the places they live? Not because they have to, but because they want to. As the new IUCN campaign aptly states, “It’s about love. Not loss.” As you have long reminded us, our job is not so much to inform, but to inspire a love affair between people and nature. Now there’s a joyous task!

Rachel, I’m happy to say that, for the first time, I no longer sense the haunting of your spirit. These days, despite a host of frightening indicators, I find myself truly hopeful. A burgeoning passion for connecting people with nature seems to be “in the air.” Much remains to be done, of course, and we still need to discover ways to rapidly scale current efforts. Yet, by following the pathway of awe and wonder, I see a real possibility that the new nature movement will mature from its current sapling into a stout arbor, with shade aplenty for a harried species.

Yesterday morning, as I walked along the beach, tasting the salty morning air and inhaling the surf’s ebb and flow, I felt you walking by my side, an encouraging smile upon your face, cheering me on.

Thank you so much for all you’ve done, and all that your legacy continues to do. We will continue to work to live up to it.

With Much Love,

Scott Sampson