Thursday, June 27, 2013

Combatting Nature Deficit Disorder: A Dowling Family Photo Retrospective

I love biology. 

And perhaps I'm even enough of an old-soul that I'll confess my love for the older, richer, more expansive discipline of natural history.

The author with some friends, Bufo, in Panama c. 2005

I enjoy reading about (and better, getting outside with) the plant and animal kingdoms, invertebrates and vertebrates, bryozoans, annelids, echinoderms, mollusks, arthropods, hemichordates, chordates, cyclostomes, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. I keep a special section of my pastoral study's shelves full of field guides. Wasn't it Charles Darwin that, when contemplating a life as a quiet country parson, took comfort in the fact that he'd be able to collect and continue enjoying his study of natural history? Yeah, I get that.

I have been blessed with a very good, foundational education in zoology, evolutionary biology, geology, microbiology, etc. because of my training at university (though I could stand to learn a bit more about plants, unfortunately). This knowledge and appreciation for the natural world is something I would never trade away. It has made my life richer than it would have been without it. I look out in the world and see processes I would have never seen otherwise. 

When I became a father (over a decade ago) I realized: who better to share this same appreciation for nature with than my kids? Recently, while looking back at family photos, I noticed that Rachel (my wife) and me have done (I think) a very good job at getting our two boys out into the wider natural world where they have encountered a good portion of the richness that can be encountered there. More than just a pat on the back, it makes me very satisfied that, despite all the busyness of life, we are instilling something in them that will be a legacy gift--a love for the natural world.

Collecting Azteca ants in Panama on Barro Colorado Island, 2006
Never before in history have children been so plugged in—and so out of touch with the natural world. In his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorderchild advocacy expert Richard Louv directly links the lack of nature in the lives of today's wired generation—he calls it nature deficit—to some of the most disturbing childhood trends, such as rises in obesity, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and depression.

Gabriel with pet fancy rat
Some startling facts: By the 1990s the radius around the home where children were allowed to roam on their own had shrunk to a ninth of what it had been in 1970. Today, average eight-year-olds are better able to identify cartoon characters than native species, such as beetles and oak trees, in their own community. The rate at which doctors prescribe antidepressants to children has doubled in the last five years, and recent studies show that too much computer use spells trouble for the developing mind.

As Louv describes it, "nature-deficit disorder" is a description of the human costs of alienation from nature. This alienation damages children and shapes adults, families, and communities. Yet sending kids outside to play is increasingly difficult. Computers, television, and video games compete for their time, of course, but also fears of traffic, strangers, even virus-carrying mosquitoes—fears the media exploit—that keep children indoors. Meanwhile, schools assign more and more homework, and there is less and less access to natural areas.

Gabriel demonstrating how
NOT to use an insect
Louv suggests that parents are a potent antidote to whats ails us and can be the most important factor in getting kids out of their screens and back into the natural world.

Is this a problem? Louv quotes a fourth grader in his book: "I like to play indoors better 'cause that's where all the electrical outlets are." I suspect many adults would say the same.

And perhaps therein lies the problem--we parents like our electrical outlets too. And I get it--I'm sure I have a screen addiction (he says while typing a post for this blog). But simple movements in planning day trips or weekends away where one will interact with the natural world are not that hard to accomplish. It just has to be made a priority.

When I was growing up, unstructured outdoor play for me was the norm. I don't remember coming home Saturdays, excepts perhaps for a drink or sandwich at lunch, and then I was ready to run back outside where we would climb trees, fight imaginary wars, explore creeks and capture bugs. It was pure bliss. I want it to be the same for my children.

A young Gabriel making a new friend at the Oklahoma City zoo.
Dad making a new friend at the Oklahoma City zoo
Showing a young Gabriel some fossils we had recently collected
from Little Glasses Creek in Oklahoma
Getting my youngest son Gideon acquainted with zoo animals
I taught Gabriel how to use a "pooter"--a collection
device that is very useful for collecting small insects, such as ants.
As the boys have grown older (Gabriel is 12, Gideon is 8), we've kept up our interaction with the great outdoors. What a blessing it has been! Here are some of our fun family pics. No nature deficit disorder allowed!!

Fishing and crabbing in Fair Haven, NJ
Some of the boy's trophies from the shore. All of these shells (and other
collectibles) eventually end up in collection trays at the house.
Having a great time at a local farm last fall
Can't neglect all the fun at the shore!
The natural world in winter can be a
magical place
There are endless creeks to explore near home, made all the more fun
with handheld aquatic nets!
Having a great time exploring. 
Gabriel, a budding naturalist, is pleased with his
first catch of summer flounder in New jersey (many thanks to Greg Vongas, who is behind him). 
Gabriel caught them, had help filleting them, and then sautéed them in butter with salt and pepper. Delicious! The smile says it all.
Yes, nature is great, but that doesn't mean we want to eat crickets. Gideon reacting to
the news that, yes, those are real and yes you can eat them.
Here I am showing the boys a male horseshoe crab in the Delaware Bay.
We helped the little guy back to the water.
Rachel and the boys with a large female horseshoe crab.
She was stranded at high tide and died, We took her home
for our collection.
So, go outside and do some exploring. Perhaps just you, or if you have a family, take the whole gang. Consider purchasing some field guides to make your experience outside richer. One of my favorite books when I was younger was the Fieldbook of Natural History by Palmer and Fowler. I'm sure there's a copy at your local library. Consider purchasing a student insect collecting kit. They are inexpensive and because insects are ubiquitous can be a great hobby starter.

So, there's the plea--get outdoors! And have lots of fun.