My nephew is two-and-a-half years old. His language capabilities are exploding, and he is growing fast. Like most toddlers, he is a wellspring of boundless energy and pure love. On our walks through Pacific Northwest forests, I’ve been teaching him which trees are cedar and which are maple. He loves birds, particularly crows. The first word I ever remember him saying was “caw!”
And like most kids — including me, when I was his age — he is fascinated with trucks, as well as with cranes, trains, ships, with all things mechanical and moving. The other night, I read him the old Mike Mulligan and his Steamshovel book with worn corners and fading colors — the same copy my own aunts and uncles read to me 30 years ago.
Today, my sleepy little nephew, preparing for a nap, asked me to read him another story. He handed me a book all about construction equipment: bulldozers, excavators, cement trucks. I sat next to him, singing the words of the book to lull him to sleep as he sucked his thumb and blinked his tired eyes.
I flipped from page to page. Each one was covered in beautifully drawn, anthropomorphized machines, finishing their work at the construction site and falling asleep one after another. Soon he fell asleep, and I quietly crept out of the room, thinking about toddlers and machines.
Why are trucks so exciting to a kid? Perhaps it is obvious: they are loud, big, fast, complex, powerful. There is the element of danger. Adaptively, there must be a survival advantage for children who are curious about loud, large, fast beings and objects.
There is a tragedy in this. The fascination that my nephew today directs towards trucks, in the past would have been focused on native megafauna — herds of bison, wolf packs, grizzly bears, whales, eagles — and on their habitat: raging rivers and waterfalls, towering old growth forests, slow grinding glaciers.
These were the big, powerful, mobile beings of previous generations. And they are gone now, or confined to small mountain fastnesses. We no longer grow up in relationship with wild beings, and this fascination with trucks could well be a misappropriation of the adoration our animist ancestors would have directed towards our animal kin
What better way is there to learn to be human than to relate to others who are both profoundly similar to you, and at the same time profoundly different?
Today, most children only see megafauna caged in the prison conditions of zoos, or on the same screen that brings them cartoons and special effects. The megafauna of human habitat has been replaced by mecha-fauna.
This breaks my heart.
Well-known Native American rights advocate and author Vine Deloria Jr. once said that most westerners experience nature as “an aesthetic experience,” in contrast to most Indigenous people who develop relationships with the natural world, including with specific wild places, species, and individuals.
Our ancestors made seasonal rounds and daily journeys to gather berries and edible plants, to hunt and fish and preserve food, to trade and meet with distant friends and family. As they traveled, they would have passed megafauna regularly — perhaps on a daily basis. Some of these kin would be prey, others potential predator, and still others simply neighbors whose boundaries should be respected. These interactions are the foundation of relationship with place, and when paired with an ideology that values balance with the non-human world, can result in societies that persist for tens of thousands of years without significantly harming the local ecology.
Today, my nephew relates to construction cranes and skyscrapers, not to lions and jackals; to garbage trucks and girders, not kudu and camels; to city buses and cement mixers, not Siberian tigers and endless herds of reindeer.
This makes me very sad.
I will not deny him his books, of course, or his fun. One night early this winter, I carried him on my shoulders into the fringes of a construction zone, where we clambered over piled rebar and explored the cab of an excavator. It is not his fault that this is the world he inhabits. When I was a kid, my parents would take me to construction sites and sit with me to watch new skyscrapers and office buildings and houses rise from foundation to framing and beyond. It was fascinating. I do not blame them for being born into this world. And these experiences did not quash my inner animist. On the contrary, now I spend most of my waking hours either in nature or working on its behalf. These qualities, or their potential, exist in every child. They only need patient nurturing.
Richard Louv, in his book Last Child in the Woods, writes that “Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”
So I take my nephew walking in the woods, and camping on wilderness beaches, and crawling through bushes in the backyard. I point out the birds and the plants to him, and teach them their names, and climb trees with him. In this way, I plant the seeds that may mature into an ecological consciousness when he is grown.
Perhaps these issues seem small. But we, of all people, should know that giants grow from small seeds. And perhaps if we don’t believe ourselves, we should believe our opponents.
A good friend of mine works for the Office of Recreation in Utah. A few years ago, she told me about how the far-right, typically anti-environmental state government had agreed to fund the office — but only if children’s outdoor programs were removed from the budget.
I have been thinking about this story ever since. The conclusions to be drawn from this are simple. In 2018, visitors to Utah spent nearly $10 billion and generated $1.3 billion in state and local tax revenue. Grand County alone, home to Arches National Park, hosted more than 2 million tourists. That’s 200 tourists for every resident of the county.
Tourism is big business. Taking children into nature, on the other hand, is not so profitable. Children do not buy trinkets, do not stay in hotel rooms, do not generate tax revenue. And children, unlike wealthy tourists, tend to go beyond aesthetic experiences when they are in nature. The child in nature hints at something subversive.
What are the ramifications when we take a developing child full of paleolithic genes and place them in a twenty-first century city? We don’t have to guess. We can see these consequences play out all around us. The boredom, alienation, and disconnection in childhood manifest later as selfishness and harm to self and others. Numerous studies have shown that on average, our ability to feel empathy is in a serious decline. This is one of the great tragedies of our time.
But perhaps we can reverse this trend. Perhaps, in time, we can go from mecha-fauna to megafauna once again. The famous Stanford Prison Experiment — in which volunteers were randomly assigned to be prisoners or guards in a mock prison — is often invoked to demonstrate how humans will follow authority to the point of committing atrocities. But the results of that experiment — particularly the behavior of a few “guards” who showed compassion towards “prisoners” — can also be understood to demonstrate the opposite: that no matter how strongly we are coerced, how firmly we are pressured, how totally we are indoctrinated, some people will always see the truth. Some people will always resist empire.
Children in nature will not, by themselves, save the world. But if our children are totally cut off from Earth, we are surely damned. A child in nature is a beginning, a seed spreading tiny roots that one day may become the buttresses of a formidable trunk, inexorably levering up the concrete entombing our planet.
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