No matter how old I live to be, there will never be a place so full of mystery and adventure as a place of my childhood called The Woods.
The stories that grew out of those trees still kindle powerful feelings, even after all these years. My friends and I knew the place was haunted. It had no boundaries, and in our 10-year-old minds, it went on forever.
Jump ahead a few decades to a familiar topic: the commercialization of wilderness. What created the demand for such a cornucopia of sporting gear and planned “adventure activities?” There was a time when all a guy needed to go for a hike was a reasonably comfortable pair of shoes and an army surplus canteen. Now it requires a wardrobe and a gear checklist, just to walk to the corner. I recently stopped at a sporting goods store, looking for a canteen; the sales clerk looked at me blankly.
“You know,” I said. “A canteen. A water bottle.”
“Oh,” he replied. “You mean a portable hydration system.” Portable hydration system?
How did this happen? When the plethora of guidebooks flooded the recreation market and introduced eco-tourism 15 or so ago, I was puzzled by the need of so many adults to be told how to have fun outdoors. When I first looked at a canyoneering Web site, I noticed that the photographs of every tour and its paid participants revealed healthy young men and women who should have been able to walk the mile and a half required without adult supervision.
And then it occurred to me: These people had never done anything without adult supervision.
I thought about my niece and nephews, who, even 15 years ago, weren’t allowed to go out and play in the neighborhood because the world was apparently a dangerous place. We were all at my parents’ farm one winter, just after Christmas; it was a perfect 160-acre spread in Kentucky, with hay barns and spring-fed lakes and forests full of poison ivy and grape vines to swing from and limestone ledges loaded with fossils. It was a kids’ paradise.
But my nephews and niece came to me and said, “We’re BORED, Unca Jim,” so I proposed that we go outside and explore. They thought that was a pretty dumb idea, but I made them go. I took them to the barn and taught them how to build forts out of hay bales. We walked to the pond and punched holes in the ice with big rocks. They thought all this was fun, but it had never occurred to them. And it occurred to me that it was late to discover random recreation. The poor kids, I thought. They have no idea what they’ve missed.
But I hadn’t noticed, not being a parent myself, that almost all kids were like my little relatives. Now those kids are young adults and about to have families of their own, and they have no hope of passing along any of those free-spirited adventures that I was so blessed with as a child. To them, such stories are hearsay.
True to the American way, someone has been able to attach an affliction to this condition. It’s in the title of a book by Richard Louv: “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” As writer Bradford McKee described the disorder in the New York Times, “The days of free-range childhood seem to be over. Parents can add a new worry to the list of things that make them feel inept: increasingly their children, as Woody Allen might say, are at two with nature.”
Children who are obsessed with computer games, or driven from sport to sport, miss the restorative effects that come with the nimbler bodies and sharper senses that develop randomly running around in wild places.
Modern science will no doubt spend millions on research and development to produce a medication to cure this ailment, when all the afflicted really need is a walk in the woods. But the farther these “de-natured children” stray from a spontaneous natural experience, the less likely they are to ever discover a world that seems to me, impossible to live without.