I turned around to find Agnes holding a skull. How many times have I found this little girl raising the brain case of a dead animal for my inspection? Such a happy life. I smiled, caching the image along with countless others in the back of my head.
This wilderness scene was different, though. As I catalogued the sloping maw of the skull — a predator, smaller than a coyote, larger than a bobcat — I heard a giant sound. Just over Agnes’s shoulders, the I-64 overpass loomed large, blasting our ears like a terrible waterfall of cars and trailers. To my left, the runway of the Norfolk airport was in plain view. We had landed there the day before, having left our home in the mountains to visit Agnes’s uncle, my brother. Throughout that morning, and occasionally at night, the floor of our hotel room, now just yards away, rumbled with each takeoff and landing.
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We had left the fluorescent lights of the hotel for a brief walk, crossing the neatly trimmed grass, admiring the flowers recently transplanted from a hothouse (impatiens), then ducked into the nearest thicket of wilderness we could find. We were standing on railroad tracks. Nearby, a brackish waterway connected us to the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, where some of the largest ships on the planet lay at anchor.
How do you find wilderness in the city?
In his bestselling book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv suggests that our children (and we) may be experiencing nature-deficit disorder. Louv is hardly an extremist, and his well-balanced book acknowledges the absurdity of that term. We don’t need more syndromes, he says. But we do need to start asking what happens when a child, or a person, loses touch with the earth that sustained us as a species for thousands of generations. Fast answers and tidy explanations aren’t in order.
My life in New Mexico, and the lives of my daughter and many of our friends, circumnavigates this problem. We have skulls everywhere. Trees, forests, and canyons. Most of us are just as modern as the next guy, but because we are surrounded by countless miles of wilderness, we have a fairly rich and full life. This is all well and good, but what about the millions of us living in cities and dense suburban areas? How do we raise children with a healthy sense of nature in those environs?
I believe that natural environments afford something unique to children (and adults), but I wish to be clear that I welcome and admire those who think otherwise. It’s commonplace for parents and all sorts of people to poo-poo shopping malls and video games as an adulteration of reality. I think that’s a mistake, because it creates a gulf between naturalists and modernists. No such division exists. We’re all in this together. There’s love in every household, and there’s no reason for any of us to claim singular title to it.
So, the point is not what’s better, but whether one values the sort of experiences one can have in a natural setting. Clearly, I do. I find that it makes me happier. I feel more whole, more connected to my hands and feet, and sharper in my mind. Most people agree, though we can never tack down the word “natural” to any particular place or product. We do, however, know that most parents want their children to spend time outdoors. We might quibble about screen time, but there are few parents who think an indoor electronic life is enough for their child. We need nature. We need wilderness. We need some amount of unpredictability, and even discomfort. We need to get rained on.
My daughter and I get rained on all the time. We’re some of those lucky people who have access to vast tracts of wilderness. It’s literally right outside our door. We can hardly keep chickens alive because there are so many wild animals attacking them.
But what about the rest of us? Louv’s book does an excellent job of identifying the problem – nature-deficit disorder – and his work since then has done a lot to help people find some answers. But that information isn’t trickling down to most of us, or if it is, it’s happening too slowly.
More than half the planet’s population now lives in urban environments. In the U.S. and other industrialized countries, it’s more like 80 percent. I’m in the backwaters, but I think it’s fair to say that people like me don’t count. Oh sure, we’re fine and dandy, but if we as a species (and that’s how we need to think) are to regain the earth then we need to find ways for urban children and parents to connect with the ground under their feet. We need to help them find skulls. “A chicken in every pot,” might have worked for Hoover in 1928, but today we need “a ditch in every neighborhood, and a skull in every garage.” Try that in 2020.
I’ve posed similar questions on Facebook before, using this exact phrase: how do we find wilderness in the city? My blog, Off Grid Kids, is largely full of natural parents and all sorts of earthy shit. Yet, overwhelmingly, the answer I get is “watch out for dirty needles,” or “too much trash.” To be fair, those are not the only answers I’ve gotten. There are hundreds of folks who thumbs up or share a word of support. But there are very few who have shared how they’re doing it. Why? Wouldn’t it be great if we had a solid meme with 10,000 unique stories from parents and educators all over the country explaining in bite-size texts how they found wilderness in urban areas? Am I the only one?
Surely, I’m not. There are tons of people and organizations out there trying to get our kids’ hands dirty. Some are better than others, and every step is worth it. The I-64 overpass turned out to be my step.
I began this essay by describing the bridges and landing strips near our hotel in Norfolk, Virginia. Now, let me describe the trees. There were hundreds of them! The earth in that spot had been rifled with and tumbled dozens of times since Europeans first landed on the shores of Jamestown more than 400 years ago. It had been covered with gravel, dug into canals, and piled over with concrete. None of it stopped those trees. They grew from every available inch of soil, along with a host of grasses, shrubbery, and flowering plants I met for the first time, right there, under the overpass.
They had sticky seed pods, sticks for poking, and leaves of every conceivable shape and color. Texture, too. It was December, but squirrels ran up and down the branches, while songbirds flitted in and out, mixing with occasional ocean birds that had flown inland. Blue Planet is good. I’ve watched some of those things, but the I-64 overpass had something David Attenborough does not. I could touch it.
Gum trees with those weird, spiky monkey balls were everywhere. And skulls. There were rabbit skulls and bird skulls. Owls and wrens and emerald oryx. Insects with tiny wings burrowed through wet, fetid earth. Rotting! It was everywhere. The graffiti on the walls didn’t stop it. Gnomes. Fairies. Tiny footsteps. Drips from the roadbed above, no oilier than the waxy surfaces of magnolia leaves. I held the brittle stem of a tiny flowering plant, now golden and dry. When the wind blew, it tumbled like feathers across iron rails. Iron is really just a rock. People passed by in leather shoes. Aurochs lingered in nearby streams.
Wilderness is a concept, not a place. It feeds us, because when we arrive there, our minds expand. Go to it. Send your kids there. Don’t listen to the experts. No one has explored anything yet. Most of us haven’t even been across the street. Everything remains. There’s danger, but much less than you’ve been led to believe. Crime is actually down. Most trash is really just old trees, rocks, and dinosaurs. McDonald’s is a world health organization. Their discarded cups are composting the earth beneath your feet. There are beetles under them. Lift them up. Hold them. Cherish them. This is how you find wilderness in the city. You never, ever, never-ever-ever leave it.
Joseph Sarosy is the author of A Father’s Life: True Tales from the Frontiers of Fatherhood. A father and teacher in northern New Mexico, he spends most of his days outside with children.