Does Nature Still Matter?

Photograph of a {{MultiLink|Red-tailed Hawk}} ...
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How many trees can you recognize? Birds? On any given day, if you’re lucky enough to live near a forest or any large piece of land not covered with concrete and glass, and made the time to be there for a while, how many wild animals did you see, hear and know?

Does it matter if that number is zero?

New York Times writer Nick Kristof wrote recently about hiking with his 11-year-old daughter on the Pacific Crest Trail, complete with aching feet, mosquito bitten, soaked at 4:00 a.m. after failing to put up a tarp. It was in some measure an elegy for a generation of kids addicted to DVDs and video games, tethered by parental fear and loss of green space to a world where nature’s becoming one more app. As “the environment” heats up as an  issue, nature seem to get lost in the dust.

If, to many of us,  the natural world has become just one more amusing image on a screen we can flick on and off at will, nature is screwed. Really. We fight hard to protect, selfishly, what we know and love, what we believe to be of value, to us, our families, our friends and neighbors. Why protect — through arguing for smart legislation, attending town meetings, writing a check to an environmental organization — land to which you feel no profound connection? Abstractions, as any NGO fundraiser can wearily attest, aren’t compelling.

I live close enough to New York City that, glittering in the distance like Oz, I can see its towers from my street. Yet my winding residential road also has herds of deer and flocks of geese. Red-tailed hawks circle overhead daily, chased by crows — one hawk even landed on my balcony and stared into my eyes for a few long minutes; I felt like, and potentially was, prey. Several nearby streets are lined with raspberry bushes and I’ve seen rabbits, coyote, raccoons and turkey vultures, all within a mile of my home. In spring, traffic jams occur as the geese guide their goslings across the road.

I walk several times a week beside a reservoir and, over the years, have gotten to know and love this mile-long stretch, shaded about 90 percent of the way by tall trees that create a cool, welcoming cathedral on the hottest and most humid days. I’ve skated on the water’s frozen surface in winter and, most of the year, I look forward to seeing its turtles, swans and ducks. I dream, one day, of spotting the otters my neighbors have seen there.

A 2008 book, “Last Child in the Woods” addresses the issue that concerns Kristof,  that baby boomers — who grew up skinning their knees falling out of trees and who spent hours exploring woods and ravines with their friends — “may constitute the last generation of Americans to share an intimate, familial attachment to land and water.” As I write this, I’m bruised and sore from a hard fall on my bike, thankfully not onto concrete but onto a muddy trail that stretches for miles parallel to the Hudson River, the old Croton Aqueduct that once brought water from upstate to Manhattan. Nature’s full of rocks and roots and it hurts when you hit it hard. But as soon as I heal, I’ll be back out there. Outside in a natural environment is somewhere I have to be, often, or I start to feel disconnected.

For many Canadians of my background and generation, and likely Americans as well, spending a lot of time outdoors, in a canoe or kayak or sailboat or on a bike or on skis or skates or hiking, is as basic and pleasurable an activity as eating. I grew up in downtown Montreal and Toronto, but both cities had, and still have, lots of safe green space. By the time I was 12, thanks to the privilege of attending sleep-away camp all summer long for four years already, I knew the difference between red, white and spruce pines. I had grown to love the sighing of wind through their branches, the soft, spicy smell of their dried needles. Loon calls and the lap of water on stone became sounds I awaited eagerly all year. I’d paddled and portaged across lakes of deep green-black, fish glimmering in their depths. Thanks to spending so much time in it, I became, literally, a nature-lover.

Our outdoor chapel, a space as sacred as any of the grand, gilded churches I’ve seen in my travels, had a white birch cross and we sat on white birch benches. Regardless of who you worship, perhaps no one, nature can sear our souls if we let it.

As Kristof writes. “One problem may be that the American environmental movement has focused so much on preserving nature that it has neglected to do enough to create a constituency for nature. It’s important not only to save forests, but also to promote camping, hiking, bouldering and white-water rafting so that people care about saving those forests.” Yet, he adds, the number of visitors to national parks has been slipping for more than a decade.

In one of my favorite trips, I hiked the Grand Canyon, sleeping at a nearby site in a tent. But for many Americans, a national park is too far away, too expensive, or they don’t own a tent or sleeping bags or hiking boots. It’s so much easier to turn on the TV or computer or video game. And then we care about….what’s on the screen. You can’t love what you don’t know. And we only know what we take the time to savor and observe, closely and often.

Do you, or your kids or grandkids, spend much time hanging out in nature? If not, does it matter?

And tomorrow is J-Day:  The Jedi Knights of Journalism.

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