When Jane Goodall disappeared at four, her mother did not frantically grab a GPS device or swallow a biting urge to “chip” her little girl when she finally found her in the chicken coop five hours later observing hens. In fact, local police were not even called. Of course, high tech location devices did not exist. But her mother trusted Jane, their community, and the world at large and knew her daughter was fine. Preoccupied perhaps, but not abducted.
When three young brothers took off one summer by themselves into the wilds of North America to make “documentaries” of moose, fish, and eagles and stumbled into a den of grizzly bears, their parents were concerned, not helicoptering. The boys were 17, 14, and 12—all went on to became naturalists, one hosted Wild America on PBS, the other produced the show and the three remain top wildlife photographers.
As a child, a young child of ten, I was allowed to hike freely in the deserts of Saugus Newhall on the lip of the Mohave for hours on end, sometimes disappearing from lunch until dinner. On the hottest days, when the sun broiled at 125 degrees, with shadows scarce and school out, those adventures began at 6:30 in the morning and would run until well after lunch.
I jumped flatbed rail cars. Explored old mines with a flashlight I’d hidden under my shirt. Caught snakes, lizards, horned toads, saw coyotes, found their excrement, pulled apart owl pellets, pretended to be lost without water, sometimes was lost without water and always, always, was on the lookout for the coup de grace—a body, dumped in the desert by some maniac in Los Angeles seventy miles away.
I never found a body. Of a human, that is. Instead, rabbits killed by coyotes, a deer’s head lobbed off by a hunter, moles, rats, a cache of cow jaws and teeth under an old bathtub in the middle of nowhere and once, in the elbow of a dried up riverbed, a slew of Playboys. My two friends, Dennis and Gene, thumbed through rain puckered pictures while I stared at the scrubby mistletoe with round plumped leaves dangling from an elderberry tree. This mistletoe had nothing to do with the vibrant, pointy, Christmasy mistletoe I saw in movies and television laced with red ribbon. I’m sure I will use this scene one day. The three eleven year olds, boys in the shadows having the topography of their sexually mapped by large breasted women in tight lingerie and the over compensating tomboy, gathering and cataloguing metaphors dangling from trees.
I lived in suburbia, in a track home. The surroundings were wild, but our lifestyle was typical late '60s with mom at home, dad at Lockheed, and kids in school. We kept a tortoise and a dog and a cat, the occasional hurt bird, and once nursed a baby coyote riddled with maggots who died, tragically, of distemper. With our street nothing but cookie cutter ranch homes, our house was clearly neither farm nor ranch. Yet, we felt the adrenal high of witnessing floods and fires grow like organisms and learned patience by staking out trap door spiders or stalking coyotes. I loved hiking, exploring, thinking.
How different it is now. Children are not allowed outdoors. They do not mingle with nature unless they live on a farm or ranch or take a trip out of suburbia or the city and go to a mountain, a creek, a beach. Children, people, communities are not trusted. The expectation is to have fun in nature and I get that: family vacations, a weekend away. But these represent only sanitized experiences in the natural world. And many children don’t even get that. They live in asphalt and concrete cities where strips of green are few and far between. They are not allowed in town, at friend’s house unless completely supervised. They are parented out of fear of someone taking them, molesting them, getting lost, getting hurt. When I talk to other parents they agree, yes, it’s terrible kids don’t get out and play more, but I won’t let Mary down by the waterfall by herself. And when real tragedy hits most see it through media or the Weather Channel. With dramatic coverage of hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, nature is characterized as malignant.
A few days ago I learned from my oracle (NPR) all about the gold standard. How our currency used to be based on gold, how much we stored, how much it was worth. This led into a discussion of how we, as a species, value gold and other precious metals and gemstones. We have valued gold for 4,000 years or more, in times when it took hand labor to extract and shape, and both tools and religions were desperate to be rendered ornate. We were connected to gold viscerally—we understood it bore value. Our brains gave it value. We were as connected to the earth as the gold itself.
Today, our culture of fear directly impacts international relations, stock markets, and the lack of compassion delivered to those less fortunate or different. If we continue to cloister ourselves and our children from meaningful and yes, perhaps difficult or harmful adventures with Mother Nature, we may lose more than just coming of age stories and a clutch of handy metaphors.
In a time where managers and businesses both profit and nonprofit demand quantitative analysis as input to every decision reached and milestones are no longer stones measuring out a mile on an obscure trail, but numbers to be reached in order to measure “success,” the fact that the value of gold is a figment of our imagination should be of concern.
If we continue to be so out of touch with our natural world, so unable to relate to it only in terms of resources to be managed (or not), country borders to be drawn, animals to be slaughtered, and land to be built on, then we lose more than just our ability to appreciate nature. We lose more than just opportunities to learn about ourselves. We may lose the very thing we have ordained to carry the entire weight of the global economy. Even gold, with our long and revered relationship and its veins enervating the earth, will be so far removed from our day to day lives it will have no value what so ever.
My high desert life left me with stories to tell my children, a deep love and respect for nature, and an appreciation of the limits of both myself and an expansive horizon. I am grateful to have witnessed life, death, freak snow storms, jackrabbits, and nesting hummingbirds. I saw myself grapple with problems beyond the reach of walls, electricity, adults, and air conditioning. Today, I am very happy on a beach looking for rocks, or reading E.O. Wilson, or identifying fossils from my friend’s crawlspace.
It’s a deadly equation, fear added to insulation. The sum leaves a paltry inheritance for our children.
photo credit: Kira M. Plumer