There is much conversation in media to “return to nature.” Books and motivational speakers decry amassing material objects; slogans promote exploring the wilderness, saying that “you may have limited cell reception, but the connections are guaranteed to be better;” and social media is making the photographic capture of trees and mountains and rivers a trending fashion statement with its popularity contest of who can #exploremore in the #greatoutdoors. (Bonus points if you are so lucky as to be in the #pacificnorthwest. Which, I admit that I am. And yes, I have used these hashtags, for myriad of reasons that I am now reconsidering.)
My question, though, is when did we leave? There seems to be a general consensus that we return to nature, which would assume that there has been a departure.
And perhaps this question has two answers, that mirror and echo each other – the first is a large scale, human history view of the retreat from wilderness into civilization, and the slow process of progress from early man’s reliance on nature to modern man’s capabilities with technology; the second is the much shorter span of a single human’s life, from childhood to adulthood, and the life sequencing of spending increasingly more time in schools, then office buildings, and with tools of work and study that go beyond our early curiosity with the outdoors as a play and learning space.
In human history, we have slowly moved out of depending upon the “wild” to survive, opting instead to live much of our lives indoors and in civilization. Likewise, it could be posited that a typical life span also follows this trajectory – from more to less time spent in wild / natural spaces.
Though really, there are doubtless more than just these two answers. For this post, though, humour me to explore these two ways of thinking of our societal withdrawal from nature, and the subsequent consequences both for us as humans, as well as for nature itself. Too, I want to take the discussion a level deeper, and step into the comparison between childhood and nature, both being given somewhat unrealistically pure and innocent attributes.
Looking at the correlations between early man to modern man, childhood to adulthood, and nature to not nature, there also emerges a pattern that the Adult – the modern man, as the civilized being – has the role of the caretaker/protector/”knowledgeable one” in relation to childhood and nature, because the Adult is the more evolved in a life span as compared to a child, just as modern man is more evolved than his nature-reliant ancestor. This role is taken on, though, with a series of unspoken assumptions about this “other” that has been created in the process; assumptions that are, at the least, limiting factors and, at the most, a complete fantasy that has the potential to harm this created Other. (The other here, just to stay on the same page, is the Child and Nature.)
Have adults created an idealized fantasy world to conceptualize nature, and childhood?
Affrica Taylor, a professor at the University of Canberra, talks about the “romanticized and idealized conceptualizations of childhood” (Taylor, 429) that adults create and impose upon real children, essentially creating a Childhood that is completely separate from Adulthood and, by extension, Humanhood.
This is a Peter Pan, Disney-infused effect – a way to remember one’s own childhood in a way that isn’t entirely true, and come to authoritative conclusions that affect children now, based on those made-up realities. Affrica explores the same cognitive separation that has taken place in regards to wilderness.
Not only are these images (of nature) themselves devoid of people, but most of us are much more likely to witness the romantic sublime of wilderness on posters, calendars and in diaries than to actually visit these places (427).
Further still, Affrica dives into the conflation between childhood itself and nature, both being pure entities – “innocent” in the case of children, and “unpeopled” wilderness. She writes how “endangered childhood” is becoming a topic as navigated as “endangered wilderness” in academic thought and research, and “loss, danger, purity, contamination, protection and recovery” are all becoming recurring themes in the conversation of both.
In Affrica’s mind – and I would agree – it is dangerous to so quickly conflate nature and childhood with the claim that they both represent a pure ideal of some sort.
Let’s talk about fires now.
This is where I’m going to change gears for a moment. Because sometimes, as adults/modern man in the protector/know-it-all role we’ve given ourselves, we mess it up. We take liberties based on ideas that we ourselves have made up, and these end up being harmful.
Ecology lesson, in the briefest possible way: forest fires are a natural part of the life cycle of a healthy forest; fires clear the forest floor, creating room for new growth and life; fires are a cyclical shedding of the old, and growing the necessary new. Humans have recently, in the big picture, entered the conversation, and decided that fires and their “destruction,” are bad.
We’ve created a version of nature that makes sense in our minds, but not in nature itself.
From our assumption that we know what/how the forest should be, we not only stunt growth, but we create room for incredible damage: forests that have been “protected” from fires for too long will eventually reach their tipping point, and a rogue lightning strike will erupt years of unburned undergrowth, creating dangerously uncontrollable fires.
To go so far as to compare childhood and nature – or rather, human adults’ actions towards and control of childhood and nature – there may be a lesson in how we can get it wrong, sometimes. As adults create an imagined Childhood that they then feel the need to “protect” in the lives of real Children, we risk disallowing children’s voices from being heard. “Protecting the innocence” of childhood can look a lot like disempowerment. It can look a lot like ignoring actual children, and what they actually want and need, to impose ideas of a false reality, created by adults. (Non-children, by the way.)
Ultimately, what will be the repercussions of this idealized Childhood? What are the wildfires?
Instead of removing ourselves from the experience of childhood with the creation of a myth of what Childhood is, and instead of removing ourselves from nature and treating it as this Other entity, what is needed is a true relationship. Nature is a force of its own – not a fad, a decoration, or a necessarily vulnerable Object (a mountain certainly has power, and can allow or disallow a climber’s summit) – and the human goal should be to understand it and how to live with it, rather than treat it as something entirely separate from ourselves. Similarly, actual children need to be understood as they are, and not by how they fit into a romanticized box of “knowing.” Children are not weak, not voiceless, not representatives from an adult’s fantasy world of Childhood.
Taylor, A. (2011). Reconceptualizing the ‘nature’of childhood.Childhood, 18(4), 420-433.