Last Child in the Woods

A few years ago, my ex-wife bought me a copy of Last Child in the Woods for my birthday. I read the introduction to my then-baby girl under a pignut hickory tree on a bank of Crystal Pond in Eastford, even though she was just six months old at the time. The book makes a compelling case for getting our children back outside and reaping the benefits – physical and psychological – of contact with nature. It also presents the sobering picture of the present generation’s apathetic disposition toward being outside.

A longtime hiker and amateur naturalist, I didn’t really need to be convinced to spend more time in the woods. But I hadn’t considered the implications for River, who I know would spend a lot of time “naming nature” as I do.

Last week, we were at Mansfield Hollow counting needles to sort the different types of pines. We found a Norway maple growing around an ironwood tree. River, as always, was enthralled by the details of nature. I always keep a tree identification guide and one of the Audubon Society’s field guides (usually the guide to New England) in River’s baby bag. For me, the intimacy of encountering a forest demands identification. For a rare, incurious few, I suppose it’s possible to simply face and appreciate the state of being in nature, but I find it’s more common that we want to get to know the names and stories of the things we see outside. River kept the pages of our guide turning with her queries, and even offered a hypothesis or two when the book or my knowledge fell short (she supposed that the maple’s sturdy branches were keeping the ironwood tree warm).

When we finished our survey of the plant life, we played hide and seek in a meadow flooded with sunshine. She casually identified black-eyed susans and yarrow, to the exceeding edification of her proud father, and I introduced her to the joy of breaking milkweed leaves from the stem. She explained, in her own words, the importance of conservation and humankind’s kinship with the kingdoms of life – all of which, at her age, is just parroting what she’s heard before, but of this are the seeds of more abstract reasoning made.

In all that we did, however, we were alone. As always, the trails were empty, the groves and fields uncluttered with human voices. I was refreshed from the momentary flight from social media, e-mail, and my cell phone, and in the escape experiencing what seems to me an authentic humanity.

Don’t worry, I’m not aiming for a Luddite-like treatise against industry here. There is no halting the march of technology. River, at merely three, can already operate a smart phone and a tablets. But I’m hopeful that she will know when to put her phone down and grab her field guide or a hiking stick. And above all, I long for her to have companions in the parks and on the trails as she grows, that she will not be one of the last children in the woods, singularly adoring her cousins the trees and brother dragonflies.

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