Saturday, July 9, 2011

Cures for modern ailments? (On nature and dogs)

Right now I am reading The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. (I am about a third of the way through, so any comments I make are just my reactions so far.) In this book, Louv discusses the various ways that spending time in green spaces benefits humans--physically, psychologically, mentally, and socially. In some of the studies and anecdotes he cites, spending quality time outside or even remembering a time when you did can immediately reduce instances of stress, anxiety and depression.

Another book I recently finished, A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler, makes the same case for interaction with dogs; I think at one point the author cited a study showing that just a few minutes romping with Fido is more effective at raising mood than taking an antidepressant.

Both books are interesting, make some good points, and occasionally make me start rolling my eyes and muttering that the author has clearly gone off the deep end. (When talking about books, I consider that a compliment.) Both point out that for most of human history, people lived a certain way, aware of their connectedness to the natural world and its denizens, with an immediacy and vitality that is missing for many today. Small Furry Prayer, the book by the dog-rescuer, revolves around how dogs have taken the same evolutionary trip with us -- humans and dogs have been partners since before recorded history -- whereas Nature Principle, so far, has not mentioned dogs at all, and focuses instead on the myriad ways that getting outside is good for us.

If these authors are correct, I should be one of the most psychologically grounded people in Illinois, as I spend as much time as I can outside, seeking out nature wherever I can find it; and now I also have two dogs. Sometimes I even take them out in nature. Is anyone a good judge of their own sanity? Personally, I sometimes wonder if my near-atavistic attachment to wild spaces, and a "simpler" life style and concept of time, makes me MORE miserable, because it can be so hard for me to fit in with the modern workplace and urban environment.

As far as Small Furry Prayer goes, I do believe that forming a bond with another creature can be an extraordinary experience. It doesn't have to be a dog, though. People can also become incredibly bonded to cats, horses, birds, ferrets, rabbits, even tarantulas. (I am not joking about the tarantulas, either. The dark fantasy novel Silk by Caitlin Kiernan presents one character's affection for spiders in a touching, if also creepy, way.)

Steven Kotler brings up many interesting points showing that dogs (also some other animals; personally I would say ALL other animals) are much more complex than most people realize. He also makes a compelling case that even though they are one of the most domesticated of animals, they did bring the wildness of "nature" into his life. His affection for and gratitude to the dogs shines through on every page. (I say gratitude because, even though he's the dog rescuer, the attachment to dogs clearly rescued him as well -- from a mid-life crisis precipitated by the ennui and disconnectedness of modern life.)

So are dogs part of nature in Richard Louv's conception of things? As I said, I'm only about a third of the way through that book, so I can't give a final discussion. So far--and he freely admits this as a point of discussion/contention--his definition of "nature" is up for grabs. He talks about bears in the Alaskan wilderness at one moment, and hospital windows with a view of some trees in the next, and both are examples of the beneficial influence of "nature."

I read (actually kinda skimmed through) Louv's previous book, The Last Child in the Woods, and had a mixed reaction to that as well. On the one hand, yes, absolutely, children need to spend more time playing outside! But on the other hand, I felt that he was short-sighted by his nostalgia for his particular childhood, and while that is a powerful force, it is not necessarily a reliable one.

That nostalgia shines through in Nature Principle as well. When Louv, as a child, was happy, and his family was happy (or he was too young to be aware of their problems), this was also the period in his life when he roamed freely in the "natural" landscape of his neighborhood. As he got older, and they moved away, and the natural areas became harder to find, his family became unhappy and his father ended up taking his own life.

So there is a "trying to return to Eden" feel to Louv's book that makes me want to tell him that childhood is its own country and no one ever gets back there. Like Louv, I was the kind of child who loved being outside, and with a child's eye, the golf course behind my grandparent's house was a huge forest, the ponds were lakes, the rocks gigantic boulders. When I ran around back there, I felt that I was exploring a lost continent, unaware of the fact that my grandparents were keeping an eye on me the whole time. And when I came back to visit them a few years later -- Wow, how everything had shrunk! Still, those are happy memories, memories of feeling free and wild.

My husband Greenturtle, on the other hand, although he enjoys going hiking or camping, is not, and never has been, the nature freak that I am. His carefree childhood memories are of playing sports, watching cartoons, playing video games, and guess what? He remembers his suburban childhood as a carefree Eden, too! In fact, he has the same attachment for toys, gadgets and games that Louv and I have for fields and forests--they bring back, just a little, the happy memories.

The fact is that most people I know don't spend a lot of time in nature, and they don't know how to see it. I had a co-worker who spend months in the office and didn't realize that our building was right by a pond until I told her. In fact, I've noticed that I don't walk down the same street as the person beside me, in many instances. I hear chipping sparrows buzzing from the pines, goldfinches dipping overhead, the rattling of a kingfisher; I glimpse a green heron taking flight from a low branch. I see plants and flowers, and either name them mentally or wonder what they are. But my companion might be noticing the makes of passing cars, or paying more attention to passersby. If one of the cars going by has the radio blaring, they are more likely to know the name of the singer....

I would love to say I'm the observant one, but here's the catch: as human beings, we are both (me and my hypothetical walking buddy) equally natural. We are already a part of nature. Whether we live in Chicago or the Ozarks, this is just as true. Is Steven Kotler, the dog-rescuer, any more "natural" than Michael Vick, the dog fighter? Notice I did not say are they both equally decent or moral human beings. Nature is outside of morality but human spirituality is not. An interesting point to ponder.

I am not disputing that spending time in green spaces is good for us. I am sure it is, and I would welcome a society that emphasized this. I am sure that the time I spend under a tree on my breaks, or my walk around the pond before work, are good stress reducers. On a whole other level, that is also the time I feel most spiritual and "real" (not putting on a show for other people). And I would love to see more programs and policies to bring people and green spaces together. This is vital if we are going to protect habitats and give a rat's you know what about the earth. And since we are part of nature, if we soil our own nest, sooner or later we will feel the consequences.

But I still feel that Louv's definitions are fuzzy, and that urban parks and hospital healing gardens are NOT the same as truly wild places. We need both. But wild places are not "warm and fuzzy." In fact, for most of human history, we feared these spaces and tried to tame them. That is a far cry from "stress relief"; anyone who is truly in touch with their ancestral wildness, I believe, still feels a bit of that old fear.... And the wilderness can, and does, kill people who are not prepared. I think that's awesome, personally, that we still have a few wild places. But I don't romanticize them; and I think that Louv does.

Furthermore, have you ever been eaten alive by mosquitoes? Chiggers? Fire ants? Have you ever been feasted upon by a half dozen ticks? Have you shivered in sub-zero temperatures or felt dizzy when the mercury went up to one hundred? (I've suffered from all of these...and it's not pleasant. The fact that I'd do it again is part of what I refer to as my neuroses!)

As The Lost City of Z by David Grann points out, explorers found the Amazon to be a truly inhospitable place, so much so that they called in "the green hell." Not at all salutary for the health.... And small towns or rural communities are not any more likely to be healthy places than big cities, despite being closer to nature, as books from God's Little Acre to Methland have made clear.

I'll finish the book before I say any more. So far, interesting but flawed...well, aren't we all? In the meantime, if anyone has thoughts on this topic, I'd love to hear them, even if you think I'm full of $h!t!


  1. This is a fascinating topic! I believe we need natural places, and animals, and beauty to be whole. But I'm not convinced that nature is always a stress reliever: I wasn't feeling all that calm when we were tiptoeing around alligators basking in the mud in that park in Texas! Nature can kill you. But nature can engage you, and enrich you, and stretch you in ways nothing else can. Mom

  2. I totally agree with how cool "nature" is but the more I read through the book, the more I'm convinced he's talking about connecting urbanites with green spaces and taking them on nature hikes, which is great, but still a limited view of the topic. As one example of these limits, anyone who has had glimpses of rural poverty (even though surrounded by some gorgeous natural backdrops) might think twice before romanticizing the topic so much or presenting it almost as a panacea. But I basically agree with the author, so these are just some quibbles about an otherwise worthwhile book.