Nature Deficit Disorder

Apparently there is a syndrome that results from having too little nature in your life; it’s called Nature Deficit Disorder. According to Richard Louv, who coined the term in his book “Last Child in the Woods”, it may account in part for the “psychological, physical, and cognitive costs of human alienation from nature”. This notion resonates with me as I have always had an intense love of nature and wilderness; when deprived of it I get surly. I also see increasing evidence that our alienation from nature and our willingness to pillage ruthlessly the natural world without counting the cost, may be a symptom of this loss of connection.

When I was a young woman I spent a year on an island off the wild coast of BC. With my husband and son, I lived as close to the land as one can get without actually farming for our daily food. We lived “off the grid” as people now call it, cutting and burning wood for heat, eating home-made bread and other delicious food prepared from weekly trips to civilization for groceries and supplemented by collecting and consuming native mushrooms and other vegetation such as nettles, burdock, kelp, and berries. Our water was from a makeshift dam up the hillside and delivered to us through old wooden pipes made by the original settlers of the place.

The silence was profound. At night when the sky was clear we saw a million brilliant stars and on nocturnal canoe trips out on the bay we played with the ephemeral phosphorescence that, trailing like fairy lights behind our paddles, bejeweled our fingers as we splashed and rolled our hands in the wake.  Sometimes a seal would pop his head up from the deep and, rolling on his back, invite us to scratch his tummy, then playfully disappear again like a mermaid luring us into the dark depths.

My husband and I studied star maps and mythology and over the course of that year I fancied that I had begun to understand the relationship that humans once had with the heavens. Our utter dependance upon the sun, moon, and stars had been profound since we as a species began. The mystery of the precession of the equinoxes became visible in my imagination and I marveled at the intelligence that constructed the pyramids and Stonehenge. Through the fall I watched as the setting sun moved relentlessly towards the north and, as the nights lengthened, I had the scary primaeval thought: “what if the sun doesn’t return? What if the solstice does not mark the longest night and the sun abandons us, pushing us into ceaseless darkness?” It was a cause for rejoicing the day after the equinox when the setting sun began moving to the south again, reassuring me that all would be well and spring would indeed come.

Now these many years later the world has indeed changed greatly. Living in the city I rarely see the stars and never harvest mushrooms and wild vegetables.  I see parents who are afraid to let their children play in the dirt of a schoolyard. Young people and adults live a mediated existence through iPhones and Twitter updates, increasingly experiencing life though the optical nerve and pre-frontal cortex, no longer through the entire sensual being. Don’t get me wrong – I love technology but I also think fondly of that year of living naturally. I am grateful to have had the experience. Having horses in my life is a suitable substitute for the wilderness and keeps me closer to nature than many of my fellow city dwellers. Sometimes when out on the street and I see people glued to their tiny screens I want to yell out: “Put down your iPhones! Everyone – back in your bodies!”