Some experiences stick to you even when you try to wash them off. For me, the experience was a field course I taught many years ago in the Dominican Republic. It was a course composed of city-dwelling students from Columbia University. When I met these students, many of whom had never seen an animal larger than a rat in the wild, I felt as though I had entered a foreign realm. I have written elsewhere about the course and the inspiration it offered me, but if I am honest, some days it still wakes me up with a kind of panic.
For these students the forest was as threatening and dangerous as I have sometimes perceived Manhattan to be. I was born in a rural community. I spent my childhood in swamps and woods. I explored. I chased. Along with my sister, I made forts and followed animal trails and caught anything that fled. To this day, I feel most at ease in forests (and perhaps least at ease in the biggest cities) and now I work among a tribe of other adults, biologists one and all, with similar backgrounds. We all spent our childhoods dirty with life; it is a reality that seems normal and was for most of human history. But what I sometimes felt in watching the Columbia students, lost among the trees, unable to name the birds and plants—or even sometimes to tell the birds from the bees—was that, in them, I was seeing the future.
Globally, we are ever more urban. By 2050, nearly all of us will dwell within the confines not just of cities but of big, mega-cities. By some measures, I am increasingly among those masses. I live on a small lot, at the intersection of two roads, a few miles from downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. The species most obvious to me are those that I plant and feed—my apple trees, squirrels and goldfinches--or those that persist despite what I do—the roaches and rats. In the future, most people will live in places more urban than my corner. Unless we change how we manage and build cities, most of the children of the future will know best the animals that persist despite us. I worry about the consequences of our increasingly urban lives and not just abstractly. I worry for my own children. My daughter, now almost 7, and my son, now 2, will be among those many children raised on an ecosystem of dandelions and rats, starlings and roaches. I worry that they will grow up to think it is faraway and irrelevant, the place that monkeys once lived before they were all moved to the zoo1.
My daughter was born in Tennessee, in among the hills and creeks2. But by the time she turned three weeks old, we had moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, where my son was born four and a half years later. Raleigh is big enough that for those of us who live close to downtown, car engines often call louder than morning’s doves. For now, I go to forests, be they in the city or further afield, with my kids as often as I can. I want them to know the joy of walking where there is no path, of spending a day with no greater goal than catching an elusive snapping turtle or following the footprints of a deer up a muddy creek for no reason at all. But even on our best days of chasing bugs or following a deer trail, our experience is different from the wilder, more rural variety. Our possibilities, like those of most other humans on Earth, remain bounded by highways and buildings, superficially circumscribed by what other humans have made. I know as well as anybody that real mystery still lurks in urban nature (see a truck stop in Capetown or ants in NYC), but urban mysteries are unobvious; they compete with the sights and sounds of modern life, a life we have engineered so as to always be entertaining.
Numerous studies show the benefits for children of nature’s richness and its mysteries. Children who grow up experiencing nature, it has been argued, have fewer attention problems, are more curious, and more likely to grow up to have a strong relationship with wild species. They are also, it seems, less likely to suffer from allergies and, perhaps even autoimmune disorders. Conversely, the effects of urban childhoods on children seem lasting and complex. Urban children are scared of insects, terrified by snakes, and more uncomfortable outside than in. They like the comfort of indoors and are disgusted by out. In New York they are also, apparently, more likely to grow up to dress in all black clothes, but I digress. We lived among other conspicuous species—be they tigers, snakes, honeybees or fruits—for the entirety of our history; now we live among the species that sneak past the radar. That this shift is likely to screw us up in more than one way seems, well, a foregone conclusion. I console myself with the knowledge that these are the rules of averages, not guarantees. Each comes with caveats, complexities and exceptions. Any given kid can still grow to love nature in the city, if sufficiently encouraged, but the battle from the city begins uphill.
For now, I encourage my kids and bushwack with them through the vines, both literal and figurative, at the edge of the city. My daughter knows discoveries lurk even where we live. She searches them out under rocks and up in trees. My son will learn too (he is partial to the sounds of wild creatures, listening rather than watching). I can teach both kids the names of the things around them. I can teach them the trees and the landscape. Yet, unless something about our life changes, my kids are unlikely to know any particular wild as well as I knew the one in which I grew up. They do not have a backwoods that they can explore with relative safety on their own every day. In part, the extent to which barriers to their exploration exists is imposed by my wife and me. How feral do we let our children be? But there are also ordinary realities. When I was a kid, I could walk for a half an hour north of my house without hitting a road. My daughter and son can walk, well, about twenty-five feet if they get the angle just right.
Many of my colleagues have moved to the suburbs (or as it is called locally, “outside the beltline”) and commute to the city. It is an appealing possibility in some respects, but it trades the benefits of a closer relationship to wild nature for the environmental offense of commuting, fragmenting the landscape and spreading cities ever out rather than up. Also, to be honest, I like our neighborhood and I like walking to work. And even if we were to “move out,” the nature of the suburbs is no deep solace. Suburbs like those in Cary, North Carolina, our own local Pleasantville, are quieter than the city, but the nature within them is divided into small blocks of quarter acre lots—wilderness recreated in the image of civilization.
I am simultaneously optimistic and terrified about the urban future. There are answers, as a society, to what we might do to maintain a connection to nature, and in particular to its mysteries, in our cities. We can make our cities greener with rooftop gardens, living buildings, more public transportation, more native plant gardens and the like. We can develop projects that simultaneously restore biological diversity in cities and, in the process, get citizens involved in paying attention to the life around them. We can add mystery back to our cities and lead our children toward it.
I work (perhaps quixotically) at all of these endeavors (e.g., www.schoolofants.org, www.yourwildlife.org). I know more is possible, even in big cities, than we tend to imagine3. Some of the world’s great cities still have big and mysterious forests within their bounds. Singapore’s biggest park is big and diverse enough to contain hundreds of thousands of species, many, perhaps most of them, not yet named. Hong Kong is grown over, in places, with unstudied life forms. We can be ambitious in what we create and reveal—I know that. But as a dad, the grandest solutions are too far off, too fraught with local difficulties to make much of a difference for my daughter and son today and so I go on, taking them to the forest, taking hikes during the day and with tiny headlamps on their heads at night.
I don’t know if my kids are getting all of the benefits science predicts they might get from our hours and days and years on foot on and off the trail, wading in streams, picking up beetles, and balancing on fallen tree. Maybe. One can hope. Regardless, I love the time with them, showing them what I love. My kids show me things I miss4. They are more patient and lower to the ground. They are also fascinated by things I had forgotten were lovely—the play of light on the forest floor, the way a snake extends its body out of a coil, moving branches and leaves overhead. Each of them points, and I look. I point and they look. “Come see!” “Come see!”
I try to take the kids exploring often, because I know I am competing with the city where the natural world all too easily becomes inconspicuous among the louder urban sounds. My daughter can distinguish common birds and trees, but she probably knows just as many kinds of toys and TV characters. In the same dumb way that we numb ourselves to the sky, to the sublimity of big space and time—the billions of stars in our galaxy and the billions of galaxies, we numb ourselves to the grandness of life by filling our hours with more conspicuous sounds, sights, and tastes. Maybe it is antiquated to want my children to find mystery in the natural world around them, maybe it is like wishing they were hunter-gatherers; I hope not.
How much wilderness in their lives is enough? How much wildness? How much wandering with no goal in sight do they need? On one of my last days teaching students in the Dominican Republic, we took a group of students to a relatively remote part of the forest. Around a bend in the trail we came to a wide creek, bringing water down from the hills. The student closest to me leaned to a friend and said, “it sounds like a washing machine.” How often will I take my children to the forest? What is often enough? I will walk with them until the sound of a washing machine reminds them of their favorite creek instead of the other way around.
1-I am being overly dramatic, but you get the idea.
2-Technically, she was born in a hospital in Knoxville, but the forests and creeks were nearby.
3-With the help of my colleagues, I have now found more than four thousand species living in my house and on my body alone. These include lots of bacteria and fungi, but also a crazy diversity of small animals, such as camel crickets, about which very little is typically known.
4-Sometimes with comic undertones. Recently, I got down on my belly to point out an ant and a rolly polly (AKA pillbug or woodlouse) to my son. He got down next to me and quietly looked. I said, “this is an ant” and then, pointing to the rolly polly, “this is a rolly polly.” He smiled in acknowledgement then stood up and walked a few feet away where he picked a twig up. He held it up to me and announced, his little tongue firmly in his cheek, “Hey papa. This is a stick.”
Photos: top: Brad Smith on Flickr; bottom: Rob Dunn.