Thursday, August 18, 2016

A Prescription for Nature-Deficit Disorder

By Bobbie Harte
Photo by Bobbie Harte, Harte Ventures LLC

     It was early May.  My jeans were damp where my knees made contact with the ground, and I was digging around a clump of ramps with my hands.  Their wild, onion-garlic scent drifted up as I heaped dried leaves and cool soil from the deep, ineffective hole I was making.  Black dirt caked my fingernails, but the ramps held firm. My friend, who knew better, laughed and handed me a shovel.  “When was the last time you interacted with the landscape like this?” he asked.  I could not remember.
     The day before, I had driven from Madison to visit my friend’s family homestead near Ontario, Wisconsin, just north of Wildcat Mountain State Park and about an hour’s drive east of Harmony Valley Farm.  My schedule had been busy for weeks, and these two free days were a luxury.  The interstate hummed beneath my wheels until Mauston.  After that, two-lane roads undulated over hills and under a blue sky filled with clouds that chased their shadows over green valleys.
     We spent most of that first afternoon walking through brown grass, talking to neighbors, and taking photographs. Later, gathering firewood, we paused on an outlook that was so high, cars that seemed to be the size of ants rolled along a road that stretched for miles.  The air was cool and the trees were just beginning to leaf out.  The memory of winter still fresh, my eyes eagerly sought the shades of green that were emerging from the bare trees covering the distant bluffs.
Photo by Bobbie Harte, Harte Ventures LLC
     The next day we visited another neighbor to search for morel mushrooms.  We hiked through the woods, down into draws and up steep hillsides not yet choked with underbrush.  We did find morels, as well as wildflowers and that green carpet of ramps.  With the aid of my friend’s shovel, I filled a bag with them to turn into pesto later.  Not only could I not remember the last time I had interacted with the landscape so directly, I also could not remember the last time I had gone for nearly two days without checking Facebook, Instagram, email or text messages, or when I had felt so relaxed and content.  The scent of the forest floor – a combination of dried leaves, wet dirt, oniony ramps and crisp air – saturated my clothes and imagination.  Even when I was back in Madison, it remained.
     Northerners know how tempting it is to stay indoors during the cold months.  Eventually cabin fever sets in, a restlessness that can only be discharged by activity in the fresh air, no matter how cold.  This partially explains why that early spring visit to Ontario was so moving, but now I think a larger force was also at play:  nature-deficit disorder.
     Richard Louv created the phrase in his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, as a way to talk about our culture’s increasing alienation from the natural world and why it matters. In 2011, Louv expanded on those ideas in The Nature Principle:  Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder.  The ramifications of our disconnection from the landscape are disheartening: attention and behavioral disorders, depression, obesity and environmental degradation.  Through anecdote and formal research, Louv explores the power of nature to increase cognition, creativity, intelligence and productivity; enhance physical and mental health; enrich communities that value all living things; and create a purposeful sense of place, where natural and human histories combine to create regional and personal identities.  The book’s central questions are, “What would our lives be like if our days and nights were as immersed in nature as they are in technology?” and, “How can each of us help create that life-enhancing world, not only in a hypothetical future, but right now, for our families and for ourselves?”  The Nature Principle is an uplifting read, especially because it suggests actions that each of us can take in our daily lives immediately.  In a world that seems to have gone mad, it is easy to feel paralyzed with fear, not knowing how to help.  Louv’s book is not an attempt to convince people that technology is bad.  Rather, he asserts that the more technology we have in our lives, the more we need to balance it with a solid connection to the natural world.  We can do that in lots of ways right now:  by tending houseplants or potted herbs on a fire escape, by going outside for a walk or by visiting a local nature conservancy.
Photo by Bobbie Harte, Harte Ventures LLC
     Another way to maintain a connection to the natural world is to continue supporting enterprises like Harmony Valley Farm, what Louv calls the “new agrarianism.”  This is a way of life that nurtures “lands covered with biologically diverse vegetation; lands tuned to functioning water, mineral and solar cycles; lands with abundant and diverse wildlife; a community benefiting from locally grown, healthy food; and a people aware of the importance of agriculture to the environment.”  These have been the working principles of Harmony Valley Farm for decades.
     On Sunday, September 25, Harmony Valley Farm will hold its annual harvest party.  Visitors to the farm will be able to pick pumpkins, tour the fields and eat gorgeous organic food.  This would be an excellent antidote to any nature-deficit disorder you might be experiencing.  I am certainly looking forward to leaving my cell phone in the car, getting my hands in the dirt again and connecting with the land.  I hope to see you there!

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