By William Bevil, CIG, CIP
Fort Collins Museum of Discovery
NAI Region 7 Director
I recently finished reading Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. I make this admission knowing I’m also very likely the ‘Last Interpreter to Read that Book.’ Better late than never, though, right? Even though I was marginally familiar with the concept of nature-deficit disorder as introduced by Louv, I still found it an eye-opening read. In particular were some of the invisible barriers to engaging with nature that have crept into our society over time. For instance, there is the threat of lawsuits. A litigious society creates an atmosphere where exposure to risk is to be avoided at all costs, and we create legal structures to help ensure everyone knows it. Homeowner’s Associations are a good example of an entity created for all the right reasons but that can lead to unexpected downsides. Because I’ve never lived in a neighborhood governed by one, I had no idea how pervasive they could be. HOA’s are there to ensure people take care of their property and don’t drag down neighborhood values, but they could also have the power to dictate one cannot build a tree house or have a compost bin.
Having found this first book so thought-provoking, it was a no-brainer that I rushed out to pick up The Nature Principle. Where Last Child looked at nature-deficit disorder through the lens of young people, this one is aimed squarely at adults and society at large. I’m only halfway through it, but already it has sparked a lot of self-examination.
I’m one of those people who loves being in the outdoors but never seems to have time to actually get out and experience it. Among my interpreter friends, many are earthy types and I’ve always felt a little self-conscious that I’m not more intimately connected with nature to the extent they are. Even worse, I‘ve said for years that I will change things and make the time to get outside more. It’s not for lack of tools or choices, I assure you. I live in one of the most beautiful regions of the country and have field guides, inspirational tomes, binoculars, maps, pencils and sketch books ready to hit the trail. My bookshelves are filled with books like The Amateur Naturalist by Gerald Durrell. Yes, I have instructional guides to show me how to be a better naturalist. If you are reminded of that scene from Office Space where the guys have to look up “money laundering” in a dictionary in order to figure out how to do it, you are not alone. But – before you snicker too much, have you ever looked at that book? There are some great ideas in there! Anyway, more often than not, all this stuff sits gathering dust.
I often wonder how many other people out there feel the same as me – even those who work in our field. How often do we design our interpretive programs specifically to address this need among adults? Some years ago, we offered a nature sketch-booking class at Fernbank Museum in Atlanta in tandem with Suzanne Stryk’s exhibition The Collector’s Confession. I remember many participants saying they had long wanted to start sketch-booking but just never had the motivation to do it—until then. At the time, I just thought we were offering an “appropriate program” to accompany the exhibit. It never occurred to me then that we were filling a special need for some people.
The Nature Principle makes a provocative case for the restorative power of nature, and how it is essential to our health and wellness, and our communities. Louv is positive and encouraging about our future, but is also clear that we have to change the way we’ve been doing things. This is compelling stuff for interpreters, another call to action if I ever heard one. Of all the groups of people in the world, interpreters probably need advice on this topic the least – especially those of us working in any form of environmental interpretation. You already live and breathe this stuff. But I’m living proof that not all of us are totally satisfied with the pictures we’ve painted ourselves into. In my case, maybe it’s because my working environment is a museum—indoors!—where we re-create environments and experiences in order to tell stories. Technology is my primary tool for creation. But that doesn’t have to define the limits and scope of my experiences and work.
I’m not done reading it yet, but The Nature Principle has already served as a wake-up call to make some changes in both my personal life and professional practices. I encourage all of us to make the time for whatever it is that fuels our spirit, and to think about nature-deficit disorder and what it means to our work and visitor/audience experience objectives. Break out of the barriers – especially the ones we create – and help others to do the same. Don’t wait, because there is that old saying about longevity and it’s true, but it will also very likely make us better at our jobs, open up new experiences for everyone involved, and ultimately make our world a better place to live.
Last Child in the Woods (2005; ISBN 13: 978-1-56512-522-3) is available through the NAI bookstore: http://www.naimembers.com/store/acatalog/books.html
The Nature Principle (2011; ISBN 9781616201418) is available through Richard Louv’s website: http://richardlouv.com/books/nature-principle/purchase/