Friday, May 23, 2008

Michael Vandeman's Thoughts on the Book "Last Child in the Woods"

Today I received this comment on post I did earlier this week titled: Daycare Kids and Outdoor Play. That post was inspired by a Dr. Laura blog post titled: Why Day Care Kids Don't Play Outside.

In that post I had mentioned as recommended reading for the reason to support children playing outside and children playing in nature, the book "Last Child in the Woods" by Richard Louv.

I thought the comment left by Michael J. Vandeman, PhD deserved a blog post of its own. Here is what he left in the form of a comment to that other blog post of mine.

Last Child in the Woods ––
Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,
by Richard Louv
Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.
November 16, 2006

In this eloquent and comprehensive work, Louv makes a convincing case for ensuring that children (and adults) maintain access to pristine natural areas, and even, when those are not available, any bit of nature that we can preserve, such as vacant lots. I agree with him 100%. Just as we never really outgrow our need for our parents (and grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.), humanity has never outgrown, and can never outgrow, our need for the companionship and mutual benefits of other species.

But what strikes me most about this book is how Louv is able, in spite of 310 pages of text, to completely ignore the two most obvious problems with his thesis: (1) We want and need to have contact with other species, but neither we nor Louv bother to ask whether they want to have contact with us! In fact, most species of wildlife obviously do not like having humans around, and can thrive only if we leave them alone! Or they are able tolerate our presence, but only within certain limits. (2) We and Louv never ask what type of contact is appropriate! He includes fishing, hunting, building "forts", farming, ranching, and all other manner of recreation. Clearly, not all contact with nature leads to someone becoming an advocate and protector of wildlife. While one kid may see a beautiful area and decide to protect it, what's to stop another from seeing it and thinking of it as a great place to build a house or create a ski resort? Developers and industrialists must come from somewhere, and they no doubt played in the woods with the future environmentalists!

It is obvious, and not a particularly new idea, that we must experience wilderness in order to appreciate it. But it is equally true, though ("conveniently") never mentioned, that we need to stay out of nature, if the wildlife that live there are to survive. I discuss this issue thoroughly in the essay, "Wildlife Need Habitat Off-Limits to Humans!", at

It should also be obvious (but apparently isn't) that how we interact with nature determines how we think about it and how we learn to treat it. Remember, children don't learn so much what we tell them, but they learn very well what they see us do. Fishing, building "forts", mountain biking, and even berry-picking teach us that nature exists for us to exploit. Luckily, my fort-building career was cut short by a bee-sting! As I was about to cut down a tree to lay a third layer of logs on my little log cabin in the woods, I took one swing at the trunk with my axe, and immediately got a painful sting (there must have been a bee-hive in the tree) and ran away as fast as I could.

On page 144 Louv quotes Rasheed Salahuddin: "Nature has been taken over by thugs who care absolutely nothing about it. We need to take nature back." Then he titles his next chapter "Where Will Future Stewards of Nature Come From?" Where indeed? While fishing may bring one into contact with natural beauty, that message can be eclipsed by the more salient one that the fish exist to pleasure and feed humans (even if we release them after we catch them). (My fishing career was also short-lived, perhaps because I spent most of the time either waiting for fish that never came, or untangling fishing line.) Mountain bikers claim that they are "nature-lovers" and are "just hikers on wheels". But if you watch one of their helmet-camera videos, it is easy to see that 99.44% of their attention must be devoted to controlling their bike, or they will crash. Children initiated into mountain biking may learn to identify a plant or two, but by far the strongest message they will receive is that the rough treatment of nature is acceptable. It's not!

On page 184 Louv recommends that kids carry cell phones. First of all, cell phones transmit on essentially the same frequency as a microwave oven, and are therefore hazardous to one's health –- especially for children, whose skulls are still relatively thin. Second, there is nothing that will spoil one's experience of nature faster than something that reminds one of the city and the "civilized" world. The last thing one wants while enjoying nature is to be reminded of the world outside. Nothing will ruin a hike or a picnic faster than hearing a radio or the ring of a cell phone, or seeing a headset, cell phone, or mountain bike. I've been enjoying nature for over 60 years, and can't remember a single time when I felt a need for any of these items.

It's clear that we humans need to reduce our impacts on wildlife, if they, and hence we, are to survive. But it is repugnant and arguably inhumane to restrict human access to nature. Therefore, we need to practice minimal-impact recreation (i.e., hiking only), and leave our technology (if we need it at all!) at home. In other words, we need to decrease the quantity of contact with nature, and increase the quality.


Ehrlich, Paul R. and Ehrlich, Anne H., Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearances of Species. New York: Random House, 1981.

Errington, Paul L., A Question of Values. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1987.

Flannery, Tim, The Eternal Frontier -- An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples. New York: Grove Press, 2001.

Foreman, Dave, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior. New York: Harmony Books, 1991.

Knight, Richard L. and Kevin J. Gutzwiller, eds. Wildlife and Recreationists. Covelo, California: Island Press, 1995.

Louv, Richard, Last Child in the Woods -- Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005.

Noss, Reed F. and Allen Y. Cooperrider, Saving Nature's Legacy: Protecting and Restoring Biodiversity. Island Press, Covelo, California, 1994.

Stone, Christopher D., Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1973.

Vandeman, Michael J.,, especially,,, and

Ward, Peter Douglas, The End of Evolution: On Mass Extinctions and the Preservation of Biodiversity. New York: Bantam Books, 1994.

"The Wildlands Project", Wild Earth. Richmond, Vermont: The Cenozoic Society, 1994.

Wilson, Edward O., The Future of Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

This is my reply to Michael Vandeman's comment.

Dear Mike Vandeman,
Wow, thank you for your thoughts.

I have read "Last Child in the Woods" yet. I bought it, but I have not yet read it.

I really appreciate your thoughts. I too think that nature needs us to stay away. Treading lightly and not harming nature is of course important.

I often see young children damaging nature. When my oldest was six, at a Little League picnic, children unsupervised (young too) were off tearing branches off a pine tree on the school grounds. They then were peeling bark and whacking the tree with the torn off branches. None of the other parents cared. I tried to get them to stop but none cared to follow what an authority figure said.

Last year in Cub Scout Day Camp the them was detectives and clues (Cub Scout Detectives). Each got a little magnifying glass to look for insects with. Well, in each Den there were multiple boys using them to burn live insects with. I thought it was just my group and was working in my group to put a stop to it. Yet they had to do camp-wide announcements, multiple times to try to get the kids to stop.

I also gave a lecture to all my Den because there was a dragonfly that one kid caught and pulled a wing off. In a small group they proceeded to pull all the wings off and one of the legs was broken. It was still alive. I tried to talk some empathy into them and talk about not hurting the creatures. One begged me to kill it and to put it out of its misery. We debated this. I decided to let it sit there on a rock and maybe a bird would eat it if it found it alive. Two kids thought I was cruel for that. I was angry at the ones who tortured the thing in the first place.

It is true not all interaction with nature by children in groups or unsupervised leads to good things. It seems too that some kids think nature is there JUST to exploit and destroy for what they consider to be fun.

Lastly I used to mountain bike in the woods when it first came out in the 1980s. What I liked about being in nature with the bike was not about nature appreciation which I got from other endeavors. I liked just being off of the road and not in contact with cars and bad drivers, not being with rush hour commuters and so on. I enjoyed breathing woods air, fresh, not car exhaust. However you do concentrate so much on handling the bike and staying safe that you can't just enjoy nature such as when on an easy hike. When whizzing down a hill or puffing to go up a steep rocky hill you can't notice details in a wildflower's blossom or spot creatures or even look around much--your eyes have to stay on the trail and on the bikers around you too.

A new book "i love dirt! 52 activities to help you & your kids discover the wonders of nature" by Jennifer Ward provides 52 outdoor experiences for parents or grandparents to do alongside their young children, with direct supervision, as a way to spend time together. There are ideas here to help parents who feel they need more ideas or information in order to go out and explore nature with chidlren. These ideas don't harm nature.

So what do you think? Please consider leaving a comment to share your opinion and experiences.

Technorati Tags: , , , , .


Mike Vandeman said...

Thank you for your comments. I'm glad to find such a thoughtful person as you. When I was living in Synanon, I met a kid (who came in as a juvenile delinquent) who liked to skin frogs alive. Society should SUPPORT someone like you who, quite reasonably, asks that such abuses be stopped. It would be a good learning experience for everyone. Why do the kids do it, but also, why do the adults allow it???

christinemm said...

I rejected a comment yesterday because it was a personal attack against Mike Vandeman. I am not going to publish what is not only rude but what might legally be considered slander on my blog.