Thursday, April 26, 2012

Escape from the Concrete Prison

Growing up in Brooklyn, my relationship with nature as a child was quite limited. My knowledge of nature, even more so. In fact, my life in relation to nature was limited to visits to Sunset park, the library and what I saw on tv.  My environment served as a concrete prison, keeping me encased in a man made world of greys and blacks, a world of sadness and desperation.The perverted versions of nature in the asphalt and concrete sea that surrounded my world featured small green patches of grass and the occasional tree. There were no bird nests, song birds or squirrels in these trees, instead there were pigeons, my idea of rats with wings. The sounds of the morning were the roar of the bus, the screech of the train and the occasional "shut up" shouted from a third story window.

However, there were a few moments in my life that I was able to engage fully with nature. Summer time meant beach visits to Coney Island, a trip I looked forward to each year. Looking back, a beach filled with littered sand, polluted sea water  and plastic bag jellyfish should hardly be considered communing with nature. Yet, it was at these times I was able to run freely along the sand with the salt wind whipping my hair behind me, feel the sun kiss my skin with its radiant energy, submerge into the weightless care free world underwater and enjoy feeling connected to something more, something bigger than myself.

In my teenage years, we moved South to Alabama. I cried as I watched the sun disappear and with it, my known reality as we crossed the Verazano Bridge for the last time. Although we moved to the city of Hoover, which was also more developed than rural, at last nature was around me. My building was surrounded by trees and grass. There were flowers, hills, lakes, rocks, birds and squirrels. I spent my free time outside climbing trees, walking nature paths, and soaking up sun until it set.

When thinking of my childhood and the desire to spend as much time as possible outside engaged in play I am saddened. I know that with this generation, modern childhood play has evolved into virtual relationships with tv, video games, cellphones and computers, in other words sedentary activity. After hours of this zombie play, children are left with their natural energy and no outlet. At school and even when with parents, this energy expresses itself in the inability to focus the mind, still the body and follow directions. There are lots of contributing factors, but mainly nature deficient play is to blame. More accurately, lack of active play outdoors engaged in physical activity is to blame. Let me elaborate.

Children should actively engage in play and exploration outdoors as often as weather will allow. This statement is not a mysterious wonder of the universe, most adults would agree with it, whether they hold a degree in education, health, exercise, forestry or none at all. Yet, our society excludes this message at all costs, on all levels. The message our society does send: Nature is scary and your doom, it is inconvenient, messy, boring and should be avoided at all costs! From the way we construct cities, structure schools, organize activities and the media we consume, we restrict our dealings with nature to a minimum and instead inject an impostor, that is synthetic nature. Yes, synthetic nature, you've seen it, you know the manicured lawn that is dyed green, or the stone, concrete and rubber water feature in your neighborhood park. This need for synthetic nature, the need to control and improve nature is rooted so deep in this culture that is even seen in our scientific motives to control natural rhythmic cycles and force bio-engineering and genetic modification. We as a society are sent a message to detach from natural and rely on man's ingenuity, we should get the latest gadget and be connected with the people of the world but not the actual earth we inhabit. We should eat global food and not participate or even know its origin or development. We should consume resources blindly without understanding their renew-ability or lack thereof. This lack of a connection with nature is hurting our children, our selves and our society.

I am not the only person that has detected that the need for human interaction with nature is becoming increasingly important. I recently read a wonderful book, in fact wanting to read and finish this book delayed my blog post. Sorry to all my regular readers, I had to finish it so I could finish this post. It is worth the read, Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv.He coins the term Nature Deficit Disorder. It is not a medical condition, it describes our lack of a relationship to the environment. It hurts our children, our families, our communities and our environment. He links this to behavior disorders, health problems like obesity and depression, as well as a lack of knowledge and respect for nature. He argues that the implications are:
  • Children have limited respect for their immediate natural surroundings. Louv says the effects of Nature Deficit Disorder on our children will be an even bigger problem in the future. "An increasing pace in the last three decades, approximately, of a rapid disengagement between children and direct experiences in nature… has profound implications, not only for the health of future generations but for the health of the Earth itself." The effects from Nature Deficit Disorder could lead to the first generation being at risk of having a shorter lifespan then their parents.
  • Attention disorders and depression may develop. "It's a problem because kids who don't get nature-time seem more prone to anxiety, depression and attention-deficit problems." Louv suggests that going outside and being in the quiet and calm can help greatly. According to t a University of Illinois study, interaction with nature has proven to reduce symptoms of ADD in children. According to research, "Overall, our findings indicate that exposure to ordinary natural settings in the course of common after-school and weekend activities may be widely effective in reducing attention deficit symptoms in children."  Attention Restoration Theory develops this idea further, both in short term restoration of one's abilities, and the long term ability to cope with stress and adversity.
  • Following the development of ADD and mood disorders, lower grades in school also seem to be related to NDD. Louv claims that "studies of students in California and nationwide show that schools that use outdoor classrooms and other forms of experiential education produce significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts, and math".
  • Childhood obesity has become a growing problem. About 9 million children (ages 6–19) are overweight or obese. The Institute of Medicine claims that over the past 30 years, childhood obesity has more than doubled for adolescents and more than tripled for children aged 6–11.
  • In an interview on Public School Insight, Louv stated some positive effects of treating Nature Deficit Disorder, "everything from a positive effect on the attention span to stress reduction to creativity, cognitive development, and their sense of wonder and connection to the earth."

We must work to heal this broken bond our society possesses with nature. We must engage in nature, with our children and in our communities. We must find the innate natural bond we all possess with the earth and its life. We must try to allow our children to grow and develop their own bond with nature through family activities and time to explore independently. There are so many opportunities to engage nature! Take a camping trip, in the nearest park or your own back yard. Visit the farmer's market, a farm, or even in an urban setting, the botanical gardens. There are so many opportunities to get your family involved with nature, from the small like camping in your yard to the big like living in a RV and exploring the United States. Whatever your commitment level, big or small, your child, your life, your community can benefit from some quality nature time.  So put down the matrix, get motivated, get out and experience real life!

Need more help getting active?
Visit a National Park for FREE during National Park Week April 21-29th
Take a walk in the local park
Go birding
Ride your bike around the neighborhood or park
Plant a garden
Enroll your child in a nature based camp
Go camping
Cant find a group? Start one!

Link up with a local organization:
Children and Nature Network  
Boy Scouts  
Girl Scouts 
Outward Bound  
Wildlife Conservation Society 
Earth Explore Adventures  
National Audubon Society 
Into the Outside 
Ecological Literacy Program
Geography Action  
Sierra Club  
The Society for Amateur Scientists  
National Environmental Directory

"Along with milk and vegetables, kids need a steady diet of rocks and worms
Rocks need skipping.
Holes need digging.
Water needs splashing.
Bugs and frogs and slimy stuff need finding"
Go Rving

"Nature is just enough; but men and women must comprehend and accept her suggestions."
Antoinette Brown Blackwell

"To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
An eternity in an hour.:
William Blake
"Children are born naturalist. They explore the world with all their senses, experiment in the environment, and communicate their discoveries to those around them. "
The Aubudon Nature Preschool

1."A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful, is dimmed and even lost  before we reach adulthood."

2."Play, Incorporating Animistic and Magical Thinking Is Important Because It:
Fosters the healthy, creative and emotional growth of a child;
Forms the best foundation for later intellectual growth.
Provides a way in which children get to know the world and creates possibilities for different ways of responding to it.
Fosters empathy and wonder."

"By suggestion and example, I believe children can be helped to hear the many voices about them.  Take Time to listen and talk about the voices of the earth and what they mean—the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of surf or flowing streams."

 "For the child. . . it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused - a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love - then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response . . . It is more important to pave the way for a child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts that he is not ready to assimilate."

1-3 Rachel Carson

"Children the world over have a right to a childhood filled with beauty, joy, adventure, and companionship. They will grow toward ecological literacy if the soil they are nurtured in is rich with experience, love, and good examples."
Alan Dyer

"The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature."
Anne Frank

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Wakeup Call

The transition from ordinary to extraordinary doesn't happen overnight. It is a gradual transition that requires growth and change within yourself in addition to your exterior components. At times, you doubt and question your decisions and your will to follow through with your plans falter temporarily. You ask God for some sign, a confirmation of some sort. I received a bitter sweet confirmation, one that resonated in my mind loud and clear: Life is too short.

It is one thing, to experience a grandparent toddle dangerously towards passing and even more jarring to see death threaten a parent. If those close calls weren't enough with the conclusion of 2011, 2012 brought the reality that at 28 I was not too young to be threatened either. While I am blessed to have  my health and that of both my grandmother and mother, my friend and classmate wasn't as fortunate. I received news that a fellow mother of young children who was also a sister and daughter suffered a seizure and her life was ended at 28. 

This call came as a reinforcement that any of us at any time could be called from this life. Now this is something I already knew, but the reality of it hit me so hard it knocked the wind from my chest. We spend so much time planning and worrying concerned about tomorrow, next month and the next five years. We waste so much time in these thoughts that we don't enjoy enough of the time we do have. Looking at my young son, I wondered if I had spent enough time being happy rather than planning for and pursuing it. 

I must say that this is not the confirmation I asked for, regardless it is the message I needed. Sheding the identity of my old life, one filed with stress and worries, careers and finances, consumerism and commercialism was indeed the right choice. Blinded and preoccupied by so many unimportant distractions like keeping up with the Joneses, was keeping me from experiencing true happiness. The happiness I seek cannot be bought, it can only be lived and experienced. 

After a month of living in my own home, albeit a motor home, I have felt a sense of peace like never before. It is so much more that not worring about rent, or about what others think about me. It is a realization that I am headed in the right directions. Now that I am no longer tied to the world with greed and desire, I am free to experience the treasures given to us freely by nature. Now I have the time and sense to appreciate sunsets, the movement of water, the colors of Spring...the list endless and ever changing. Even though I've just begun, I've had more beautiful sunsets in the past month than in the past 10 years, more smiles in the past month than in the past year and for that I'm thankful.

It would be great if nomadic life were for us all, then I wouldn't be as weird. I know that everyone who reads this blog life isn't out there on the open road, but take my wake up call as your own. Don't wait for life to slap you in the face to see that real life is calling you. That is, look past the illusion of your job title, your position in your community, your wealth or debt, or your past and see who you really are inside. Don't wait for some cosmic confirmation from the universe to determine that you should live life to the fullest potential. Tell the people in your life that you love them, take time to smell the flowers, laugh at your child's knock knock joke and don't hesitate to be the you that you dreamed of. Let go and live! Good luck on your journey, I hope our paths cross soon!

I leave you with this inspiration that was shared with me on FB:

"The void. It's that place in our lives where what we've been hanging onto, clinging to for dear life, is stripped away. It's that place in us where we let go of what we know, what we think we know, and what we want and surrender to the unknown. It is the place of saying and meaning, 'I don't know.' It means standing there with our hands empty for a while, sometimes watching everything we wanted disappear; our self image, our definition of who we thought we should be, the clones we've created of ourselves, the people we thought we had to have, the things we thought were so important to collect and surround ourselves with, the job we were certain was ours, the place we thought we'd live in all our lives. Step into the void with courage. Learn to say, I don't know. Allow your spirit to lead you wherever your soul wants and needs to go."

- Melody Beattie 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

On the Run

After two weeks in our RV, a dark grey and menacing shadow crept in to steal our sunshine. As every Alabamian should, we keep abreast of weather conditions and the impending possibilities of violent Spring storms. After last years devastating April tornadoes, we knew not to ignore any significant possibility of tornadoes. Hoping for the best, I completed my morning check of the Alabama Weather blog and found troubling news. The forecast was calling for a "significant" threat of tornadoes in 2/3s of Alabama. Great.

After sharing the news with Que, we had to make the decision...stay or flee. Staying meant going to the storm shelter in the city or going to my mom's 3rd floor apartment in the city. Fleeing meant packing up, finding a campsite and hitting the road to South Alabama in two hours to beat the weather. Weighing our options carefully, we decided to be safe rather than sorry and flee. Luckily I found a FHU campsite in Andalusia AL in The Conecuh National Forest  for $12 a night.

We hit the road after calling family to inform them of our decision to flee. Our trip started off with sunshine and less wind than I expected to encounter with such strong storms coming. We drove for about an hour and a half before we made our first stop just south of Montgomery, AL. The severe weather had begun and was striking farther South than predicted. We began to weigh the options of continuing South or just riding the Storm out in Montgomery County for the night. We decided to follow through with our plan and jumped back on the road.

Not two exits later, the sky turned Twister blackish purple, the wind picked up and it began to rain, with thunder and lightening. The radio station broadcast was interrupted with a severe weather warning from the EMS. There was a tornado warning issued because of a storm with definite rotation and possible touch down headed towards Lowndes County, South of Montgomery, our exact location! I do not drive our camper above 65 mph, but I can say that like every other vehicle on the interstate that night, I wasn't anywhere near the speed limit of 70mph.

With impending doom on my tail, my terrified family beside me, and God gracefully around me we were able to beat the storm and make it into the next county safely. We exited the highway and began the drive down the backroads to the Forest. Back at ease, I returned to my normal speed of 10 under the limit and hoped I'd be at the campsite soon for a nice hot shower. As if being chased by a deadly storm isn't enough, we were stopped by the police while driving through Andalusia. The police car trailed us first, then pulled aside to glance in the window before signalling the lights. I pulled into the first lot I saw and awaited the reasoning behind being stopped.

Apparently an ethnic couple driving a RV to the forest didn't seem like a believable story to the drug task force officers that pulled us over. After running our tag, drivers licence, insurance, we were separated and questioned about the details of our trip. Seriously, where we were going, how long, why and then we were asked if a search of our RV by K9s would turn up any illegal drugs. We welcomed the officers to search and waste their time(and ours). Thirty minutes later and finally satisfied that we were just a young family that was actually going to go camping in the woods, we were allowed to continue our drive.

Arriving at the camp, I was taken aback by the silent beauty of the lake, the forest and the crystal clear sky. It may have been storming all over Alabama, but Andalusia was amazingly clear and still. The majesty of the forest washed away all the fear we had encountered with the storm and the disgrace of being stopped for driving while ethnic. Slowly the worries of the day faded and were replaced by the same stillness and peace manifested by my surroundings. Filled with a new surge of energy, we explored our campsite and headed for the long awaited showers.

The next morning we hiked to the pond and around some marshlands. We found wildflowers, fish, and a broken turtle shell. We took pictures, allowed Kae to explore everything from the squirrels he chased to the twigs he snapped to the flowers he picked and smelled.  You can see the photobucket of our Conecuh National Forest trip here.  I highly recommend this site, it is affordable($12/nite), clean with bathrooms and hot showers, level concrete pads with FHU, fire pits and a sewage dump site. It has ponds for fishing, trails for hiking and even some hunting activities.

I am grateful that we were able to take the impromptu camping trip, even if the motivation of tornadoes isn't as pleasant as just wanting family time. Despite the horrid beginnings of the trip like being chased by a tornado and getting racially profiled by a drug task force, the result of the trip is what matters the most. Being able to connect myself and family with nature is an awesome experience that I will treasure for as long as my mental capacity allows me to remember. And when I am grey, old and forget... I will have the pictures to look at and say, "What a wonderfully happy little family".