Richard Louv confesses one thing right away: He’d rather fish than write.
Which is appropriate, considering that Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” (with an assist from his wife, he points out) and has written eight books, including “Last Child in the Woods” and “The Nature Principle,” about the growing disconnect between humans and nature.
Assuming he’d rather walk than sit, too, we joined him for a stroll around Lady Bird Lake, during which he explained that society’s connection to nature is nothing new. It’s been breaking for three or four decades.
“Throughout history, kids have spent their developing years in nature, playing or working. In our lifetime, that’s going away,” he said. The disconnect can be traced all the way back to the Industrial Revolution. “But this latest disengagement is different. It’s the true replacement of real by virtual.”
Louv, 64, grew up in the Kansas City suburbs. A cornfield grew behind his house, and beyond that stood the woods, which he spent hours exploring. Like many of his generation, he remembers playing outdoors until the streetlights came on, and building a treehouse on his own, without a kit or supervision. He loved to work in the garden or go fishing. He associated nature with health.
“It was considered normal and expected for kids to have some kind of experience in nature and independent make-believe play,” he said. “Our generation took it for granted. Are we going to take that memory with us when we leave or do we want to pass it on?”
Even today, Louv, feels steadier on days he spends outdoors, fishing, hiking or taking nature photographs. He sleeps better, doesn’t dwell on unsolvable problems and feels more content about the world in general.
He’s not alone. Studies have shown that spending time in nature improves one’s physical health as well as spiritual and emotional health. That’s why, Louv says, Americans must make a conscious effort to make time for outdoor experiences in an increasingly high-tech environment.
That might sound odd in a city like Austin, where cyclists and hikers throng the Barton Creek greenbelt and kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddle boards dot the rivers and lakes.
During his recent Austin visit, Louv visited the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center for the first time to speak at a YMCA event. The nonprofit organization showed sketches of a proposed camp it hopes to build near Onion Creek in South Austin. That camp, Louv said, could stand as a model for other organizations as they look for ways to get people back outdoors.
Other local programs, like the Camping 101 classes offered by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to teach people how to camp and school gardens that show kids how to grow vegetables and flowers, encourage more interaction with nature.
Louv insists he’s not anti-technology, patting the iPhone in his pocket and noting that one of his favorite ways to enjoy nature is to head outdoors with a digital camera. But too many of us spend a disproportionate amount of time in front of a computer or television or wearing earphones.
“The more high-tech our lives become, the more we need nature,” he said. “This out-of-balance, almost-illness permeates us and our kids.” Even outdoors, some of us can’t get our nose out of our smartphones. “We tend to look at the screen rather than the stream.”
Experts say Americans are facing a “pandemic of inactivity.” More than a third of adults are obese. We spend too much time sitting, and we’re passing that habit to future generations.
Louv says public schools should teach kids technology but balance effort by getting kids outdoors for physical and spiritual health.
“For every dollar we spend on the virtual, we should spend another dollar on the real,” Louv said. “Then we’ll be OK.”
He points to research gathered by the Children and Nature Network, a nonprofit organization founded by Louv to help reconnect families with nature. Studies collected on the organization’s website (www.childrenandnature.org) show that time spent in nature boosts cognitive functioning, soothes attention deficit disorder symptoms, helps vision and other senses develop properly and reduces body mass index. Even a view of green plants and vistas helps reduce stress, according to one study there.
Louv and his wife have two grown sons, ages 31 and 26. Louv says they grew up loving technology and had those nimble thumbs that people who text often develop but were exposed to nature, too. “I don’t blame parents,” Louv said. “We’re all in this, trying to make our way.”
But more and more barriers — real or perceived — are stopping kids from romping outdoors. “We’re an increasingly locked-down society,” Louv said. “Yes, there are risks outdoors and from strangers. But there are other risks out there, like childhood obesity.”
He pauses from where he’s sitting on a bench in front of the pond at Auditorium Shores to watch minnows slice through the water.
“Not being outdoors. To me that’s being less alive,” he said. “And who wants to be less alive?”
To learn more about Richard Louv, go to www.richardlouv.com. To learn more about Texas Children in Nature, go to texaschildreninnature.org.