Prescription for a good life: Nature

March 30, 2012

Fascinating article by Timothy Egan about the rise of nature-deficit disorder.

Timothy Egan worked for The Times for 18 years – as Pacific Northwest correspondent and a national enterprise reporter. His column on American politics and life as seen from the West Coast appears here on Fridays. In 2001, he was part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that wrote the series “How Race Is Lived in America.” He is the author of several books, including “The Worst Hard Time,” a history of the Dust Bowl, for which he won the National Book Award, and most recently, “The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America.”

TUCSON — Your day breaks, your mind aches for something stimulating to match the stirrings of the season. The gate at the urban edge is open, here to the Santa Catalina Mountains, and yet you turn inward, to pixels and particle-board vistas.

Something’s amiss. A third of all American adults — check, it just went up to 35.7 percent — are obese. The French don’t even have a word for fat, Paul Rudnick mused in a mock-Parisian tone in The New Yorker last week. “If a woman is obese,” he wrote, “we simply call her American.”

And, of course, our national branding comes with a host of deadly side effects: heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, certain kinds of cancer. Medical costs associated with obesity and inactivity are nearly $150 billion a year.

This grim toll is well known. Cripes: maybe surgery is the answer, or a menu of energy drinks and vodka (the Ann Coulter diet?). Count the calories. Lay off the muffins. Atkins one week, Slim-Fast the next. We spend more than $50 billion on the diet-industrial complex and have little to show for it (or too much).

But there is an obvious solution — just outside the window. For most of human history, people chased things or were chased themselves. They turned dirt over and planted seeds and saplings. They took in Vitamin D from the sun, and learned to tell a crow from a raven (ravens are larger; crows have a more nasal call; so say the birders). And then, in less than a generation’s time, millions of people completely decoupled themselves from nature.

There’s a term for the consequences of this divorce between human and habitat — nature deficit disorder, coined by the writer Richard Louv in a 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods.” It sounds trendy, a bit of sociological shorthand, but give the man and his point a listen.

Louv argued that certain behavioral problems could be caused by the sharp decline in how little time children now spend outdoors, a trend updated in the latest Recreation Participation Report. The number of boys ages 6 to 12 who engage in some kind of outdoor activity, in particular, continues to slide.

Kids who do play outside are less likely to get sick, to be stressed or become aggressive, and are more adaptable to life’s unpredictable turns, Louv said. Since his book came out, things have gotten worse.

“The average young American now spends practically every minute — except for the time in school – using a smartphone, computer, television or electronic device,” my colleague Tamar Lewin reported in 2010, from a Kaiser Family Foundation study.

You can blame technology, but behind every screen-dominant upbringing is an overly cautious parent. Understandably, we want to protect our kids from “out there” variables. But it’s better not just to play in dirt, but to eat it. Studies show exposure to the randomness of nature may actually boost the immune system.

Nature may eventually come to those who shun it, and not in a pretty way. We stay indoors. We burn fossil fuels. The CO2 buildup adds to global warming. Suburbs of Denver are aflame this week, and much of the United States is getting ready for the tantrums of hurricane and tornado season, boosted by atmospheric instability.

Last week, an Australian mountaineer named Lincoln Hall died at the age of 56, and in the drama of that life cut short is a parable of sorts. Hall is best known for surviving a night at more than 28,000 feet on Mount Everest, in 2006. He’d become disoriented near the summit, and couldn’t move — to the peril of his sherpas. They left him for dead. And Hall’s death was announced to his family.

But the next day, a group of climbers found Hall sitting up, jacket unzipped, mumbling, badly frostbitten — but alive. He later wrote a book, “Dead Lucky: Life After Death on Mount Everest.”

Still, having survived perhaps the most inhospitable, dangerous and life-killing perch on the planet, Hall died in middle age of a human-caused malady from urban life — mesothelioma, attributed to childhood exposure to asbestos.

Various groups, from the outdoor co-op REI to the Trust for Public Land, have have been working to ensure that kids have more contact with the alpine world than one lined with asbestos. And they don’t even have to haul children off to a distant mountain to get some benefit. An urban park would do.

This week, Michelle Obama appeared in the glow of spring’s optimism to kick off the fourth year of the White House Kitchen Garden, a component of her campaign to curb childhood obesity. If she is successful, it will be because people learned by their own initiative — perhaps at her prompting. A worm at work can be a wonderful discovery if you’ve never seen one outside of a flat-screen. But so are endorphins, the narcotic byproduct of exercise.

“Hope is the thing with feathers,” wrote Emily Dickinson. The First Lady supplied her own variation on the theme, with two powerful words that can go a long way to battling nature deficit disorder: “Let’s plant!”


Kids and fish = fun and fascinating!

March 22, 2012
Porterville Recorder
2012-03-21 17:15:38

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SPRINGVILLE — After eight weeks of raising baby trout, fifth grade students from St. Anne’s School traveled to River Ridge Ranch, lowered their tiny fish into the Tule River, watched them swim away, and said goodbye.

It was all part of the “Trout in the Classroom” program, a hands-on ecology lesson in which students raise trout from eggs.

“The most interesting part was watching the trout go through their different stages, seeing them change,” said Marie LoBue.

The eggs, provided by Fish and Game, and distributed by volunteers, are hatched in the classroom.

The trout is then reared and cared for by the students who learn about aquatic environments while simultaneously learning about trout habitat and trout life cycles.

“I wrote the entire curriculum. This curriculum is unique to River Ridge,” said Gary Adest, owner of the 722-acre ranch, a fully-protected ecological reserve that includes the Tule River and borders the Giant Sequoia National Monument. “Trout cannot live in a classroom forever, so students need a place to release their trout into the wild and River Ridge Ranch is one of the most beautiful locations on the Tule River to do so.”

Wednesday’s goodbye signaled week two, and the seventh year, in which third to seventh grade classes from numerous towns throughout Tulare County participated in the month-long release program at River Ridge.

The day begin with the students assigned to groups and an AmeriCorps member from Sequoia Riverlands Trust and WildPlaces, and rotating through several stations, one off them being Turtle Cove, where the one-inch fish were released into the river.

“It was sad because we raised these since they were little eggs,” said Hayley Tharp. “Some — the ones with markings — had names.”

Parent Larry Herrera said his son John had looked forward to the trout release.

“It’s all he’s talked about every night for two to three weeks,” Herrera said. “It’s exciting to be a part of raising them in the classroom and releasing it here in the conservatory. It was a great hands-on education. It wasn’t just textbooks. They got to feed them and see the trout grow, measuring them — scientific stuff. Very high interest. It engaged the students.”

In addition to the trout release, the students moved every 30 minutes through five other stations that included writing and journalism class assignments, learning about water and river ecology, taking nature trail hikes, learning about birds, plants and other wildlife, and working on an evolving natural-art project before enjoying an outdoor lunch and returning to school.


Getting Kids Outdoors

March 14, 2012

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by Kelly Ryan, Communications Director Sequoia Riverlands Trust

On a beautiful, clear day recently, a co-worker told me about an outing on one of our Preserves with kids from a nearby school. After arriving at Kaweah Oaks Preserve the kids gathered in a group and listened to some interesting stories about the grand Valley Oak forests and the more than 300 plants and animals that live there. Then the teacher said, “Alright- have at it, go and enjoy nature!”

The kids didn’t move. They weren’t sure what to do. The teacher continued, “Run down that trail, climb that tree, follow the sound of that red-tailed hawk!” The kids looked at her with a combination of confusion and surprise.

Could it be these kids had never had the chance to climb a tree, discover a deer track or follow a lizard under a log? Had they been stuck inside told not to “touch” anything? Had they never run around outside in a blast of energy leaving a trail of dust behind?

Many kids today haven’t been outside much and haven’t had a chance for what is crucial to their development, “unconstructed play”. (When I was a kid, mothers called it “getting out of their hair”).

Experts point out how important it is for kids to just get out and explore, without plans or goals. This information isn’t new or groundbreaking, so why aren’t kids allowed free reign outside?

There is fear from some parents that kids will get bored, hurt or find trouble. If you think back for a moment on your outdoor adventures as a kid, did you cause mayhem and carnage? Or was the outdoors an adventure you shared with friends, parents or grandparents? Do you remember a camping trip with hot chocolate and a fire, a hike where you got to carry a thermos or a walk under the tallest trees you could ever imagine listening to animal sounds from the forest?

Eventually those school kids at Kaweah Oaks Preserve found no trouble staying entertained. Was that a rabbit in the bushes? Could that be a coyote track? Did you hear that great horned owl? With each new discovery they would reach down and touch the earth, balance on a tree limb or squint their eyes to see what was circling overhead.

If you haven’t had time to spend with your children outdoors it’s not too late. It can be hiking, fishing, camping or even just a walk. Whether you live in a city, a rural community or near wilderness, it doesn’t take a much to explore nature- just curiosity. On a short hike or walk kids can look for animal tracks: no special equipment required. They can point out common birds or animals like, rabbits, owls and lizards and later as a family project you can look up those animals to see where they sleep or what they eat for dinner.

At Dry Creek Preserve and Kaweah Oaks, parents and grandparents are often seen taking leisurely walks while kids zigzag along, jumping over small creeks and racing along trails. Every kid should have a chance to interact with wild things and nature. It’s something they’ll never forget. Nature has a way of letting us discover ourselves as we uncover the wonders of being outdoors.


Preserve ready for visitors: Dry Creek opens to public!

March 1, 2012

Dry Creek Preserve is now open to the public on a regular basis and it’s fun to learn a little about this amazing location and transformation. This former gravel quarry is now fully restored and is the first example of an ecologically based aggregate mine reclamation in Tulare County. Its 152 acres is also home to SRT’s native plant nursery. Dry Creek has some ecological treasures as well. It has rare sycamore alluvial woodland found in just 17 stands across central California and ranked third in size and health of all the remaining stands.
In 2004, California Portland Cement Company ended their Dry Creek gravel operations and donated the property to SRT. Twelve years of gravel mining operations significantly altered the Dry Creek streambed and resulted in the felling of numerous mature sycamores and valley oaks. Since 2004, SRT has partnered with community members, educational institutions and other conservation organizations to re-establish natural stream patterns and restore the land’s woodland vegetation with hundreds of oak and sycamore plantings and native grasses. Now, the Dry Creek Preserve once again provides critical habitat for an ever-increasing population of resident and migratory birds and supports native species such as the great blue heron, bald eagle and herds of mule deer. The preserve also has a stunning wildflower show every spring. SRT encourages everyone to come out and see this spectacular natural wonder that has been brought back to life!