Author and Children & Nature Network founder Richard Louv is doing everything he can to get kids outside. It is their—and the planet’s—best hope for a healthy future
Author and Children & Nature Network founder Richard Louv is doing everything he can to get kids outside. It is their — and the planet’s — best hope for a healthy future.
It was in his book Last Child in the Woods, released in 2005, that author Richard Louv first introduced the idea of “nature deficit disorder” to the world. While working as a newspaper columnist in San Diego, he had come to realize that children in these technologically driven times were increasingly disconnected from nature and that this was harming their physical, intellectual and emotional development. The antidote he put forward in his book was both sensible and radical: get kids back into the natural world.
In a recent conversation with CWF, Louv recalled that, “In the book, I imagined and described how a movement might happen to connect kids and families to nature. It was really wishful thinking at the time.” He says now he was amazed at the reaction. “When the book came out, I was unprepared for the response to it. It was quite something and I was pretty overwhelmed” by the number of people who reached out to learn more and to contribute to a new movement to the outdoors.
Just a year later, in 2006, with the help of dedicated educators and supporters, the Children & Nature Network was born. Louv, with fellow co-founders Cheryl Charles, Martha Farrell Erickson, Martin Leblanc, Michael Pertschuk and Amy Pertschuk, established an organization in
Minneapolis, whose mission was to drive a worldwide movement to reconnect children with nature. Demand was such that within a year they were planning their first conference to bring together dedicated practitioners.
By 2014, support for the movement had grown to 369 grassroots campaigns that collectively connected more than 3.5 million children to nature experiences in the United States and across the world. The annual conferences grew from modest gatherings of regional organizations to last year’s event, which welcomed more than 800 international leaders, advocates and activists from the child and nature movement in 18 countries.
This year’s gathering, with the theme Kids Need Nature: Nature Needs Kids, is in Vancouver, April 18–21. It is the first to take place outside the U.S., and the Canadian Wildlife Federation is co-hosting. “One of the things that has remained consistent among the participants is a sense of family. Canada hosting emphasizes that the family transcends borders of all kinds.” Louv is heartened by the movement spreading abroad, noting that in countries like China and Brazil, which have experienced periods of rapid urbanization, he is starting to see a cultural turn from associating nature with poverty — something you want to get away from — to associating it with beauty and health. “That is happening all over the world,” says Louv. “Whether it is happening fast enough is a whole other question.”
Quick to give credit, the best-selling author of nine books including his latest, Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Naturerich Life, Louv eagerly points out others have been working on the issue going back as far as the turn of the last century. “This is not a brand new idea but ideas that had been forgotten and are now being remembered, not just by me but by a lot of people,” he says. Over the years, these initiatives have been described as the New Nature Movement and No Child Left Inside. “I never say the phrase ‘back to nature.’ I always say ‘forward to nature,” he adds. “We really need to think about nature and our role in it as part of the future. In my book The Nature Principle, I say that the future belongs to the nature-smart, and I believe that.”
It is well established that plants do produce sounds, although the most common of these are attributed to a strictly physical source, unconnected to communication, like the cracking of joints when you stand up. These sounds are produced when bubbles form in the water being transported upwards in the plant from the roots to the leaves; this mechanism is common in drought-stressed plants. Plants produce other sounds too, but the sources of these remain mysterious.
The production of sound is one thing; the perception of it quite another. Plants have no ears, eardrums, auditory nerves or anything like that. But that isn’t as much of a stumbling block as you might think. Birds have no outer ear, but can hear perfectly well. Some insects harbour their eardrums not at the sides of their heads but in remote places in the body, like the knees. Snakes have no ears or eardrums, but their jawbones vibrate in tune with disturbances in the ground and connect to the serpent version of an inner ear.
In all these cases, the ability to perceive sound is essential, for it provides cues to the presence of predators or prey. Moths, for instance, can avoid hunting bats by listening for their sonar chirps and taking evasive action. So although scientists have raised the objection that there appear to be no mechanisms in plants for listening, we might not have found them yet, at least partly for the lack of searching — scientific papers published on animals outnumber those on plants by two to one.
In fact, there is evidence that, despite the apparent absence of a hearing apparatus, plants might listen. Monica Gagliano, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Western Australia, has conducted an intriguing experiment that, while saying very little about what goes on outside the lab, suggests we should be open-minded.
She germinated chili seedlings in the presence of fennel, a plant that’s hostile to other species in its vicinity. Gardeners know fennel is unfriendly; the plant releases chemicals from its roots that inhibit the growth of others. Gagliano was extremely careful to insulate the chili seeds from the fennel by enclosing the fennel in an airtight container, enclosing that container inside another and creating a vacuum between the two. No chemical or light signal (of any frequency) could be transmitted, in effect leaving the chili seedlings unaware of the presence of the unfriendly plant. (I use the word “unaware” advisedly.) If some signal were getting through even in the face of all the precautions, you might have expected the chili seedlings in the presence of fennel to fail, but paradoxically, they grew more aggressively. However that surprising result is interpreted, as far as anyone could tell there was no apparent way that any influence on growth, positive or negative, could be transmitted from fennel to chili. Could it have been sound?
Another recent experiment (the one Wohlleben refers to in his book) demonstrated that the root tip of corn seedlings will turn to face the direction of a synthesized sound of about 200 hertz. That’s roughly the A below middle C on the piano keyboard and is in the same range as clicking sounds that have been recorded from the same corn seedlings. Again, it’s far from clear how or why this is all working.
Nonetheless, these experiments open the door to new thinking about plants. If the mechanics of sound production, its reception and its function could be better understood, new techniques for increasing crop yields would be available to farmers. And in the spirit of Wohlleben’s book, evidence that plants might be conversing would surely expand our appreciation of them.