Stopping the Ape and Moving Forward to Nature

I’ve spent most of my professional life trying to help people appreciate nature. In the field of nature interpretation, you try to provoke interest in a meaningful way. You only get a few seconds of a viewer’s time, but if you do a good job, you will have ignited a spark of natural curiosity and hopefully they will walk away wanting to learn more on their own.

A wetland illustration I did for Idaho Power Company.

I started this blog and wrote my young-adult novel as an extension of my profession, as a way to take people and especially children, deeper into nature. I’ve been lucky in my career—getting to spend time illustrating and writing about fascinating animals and plants and ecological relationships. But anyone working with environmental subjects knows it can get depressing, too…for obvious reasons. And in interpretation circles, we have begun to realize we have yet another type of threat to nature. In my neighborhood in West Seattle, that threat recently appeared into the middle of Lincoln Park, a magical place of towering firs and cedars, sweeping views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Range, beaches, and a thriving community of plants, wildlife and people. It’s a terrible plan and has infuriated a lot of people, but I worry it may be just the tip of the iceberg.

A watercolor sketch of the beach at Lincoln Park with Puget Sound, the Olympics and rain.

 

In interpretation, you learn very quickly that it doesn’t work to talk only about plants and animals. You have to get personal—show your audience how nature relates directly to them. Let’s face it, we’re all pretty stuck on ourselves.

But, most of our audience used to come pre-packaged with a simple love of nature, usually something they acquired in childhood, and it wasn’t that hard to spark their interest and curiosity. Sadly, the baby-boomers were probably the last full generation of Americans that grew up running wild in nature…climbing trees and stomping through creeks, turning over logs and jumping off rocks…sometimes getting into trouble, most times getting ourselves out of it. We learned a lot from those experiences—that nature was a place of exciting discovery, a place where we could test ourselves, work things out alone or in cooperation with our friends, and explore a world of other creatures that share the planet.

 

A child alone in the woods…almost never seen anymore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few decades ago, our society seemed to have decided practically overnight that the world, and nature in particular, had become a much too dangerous place for children to roam freely. Kids today spend most of their time indoors and plugged in, or in highly structured and supervised activities. Too often, they are not given the opportunity to develop the deep love of nature that we did. Add to that the depressing and overwhelming messages of “Planet Earth is Dying, and YOU Must Save it!” underlying most anything to do with the environment these days, and you have one big societal push straight indoors.

 

Nature Deficit Disorder

Richard Louv has studied and written extensively about this social condition in his book “The Last Child in the Woods”. As a society, over-hyped media reports and other manufactured fears literally scared Americans out of the woods. Louv now writes and lectures about the physical and emotional ills caused by lack of daily, unstructured outdoor activity and contact with nature. Obesity, depression, and behavioral problems have been conclusively linked to what he has termed “Nature Deficit Disorder”, a non-medical condition that many of us, especially children, suffer from. Turns out, daily contact with nature is very much a basic human need.

Now nature interpreters are realizing our jobs are getting more difficult—our audience just got a lot tougher. We still only get 3 seconds to make our case for nature, but now we must communicate it to a group of people that society has been conditioning to look for solace, entertainment, and meaning almost anywhere but in nature. Younger generations know a lot about science and nature and the environment…but the value of just being in nature seems lost on many of them.

 

The Ape

It’s sad that a corporation specializing in high-impact recreation installations—mostly built in city and town parks across the world, in remnant forests or natural areas of financially strapped communities—named itself GoApe. I cannot think of a more insensitive name choice than ape—one of the most imperiled forest-dwelling family of animals on the planet. Apes are symbols of so much that is wrong with the world…all of it human-caused. I think it says something about a company that is essentially a forest resource-extraction interest to choose such a name.

 

This illustration was used by the opposition to the Go Ape proposal.

 

For background on GoApe’s high-impact development scheme for Lincoln Park, visit: West Seattle Blog

Last night, a furious group of over 200 Seattlites met with the community to fight this proposal. Many of us left the meeting with the hope the whole thing will be canceled, and soon. But even if GoApe packs up and leaves today, the threat of another Ape remains.

(Or maybe a Goape or an Aype would be more fitting as a symbol…I envision a giant troll-like creature.)

I noted in last nights’ meeting that most of the protestors were over thirty years old. The Parks Department said that they were looking to provide “new modes of recreation” that young people are demanding these days. Apparently this translates as high-impact, high-adrenaline, and high-cost modes of eco-tainment—the kind people demand who never learned to love just plain old rocks and sticks and streams and trees.

So, the disturbing question is: when boomers leave the planet, and if the newer generations never learn to find deep solace, wonder, and joy in nature, who will keep out the Goapes and Aypes of the future? What will happen to nature then?

 

Moving Forward to Nature

Safety

No one today would dare tell you that urban parks offer guaranteed safety. But they are surely as safe or safer than anywhere else in the city, including parking lots, schools, malls, and most especially, anywhere inside a moving vehicle. At some point, we are going to have to get realistic about safety.

 

Making Nature Fun Again

We have to stop sending so many depressing You Must Save Planet Earth messages to children. When I first thought about ideas for my novel The Hollow Cedar, I decided to keep the environmental message very subtle and in the background. Mostly, I just wanted kids to be able to read a fun story that takes place in nature — to transport them into an entirely new and fascinating place. My characters go deep into nature, are faced with threats and dangers and challenges, learn about working together to solve problems, and find out they are a lot stronger and smarter than they realized. It’s not a substitute for actual nature-experiences, but it may awaken a curious little mind or two.

 

When I researched my novel, I found that Suz Lipman hosts The Children in Nature Network and learned that there is a growing movement all over the world to get kids back into nature. Find out more here:

Children & Nature Network

Richard Louv

 

Mutant Octopus, Mythical Sea-Serpents, and Puget Sound Marine Mammals

 

Sometimes I let my imagination run wild. Maybe I watched too many sci-fi thrillers when I was young, or maybe I just want to sprinkle a little artistic license on the ordinary world, but sometimes…I daydream up weird stuff. Just for the fun of it.

Once, I casually remarked to my husband as we walked on the beach, “Just imagine—right now—a giant mutant octopus emerging up out of Puget Sound! Wouldn’t that be awesome?

I should have known better than to say such a thing to a marine biologist!

But one day I actually saw something that seemed impossible. It was on the beach in West Seattle’s Lincoln Park—one of those typical Seattle days, with the water and the sky one solid slab of gray. No wind at all…the water smooth as glass. Not a soul in sight…no people, no boats, no ferries.

I had been walking along in the gray, thinking how nice it would be if water had no reflective surface. We already know what the sky looks like…why should the water mirror it for us? Wouldn’t it be better if Puget Sound was transparent from every angle, so we could see all the way to the bottom…see every bit of marine life in there?

Then a giant sea-serpent swam by right in front of me. Something straight out of Norse mythology. It had the familiar three-hump shape and the graceful rolling motion of a snake in the water. All that was missing was the arched head and the lashing tongue.

 

I watched it swim for at least ten minutes…three perfect dark humps rising smoothly in synchronized movements…one after the other. It went slowly, in playful figure-eights, spiraling out further and further off shore. And each time a hump rose and fell, it sprayed off a neat little fountain of water.

Daydreamer shifted into Naturalist. It must be three separate animals. Baby orca? Orcas are not unusual in Puget Sound—I’ve seen pods quite a few times. But no, orcas are lots bigger, and this was three creatures of similar size, not a baby with adults.

I ran through the list of common Puget Sound marine mammals: sea lions, harbor seals…no, they move differently. They swim for a while, then stop and poke their noses up and look around. Usually, they look right at you. Same with river otters. And I’ve never seem them swim synchronized like that.

I figured there had to be something I was forgetting, and of course there was: Dall’s porpoise. Dall’s porpoises are rare in Puget Sound, and I’ve never seen them here before. Plus, I’ve always thought of porpoises as swimming fast, darting through the water, not lazy like these were. And I didn’t remember seeing any dorsal fins. But they best fit the description, right down to the distinctive “rooster-tail” splashes they make.

I feel a little silly about the whole sea-serpent thing. But it does make me feel better that my husband didn’t think of porpoises either. “Gosh, Dee,” he said when I described what I had seen and asked what he thought, “maybe it was a magical sea creature.”

I’ll never live down the ‘mutant octopus’ remark.

So now when I walk the beach, I look for porpoises. And I think about all the living things out there in Puget Sound. But I still wish water didn’t have a mirrored surface. Maybe then it would seem like more than just a body of water…maybe it would seem more like a place where actual creatures are trying to live. Maybe then, we would care more about protecting it.