Nature-Deficit Disorder? Not in My Neighborhood
One Saturday every month is Community Gardening Day in Carl Schurz Park. My nine-year-old daughter Clare and I head over to the volunteer table after a late breakfast to sign in and get our gardening gloves. It’s April, with the daffodils past their prime but the cherry blossoms in full glory. The forsythia, the first yellow trumpet-fanfare of spring, has subsided into leggy green.
Forsythia lines both sides of the broad pram steps leading north from the plaza at 86th Street. The shrubs have been neglected for years, flopping and tangled, some of the canes ten feet long. Time for drastic action. We are cutting them back to a height of three feet. The crew cut will stimulate healthier growth and a brighter flourish of flowers next spring.
We set to work with loppers, me and two grandmotherly types from the neighborhood. Clare’s job is to drag the brush to the side and stack it. She holds two huge branching green antlers up to her head. “I’m the queen of spring!” she giggles, staggering under the weight. The brush pile grows taller than Clare. The stubby results of our work are leafless and don’t even reach her waist. The steps begin to look naked. Passersby look alarmed. Clare examines the cut canes and discovers they’re hollow all the way through. “Like bamboo,” she says, squinting through one.
Clare wanders away out of sight for a while, exploring, then comes dancing back. “I found a secret path!” The weather is uncertain: a spatter of rain, then a sudden sunbeam that makes the tulips glow. We work for several hours, long enough to see people come and go, long enough to watch the weather change. It’s lovely to be outside, to feel rain on our faces, not to care about staying clean or dry. We have nowhere else to be. When lunch arrives at the volunteer table, we descend on the food and bear it off to Clare’s hideaway.
In his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv credits childhood exposure to nature-whether in an urban park or the Grand Canyon-with everything from enhanced creativity to reduced hyperactivity. Learning the landscape gives children a sense of place, a taste of independence, and later a proprietary impulse toward stewardship. Alienation from it will result in a generation of adults for whom natural history exists only in museums, people with a reduced capacity for wonder and no understanding of the connection between emotional and environmental health.
I’m with Louv all the way, but he can make it seem as though a childhood without regular wilderness trips, or at least a ravine at the end of the street, is less than ideal. I prefer to sleep indoors myself, and there are no ravines on the Upper East Side, but as Clare skips away from the forsythia canes to hunt for worms brought up by the rain, she doesn’t look deprived to me. If nature is wildness, the web of life interacting with the forces of weather and geology, constantly cycling and changing, there’s plenty of it right here.
You have to look carefully, though, and keep looking. We walk the same route alongside the park and the East River every morning, six blocks to Clare’s school, then another seven to her little brother David’s. In March the green shoots grow taller each day, then pop into crocuses and snowdrops and so many varieties of daffodil that we’ve lost count. Our favorite is the kind with white petals and a fiery orange-red center. In October the sidewalk near 85th Street is strewn with odd lime-green lumps. It took several field guides and much examining of bark textures and leaf shapes, but we at last identified the sole Osage orange tree in Carl Schurz Park. And while we were squinting up into its branches, we spotted a red-tailed hawk, surveying the neighborhood in perfect stillness.
Clare and David can’t catch frogs or pick raspberries on East End Avenue, but they are learning how to look nonetheless. The sidewalk along the park is paved with a bumpy mixture that includes a few chips of recycled glass, blue, red, and green. If you’re doing the standard New York Purposeful Stride, you’ll never see them. But if you’re walking at the pace of two children licking ice cream cones on the way home, it’s like being at the shore. “Look Mommy, beach glass!”
I took an informal poll of friends with small children in New York: “How do your kids experience nature?” Most mentioned the restorative powers of the country as an antidote to city life. But many were awake to the nature that lives in the city, and were making it part of the daily routine-”like brushing your teeth”-to help their children look and see: fog rolling in and obscuring the tops of buildings, weeds finding opportunities in brick walls, icicles growing on parked cars, squirrels nesting on fire escapes, house sparrows drinking from puddles. Some of the best birding in the northeast is in Central Park, an Upper West Side mom pointed out. One friend was teaching her son and daughter flower identification from the green florist buckets lined up in front of the 24-hour deli. Several parents were encouraging clandestine tree-climbing, and many were refreshingly casual about dirt. “I don’t want them growing up to be the kind of city kids who are afraid to sit on a patch of grass,” wrote one mother in Brooklyn. “City living is great and I wouldn’t trade it,” said a dad in Washington Heights, “but it’s easy for kids to become like house cats.”
Slow down and open your eyes, was the refrain. Meander a little. Dig. And with apologies to Mr. Sinatra, if you can do it here, you can do it anywhere. When Clare and David find themselves in a rural setting, their city-trained eyes are sharp. Within an hour of tumbling out of the car last weekend in Connecticut, they had collected a row of treasures: a peeled stick covered in wiggling worm grooves; a papery grey wasp’s nest, miracle of hexagons; a discarded snakeskin, waxy white; a nosegay of tiny violets.
Looking at the natural world raises questions about how things work. Learning to answer those questions makes a child into a scientist. The satisfaction of knowing the answer branches into more questions. You start with biology-flowers, caterpillars-and pretty soon you’re into chemistry and physics: How does ice make potholes? Why does the East River flow in both directions? The questions get harder, and soon you can’t answer them without a little research. You are remembering how to be a scientist, too.
There’s a courtyard garden behind our building, with a pair of cardinals in residence. We wake up to their voices every morning, and we’ve started keeping a pair of binoculars on the dining table-in an avian landscape dominated by pigeons and sparrows, our brilliant red neighbors never lose their power to delight. The male is perched in the tree outside the window right now, alternately calling and preening, digging through his red breastfeathers to the black down beneath. His vermilion beak is framed in black, and there is the slightest frosting of grey on his wings. With the binoculars I can see straight into his beak as it opens. The crest on the top of his head rises slightly with the effort of each note. It’s the same call we heard in the country last weekend. A cardinal is a cardinal, whether in the Berkshire foothills or on East 89th Street. Walk slowly, and you’ll see one.
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