New movement aims to rethink nature and our role in it, making us healthier and more creative

Posted June 25, 2011, at 2:59 p.m.

BOISE, Idaho — Richard Louv was looking out the giant picture window of Boise’s MK Nature Center in 2008 when it all clicked.

Louv, a San Diego journalist, had already sparked the movement to get children back to nature with the international bestseller, “Last Child in the Woods.” He was meeting with the heads of Idaho’s Departments of Fish and Game, Agriculture, Parks and Environmental Quality to help them address “nature-deficit disorder,” a concept he had coined.

Through the glass, dark-eyed juncos and black-capped chickadees were eating at hanging bird feeders.

Native grasses grew tall next to a brush pile that offered safe cover for skunks and songbirds avoiding numerous raptors.

Serviceberry bushes and hawthorns framed a bubbling stream, engineered to look like it was flowing naturally through a ponderosa pine forest.

“I love that place,” Louv said in a telephone interview this month. “After I went to the nature center, I started thinking ‘What if my own backyard could be that way?'”

Louv has done a lot of thinking since then.

He has transformed his yard into the same overgrown bramble, with birds singing at the feeders and sand lizards crawling over the rocks.

“I watch that lizard dart around, and it makes me happy,” he said. “It makes me laugh. That keeps me healthy.”

Louv’s 2005 book had a profound effect on American society. More than 140 organizations were formed nationwide to help get children outdoors, including the Be Outside, Idaho! coalition. In 2007, then-Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne challenged his 300 top managers to show ways their agencies could turn around the nature-deficit trend.

Governors from both political parties, including Idaho’s Butch Otter, have launched statewide conferences or campaigns.

Starting one movement wasn’t enough for the head of the Children in Nature Network and winner of the Audubon Medal.

“I don’t think the children’s nature movement is going to be sustainable if adults are not included, too,” Louv said.

He outlines this new nature movement, and its potential to improve the lives of all people no matter where they live, in his latest book, “The Nature Principle.”

Louv’s vision is not a rejection of technology or a back-to-the-land trend like the one that came out of the environmental movement 40 years ago.

Instead, he wants to tap nature to boost our mental acuity, creativity and health. At its heart, the movement seeks to replace the apocalyptic vision that modern society has created.

“When you ask many Americans, if not most, to conjure up what the future will look like, you get ‘Blade Runner,’ ‘Mad Max,’ or maybe Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road,'” Louv said. “If that’s the dominant image of the future, then we’re in trouble.”

The environmental movement has not only failed to convince people of the threats of climate change, it has fed into this ominous vision, he said. No movement can succeed if its future is a place where people don’t want to go.

Kempthorne, now president and CEO of the American Council of Life Insurance, agrees. He remembers when he visited Shanghai, a city of 22 million with endless skyscrapers all built in the past decade.

Drive into the city at night through the forest of multi-colored digital ads, the blue lights of its elevated highways and the iridescent green of the Lupu Bridge over the Huangpu River, and it looks like you are driving into the dark and shadowy world of “Blade Runner.”

“I said to the Chinese leaders that they are measuring their progress by how many cars they are getting on the streets,” Kempthorne said. “We are measuring our progress by how many bikes we are getting on our paths.”

If Shanghai’s “Blade Runner” vision is the wrong direction, then Boise’s “A River Runs Through It” version offers the right one for the future.

In Boise: good steps, but some connections fading Louv’s new book highlights programs, policies and ideas that integrate nature into urban life.

As Boise mayor, Kempthorne pushed through the final challenging sections of the Boise River Greenbelt, a treasure that has helped make the river a natural ribbon through the urban landscape.

A few years later, voters approved a levy to protect the Foothills that connect Boise neighborhoods to the southern edge of the Northern Rockies.

As the Treasure Valley population has grown by 35 percent or more over the past two decades, Boise has become more natural, not less, in its core.

Floaters and cyclists enjoy the river in summer, and snowboarders shred the slopes of Bogus Basin in the winter.

But it doesn’t stop there. Along with Boise’s string of riverside parks, community gardens are springing up around the city.

Boise is even changing its ordinances to make it easier for homeowners to have farm animals in their yards.

Louv said these new-nature features help Boise offer “an alternative vision of the future — one that’s very different from the ‘Blade Runner’ future that so many people unconsciously accept as inevitable.”

Boise formed an Urban Agriculture Committee to help create standards to encourage and control farming within city limits. The city is expected to develop rules for farms, livestock, beekeeping and poultry to keep up with the growing interest in everything from community gardens to raising chickens and ducks.

Boise Downtown Community Garden, between 11th and 12th on Fort Street, is on  land donated by the Cathedral of the Rockies Methodist church.

The garden is providing healthy food while helping heal a rift between the church and its neighbors over past development plans, said Amy Hutchinson, one of the founders of the Boise Urban Garden School.

The gardens connect with the growing local food movement and rekindle the cultural experiences of Idaho’s agricultural community. Hutchinson shares Louv’s vision that small steps to create nature in the ever-growing urban landscape can make people more productive and happy.

“We have lots of tributaries, and hopefully they’re feeding a bigger river that will lead us to a better future,” said Hutchinson, who teaches government and English at Boise High School.

The Be Outside, Idaho! campaign by a coalition of more than 150 public and private groups and agencies is dedicated to getting kids outdoors. Victoria Runnoe, a Fish and Game outdoor educator who heads the group, said expanding the vision to include adults is critical.

She agrees that Boise provides a wonderful vision of what the future can be.

“Boise is so fortunate because we don’t have to create the natural infrastructure,” she said. “It’s already here.” But for how long? Idaho’s traditional outdoor pursuits — hunting and fishing — are losing participants, she said.

While Fish and Game seeks to promote interest in these outdoor activities, it also is encouraging things like wildlife viewing, which continues to grow in Idaho and nationally.

“I think when people go outside and have those experiences, it’s transformative,” she said.

Critical development questions span the nation, Louv said. The Minneapolis Arboretum sponsored a statewide conference last month to consider how the Nature Principle might be used to help shape that state’s future.

Louv doesn’t dismiss the power of the environmental movement, and he doesn’t deny the threat of climate change.

“It’s almost like the more we talk about climate change,” he said, “the less people believe it.” He suggests advocates assure people that despite the great changes, they can thrive in a warmer world even as they push for action to combat it.

“Conservation is no longer enough,” Louv said. “We have to create nature.”

He goes back to his visit to the Nature Center.

“What if a neighborhood were structured around a rehabilitated wildlife habitat?” Louv said. “Developers of middle-class neighborhoods might orient homes in a sensitive way near nature corridors, with the natural theater visible from windows, glass walls and porches.” The possibilities have kept him thinking.

“Was there a way to do this, I wondered, in new or existing neighborhoods, without adversely affecting wildlife?”

That thinking resonates with Cass Meissner, volunteer coordinator at the MK Nature Center. Twenty years ago, the 5-acre lot was a converted landfill turned into a baseball field.

Today, the mix of forest, range and garden married to the Boise River attracts waterfowl, deer, foxes and even bobcats as it hosts thousands of children and their families every year.

Meissner is hopeful that as people reconnect with nature, they will be better prepared to adapt to the changes we and the Earth face.

“Kids have a great ability to adapt,” Meissner said. “The adults have to be the ones to lead that change and model that behavior.”

 

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