We humans have a complex relationship with nature. Those of us who work to conserve, restore or design with nature often take for granted humanity’s dependence on and innate love for nature. “Biophilia” was E.O. Wilson’s suggestion that we as humans have an instinctive bond with other living systems. I feel this when I’m in urban nature … getting a much-needed dose of trees overhead and singing birds and cool breezes whether immersed in nature or in the relative protection of my neighborhood park or back yard. So I jumped at the opportunity to tour The Presidio’s Forest this week at the Greater and Greener Conference in San Francisco.
As we walked through the 100+ year-old forest I thought of the beloved places of my youth, surrounded by tree trunks and protected by broad canopies. Signs of people connected to nature surrounded us. A group of small children played on top of massive felled trees stacked neatly on one another. An impromptu twig fence marked the place of previous play. In the same vein, Andy Goldsworthy — the artist known for ephemeral art made with nature in nature — erected “Spire” with trunks carefully thinned from the dense forest. Further on, a beautifully stacked stone wall welcomed us into the San Francisco National Cemetery, a resting spot surrounded by forest and overlooking the ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge beyond. It is hard to imagine feeling anything but peaceful there.
But not everyone grows up playing in their local rivers and woods. Not everyone had tough and motherly Girl Scout Troop leaders guiding them into far-off camp sites to learn how to determine direction, traverse hillside trails and make fire. Not everyone had 6th grade Science Camp counselors teaching them where a Wolf Spider lives and how to spot Poison Ivy or guiding them through boulder mazes in Ohio’s Hocking Hills.
Mickey Fearn of North Carolina State University works to teach children who have never experienced nature how to appreciate and love it. I had the honor of hearing Fearn speak this week in San Francisco about “Biophobia,” the opposite of Biophilia, or fear of the natural world. For urban children and their parents who have only experienced nature through media, the world outside the city is full of terrifying predators and deathly conditions. Man vs. Wild, Survivor, and movies such as Jaws and Anaconda prove only that nature is something to be feared and overcome. It takes a week, Fearn said, to get these children to feel comfortable in the once foreign natural world.
A few years ago I taught eight architecture students from East Los Angeles College an Introduction to Landscape Architecture class. We had eight weeks to learn the principles of designing with nature so they could develop sensitive solutions for a city-owned apartment landscape. We began by taking a field trip to nearby nature. My own children, well-versed in exploring the natural world, joined us as we toured Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco, and the Audobon Center in Montecito Heights.
“How did you find this place?” one student asked in awe as we stood under the Colorado Street Bridge looking into lush Sycamore Trees and Coast Live Oaks surrounding the sandy bottom of the Arroyo Seco. We were standing just a half mile from the Norton Simon Museum and Old Town Pasadena, and one mile from the Rose Bowl. We were less than 10 miles from East Los Angeles College. And yet, most of my students had never experienced such a natural setting. Most of them had spent their lives in East Los Angeles or South LA, miles from the San Gabriel Mountains or SoCal’s famous beaches and yet disconnected from nature.
“My teacher took me here when I was in school,” I answered. And because she did, I took my own children, and then my students. My children, aged 8 – 14 at the time, were proud to show these older students around the Arroyo. They
“I’m going to come back here,” the student said, drinking in the beauty with all of his senses. I hope he did. This week, as we celebrate Earth Day, I think of my ELAC students, and Mrs. Kugelman’s 5th grade students I help lead along the Los Angeles River each year. And I hope that each of them find a little connection to nature to take with them to a greener, healthier future.