Monday, April 15, 2013

Author's nature book grows up

By David Horst

In 2006, I wrote an unabashed endorsement of Richard Louv’s “The Last Child in the Woods,” an enthusiastic but reasoned look at the healing power of nature and the ills of what he called Nature-Deficit Disorder.

Louv will be here in the Fox Valley April 22-24, speaking six times in multiple locations as a featured author for this year’s Fox Cities Reads and the Fox Cities Book Festival. So I’m calling the virtual Richard Louv Book Club into session right now. (Full disclosure: A grant program I work with in my day job at the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region is one of the funders of Louv’s appearance.)Your first assignment is to go to to read my 2006 column and to read “Last Child in the Woods” — in that order.Next, we begin our critique and discussion of Louv’s followup book, “The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age.” In it, he applies to adults the lessons he uncovered in “Last Child.” He proposes there can exist the hybrid mind, enhanced by electronics like iPhones and video games, but calmed and focused by nature.

He also applies those lessons to himself.

In what had to be some painful hours at the keyboard, Louv relives the alienation of his father. The elder Louv became disinterested in the garden that had grown so many happy family memories. He grew distant from his family, and from his personal happiness. Finally, he took his own life.

After that moment in chapter 3, you wonder whether the book is Louv’s personal journey in trying to answer the twin guilt-ladened questions of “Why?” and “What could I have done?”

It is a journey worth joining him on.

Louv explores further the health benefits of outdoor activities and even of glimpsing the outdoors through a window. He cites dozens of scientific studies and quotes many experts to support his observations.

He even presents possible biological explanations of why it works. Research found that an antimicrobial oil exuded into the air by certain plants may boost the immune system. A study of mice concludes that exposure to a bacteria found in dirt dramatically improves their performance in a maze.

Who among us couldn’t stand a little help performing in our own maze?

He looks to other countries and cultures for novel treatments. For example, doctors in Norway can prescribe for their patients a stay at a health farm. What a boon that could be for the state of family farms in the Dairy State.

One intriguing suggestion is for the health-conscious to get out of the gym and work out in nature, organizing “nature gyms.” Run a trail at High Cliff State Park one week, bike the CE Trail another and kayak around Little Lake Butte des Morts the next. He promises it will be way more satisfying than running a pre-programmed route on a treadmill with earbuds in your ears and a mute CNN broadcast on the TV screen.

That’s assignment No. 3.

In “Last Child,” I related deeply to Louv’s description of roaming bits of urban nature as a child. In “The Nature Principle,” he writes with reverie of sitting where famed naturalist Aldo Leopold observed nature on weekend retreats with his family. I’ve sat in the shack on the banks of the Wisconsin River. Louv got me again.

OK, “The Nature Principle” is a sequel of sorts and, like most sequels, fails to fully capture what was special about the original. He gets a little too analytical for too long at times. But you can always read fast and skip pages.

The book is worth buying and worth reading, and Richard Louv certainly will be worth hearing.

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