Earl Shaffer walked the “Trail” from Georgia to Maine along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains exactly 70 years ago in 1948. He was the first to take this long walk as he said, “To walk off the war.” Earl like others saw the horrors of war during World War II. Now seven (7) decades later we have many “wounded warriors” hiking the Appalachian Trail to deal with PTSD. I have met many of these honorable men and women and understand how nature can help heal, restore, and overcome mental fatigue. Nature is calming, helps us relax and focus the mind. It’s mysteries and wonders have helped countless numbers.
Doctors and others in the health field have understood for a long time the therapeutic powers of nature. Nature therapy certainly isn’t a new concept, but the natural world has been off limits to many of our children for the last 3 decades. This unwarranted separation began in the 1980s and has been replaced with the rapid advancement of technology. No longer are the “backwoods” the playground for our kids. It has been reported on national news that the average child now spends less than 7 minutes a day outdoors, not necessarily in nature, just outside. This outside time might be just waiting for the school bus in front of their home. For many children the only outdoor activity may be playing on a fertilized, manicured, athletic field. I don’t believe this should be classified as a nature experience.
I have gone on day hikes with kids as old as 17 who have never been in the woods their entire life. The first time I did a day hike with 14-17 year olds and their staff from lock-up I had kids say after 10 minutes into the hike, “Boy, it’s so beautiful in here. I’ve never been in the woods in my life.” At the end of the day I had many thanking me for the greatest day of their lives asking me if I could do it again with them sometime.
I reflected on the day during the long drive home in my old pickup. It was one of the happiest days of my life and at the same time one of the saddest. It was at that moment when I realized I had to do something. No wonder these kids are killing each other, stealing cars, experimenting with or selling drugs. They don’t even know what’s out there. They don’t understand how beautiful and glorious the natural world is and what they are missing in life.
I started talking to anyone who would listen to me in the late ’90s, some 20 years ago, explaining that the youth of America were headed for a horrific future. I had witnessed enough by then to continue to remain silent. I remember warning people that we would see depression/suicide and heavy drug use like never before. I did not mention opiates, as drugs run in cycles. The opiate epidemic will eventually calm down and be replaced by some other “garbage”.
It has been this way ever since the drug culture established its strong roots after 1968. I have watched documentaries and read about the worst twelve months in American history. I also lived it. This was a time of race riots, protest marches, the burning of draft cards and the public desecration of American flags. The public learned that we had been lied to by our government as to the number of casualties in Vietnam. It was a time of insanity, and to deal with it all, young people turned to drugs in numbers never seen before in American history. It was the beginning of the escalation of the drug culture and its destructive force that is still with us today. America’s guts were ripped open during this era and this country has never recovered
I have discovered that most young people, even those well educated with graduate degrees know little of the history and happenings of 1968. On this 50th anniversary, it would be good if our youth were educated on its happenings to begin to understand the social problems it created for us today. Who has replaced Martin Luther King, Jr.? Who replaced RFK? What have we done for our Vietnam vets still suffering? I have friends in their 70s still attending anger management classes at the VA. There were no parades for these guys. Instead they were called “baby killers”, spit on, and couldn’t find a job after returning to civilian life.
Most everyone I spoke to in the late 90s about my predictions of the future were answered telling me I was crazy, nuts, negative, a downer. I remember one gentleman telling me I had a perverted sick mind and how dare I say something so horrible about the future of America’s children. “I can’t believe you’re a teacher.” I don’t argue with people, never have and never will. I would calmly say, “If you lived my personal life and you lived my professional life, it’s so easy to see what’s coming. It looks like an 18 wheeler coming down on us at 100 miles an hour with the high beams blaring in our eyes and the horn blasting. I pray every day I’m wrong.” Unfortunately, I wasn’t!
Just like Earl Shaffer and soldiers of war we all need a connection with nature. For too many it has become foreign in their hectic, technologically advanced life style. May this separation from nature be the missing link? It seems like every time I turn on the news the world gets a little crazier. Nature has a tremendous psychological importance to mental health. There is no question about it. All of us need this connection for emotional well-being. Many have said they are going for a walk in the woods to “clear their head”. The fact is, it does. It balances the brain and strengthens the right hemisphere. It restores harmony to the functions of the brain as a whole. Too much screen time during the development of a child’s brain stunts maturity of the frontal lobe, which develops to age 20. It has been reported on national news repeatedly that the average child in America today now spends more than 10 hours a day staring at some type of electronic screen. It is causing problems with learning, remembering, feeling, controlling impulses, and a slew of other problems mentally, emotionally, and physically.
Doctors and other health professionals keep warning us of the negative circumstances of to much screen time. They have advised parents not to let their children even watch TV until age 2. How much damage is being done to our youth we certainly don’t fully understand yet. We have just begun to realize its impact.
I heard a research doctor of the eye explain that if things continue over 1/2 the WORLD’S population will have myopia within the next 20 years. As he explained the research, it seemed so common sensible. The developing eye of the child he explained adapts as it grows to realize it doesn’t have to be developed to look at long distances by continually staring at screens. He also said they don’t understand yet but the lack of natural sunlight to the developing eye is contributing to growth of myopia. We are just beginning to understand the affects of living an unbalanced life of over using technology and this separation from nature and the outdoors. Few kids have the experience my son and I had during the winter of 2016-2017. I have witnessed 100 mile views from the summit of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, but never before had I seen a 120 mile view on a crystal clear day in March. Being continually inside doesn’t let the eye develop properly.
We have created a world of asphalt, concrete, skyscrapers, cars, planes, subways, and advanced technology in the name of progress. This artificial world is so foreign to where this animal feels comfort. Yes, animal. Many of us have forgotten we are an animal, more specifically a mammal. This radical change in our natural environment has created an over stressed, overweight, over-medicated population. We drink too much, are drug dependent, depressed, angry, and simply going “nuts”. All this insanity may have something to do with our disconnection with the natural world.
Our children, in particular, are having a difficult time. Research and studies are making this very clear. What are our children doing, if not outside playing in the back woods or fishing down at the pond? How do they spend their time, if not living the life of a child as it was just a short time ago and what are the results of this change in life style?! Next time I will begin to examine these questions and the horrifying physical, mental, and emotional results this generation is dealing with.