For the most part, mothers want us to be happy, right? When they used to tell us, “Go outside and play,” it wasn’t just because they were sick of us, but (also) because the components of nature and the way they fit together are the most instructive and enjoyable curriculum on the planet, no tuition necessary. These days, though, parents aren’t as likely to urge their kids to go outside. Unfortunately, both kids and adults often perceive “outside” as a place that lacks stimulation and is also dangerous.

The engineered planning of towns and cities often reduces nature to concrete water channels, manicured petunia beds, and rectangular soccer fields, removing the rough, wildish edges that kids like the best. Many American schools have reduced or eliminated outdoor time, even as the epidemic of childhood obesity spreads. In fact, as Richard Louv points out in Last Child in the Woods, education boards in a dozen or more states have “outlawed” recess because they consider it less important than national test rankings, it presents perceived liability issues, and it has the potential for violence on the playground. On some school playgrounds that do allow outdoor play, signs read, “No Running!” Tracking the origins of what he calls “nature-deficit disorder,” Louv has observed many other obstacles to natural play, including municipal and homeowner association laws. For example, building codes prohibit or inhibit the construction of tree houses in some towns, some cities forbid climbing on trees in parks, and many of the country’s HOAs (there are now nearly a quarter of a million) frown on basketball hoops and skateboard ramps in driveways.

Add to these restrictions the specters of “stranger danger,” DUI-heavy traffic, and “ecophobia” (the fear of spiders, skin cancer, mosquitoes, snakes, Lyme disease, and poison ivy) and you’ve trained kids to retreat indoors to their video games, TVs, and computer screens. My friend Marie held her ground when her son kept asking for the latest video games: He could only play games that didn’t involve killing, and he had to buy them with his own money. But this teenager knew how to play more than video games; he did a research paper at school on violence in video games, and thus, he convinced her, had no choice but to do the research….

Richard Louv cites a study documenting that in 2003, the average American devoted 327 more hours to electronic media than in 1987. But Louv asks a probing question—very relevant to the theme of this post: “What drives us to virtual reality?” He believes that lack of time and the changing patterns of our cities and towns are key reasons, but that fear—a spell being cast by the news media—is the main reason.3

And I believe there’s still more to it: kids (and adults) don’t value or understand nature because it’s not an action-packed commodity sought after by their peers. Nature is subtle, not in-your-face like virtual reality, and we need to be taught to slow down and appreciate its subtleties and interconnections. We need mentors who can lead us back to nature. Louv interviewed a camp counselor who was awakened by an inner-city girl when she had to go to the bathroom. “We stepped outside the tent and she looked up. She gasped and grabbed my leg. She had never seen the stars before. From that moment on, she was a changed person. She saw everything, like a camouflaged lizard that everyone else skipped over. She used her senses. She was awake!” 

Lost Child in the Woods, Found

When I was four or five, I wandered with a young friend into the woods near our house. My recollections of that distant morning include splotches of bright sunlight projected through the trees onto the dark forest floor, the earthy fragrance of leaves and rich Illinois soil, and knowing what it must feel like to be a butterfly. We fluttered farther and farther away from our yards, clueless that back home our moms were beginning to panic. After an hour or more of frantic searching, someone drove to the other side of the forest and found us near the highway, still in the throes of discovery and exploration. I seem to remember that everyone was very agitated, insisting that we’d gotten lost and could have been killed! But we didn’t see it that way. All we had lost was a sense of time, and a sense of imposed boundaries.

About fifty years later, I experienced a similar, unbounded feeling in a Costa Rican rainforest north of San José. I’ve always thought of myself as a nature guy—a backpacker and fanatical gardener who’s learned about the cycles and meaning of nature by observing them directly—on switch-backed mountain trails or in rich garden beds teeming with vegetables. But I wasn’t prepared for what I encountered at Rara Avis, a biological reserve that is true, undeveloped wilderness. I was like that delighted young preschooler again, fluttering into the woods in search of anything. My girlfriend had gone home and I stayed in a casita without electricity for eight days by myself, drifting further and further from the pace of life back home, where the president was sending the first troops to Iraq.

The story of that experience begins with a rigorous three-hour, tractor-drawn wagon ride over boulders and potholes, the exact opposite of “luxurious” (probably a little like having a baby in an earthquake). But the other travelers and I somehow survive it, and within minutes of arriving near Waterfall Lodge and its outlying casitas, the forest begins to speak to us! A tiny, strawberry poison-dart frog hops across the trail; his bright red skin contains toxins so strong that he has no predators. He just hangs out in his territory—he needs no more than 100 square feet—and waits for females to come to him. What a life!

A little farther up the trail, a boa constrictor wraps around the trunk of a small tree, in no hurry to get out of our way. Instead she relies on her camouflage, ability to constrict, and (maybe) trust in humanity. A regiment of leaf-cutter ants ascends the trunk of a 100-foot-tall tree to prune its leaves, increasing by a third the light that reaches the forest floor. The leaf fragments they bring back (like surfers carrying bright green surfboards) are composted underground to fertilize the fungus crop they find so tasty—an operation that puts nutrients back into the soil. En route, some ants become snacks for birds and other insects, so their niche provides several basic resources the rainforest needs—sun, soil, and food. Thousands of other species make similar contributions, weaving the rainforest together like a tapestry. Creeping over the forest floor toward the shadows is a Monstera vine, which “knows” that by climbing the tallest trees that cast the darkest shadows, it will ultimately bask in full sunlight.

Rara Avis is like a 2,500-acre lungful of fresh air—a masterpiece of biological abundance that provides undisturbed habitat for 362 different species of birds! Twenty different species of orchid were recently counted on a single fallen tree. In a way, this virgin parcel of land is a living self-portrait—the rainforest is painting itself in the bold colors and shadowy nuances of its many species; for example, the red, green, yellow, orange, turquoise, and black of a keel-billed toucan (called a “flying banana” by another traveler); the dark, iridescent blue of a morpho butterfly; and the dappled red of a stained-glass palm.

Callout Title
This virgin parcel of land is a living self-portrait—the rainforest is painting itself in the bold colors and shadowy nuances of its many species.

I walk down to dinner one evening in the foggy twilight and my flashlight beam falls on the orange and black stripes of a coral snake. I’m startled, knowing she’s poisonous, but fascinated that she’s slithered into my life. As I bend closer to get a better look, she retracts from the path into the bushes, like the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the Wicked Witch’s striped sock melts away under the house that smashed her. With the hair on the back of my neck still bristling, I step gingerly from one stepping stone to another, watching the miniature headlights of fireflies hovering in the descending darkness, lit only by a rising crescent moon.

After dinner in the big log cabana, biologist Amanda Neill explains why she puts her energy into studying a single species of rainforest flower: the bright red gurania, or jungle cucumber. “Think what might happen if the taxonomists mistakenly lump two similar species together,” she says. “We might assume that there are plenty of these—don’t worry about saving their habitat—when really there are only a few of each species left, that have traveled a billion years to get here.”

The sense of ecological urgency in this blond-haired thirty-year-old woman mixes well with her sense of delight. Even in her narrow niche of study, she’s traveled widely—to Ecuador, Belize, Peru, now Costa Rica—to study the taxonomy and ecology of her focus species. In effect, she’s found her own symbiotic niche in the rainforest, trading her skills at cataloging and protecting the gurania for the privilege of living a month at a time under the lush, protective canopy of the rainforest.

That night, when the cicadas, tree frogs, trogons, owls, howler monkeys, and hundreds of other species all join the chorus, the forest sounds like a smoothly running factory—Taca, taca, taca… sissit, sissit…. Given that the mission of each call is to be heard among a symphony of other calls, there are all varieties of pitch and syncopation—creating an incredibly rich and complex symphony. Over the eons, rainforest species don different colors and improvise different shapes so all nutrients will be used, and all niches occupied. (They utilize information and design rather than superfluous resources, an important lesson for our civilization.) In the morning I’m awakened by a cuckoo clock that turns out to be a bird with a very complex, mechanical-sounding call. I count the hours, groggily, but even in half-sleep, I know it can’t be thirteen o’clock already….

Waking Up in the Rainforest

On a remote jungle trail toward the end of my retreat, I’m dressed only in shorts and rubber boots. I’ve taken off my t-shirt to feel the rainforest on my skin, despite the warnings that deadly fer-de-lance snakes could strike from overhead branches and vines. I’m thinking, “Remember this moment. Remember the way you feel, right now, as howler monkeys growl like lions way off in the distance, and the sun filters through the dense foliage onto your stupefied, grateful face.”

Sure, we can read about the rainforest and see it on TV, but until we spend quality time there, letting ourselves slow down, we don’t really grasp what tropical biology is all about. It struck me on that Costa Rican rainforest retreat that we overconsuming humans need to somehow absorb these colors, this bold brilliance, into our hearts, and revalue nature’s wealth all over the planet. There’s so much more to life than the gray of concrete and the drab green of paper currency! My feeling is that until we acknowledge the butterfly, orchid, rose, maple, and wisteria colors inside each of us, we can’t feel truly at home in ourselves. We can’t see the deficiencies of our economic system clearly enough—that it isn’t programmed to preserve nature, or to optimize human potential. Until we launch an unwavering mission to Planet Earth, we’ll keep postponing the homecoming until there’s not much left to come home to. In that rainforest, I saw and felt complexity-in-balance, and realized how far out of balance our industrial complexity is—infantile and clunky by comparison, with only thousands of years of experience as opposed to billions. Rather than cooperating to make the overall system sustainable, our industrial species compete to attain their own, narrowly defined goals. The name Rara Avis comes from a medieval poem containing the phrase “Rara avis in terris.” The phrase means, literally, “a rare bird in the world”—or figuratively, something new and fresh happening in human civilization. And so there is!

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