Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Your Own Silent Spring

Back in the 1950s, scientist Rachel Carson famously warned that we might see the time when nature simply fails to show up. Her dire prediction has yet to come true, but today’s landscape seems to be curiously devoid of people. That first struck me on a two-hour drive through southeastern Pennsylvania, on a nippy but sunny autumn Sunday. My route took me along a mix of backroads and two-lane state highways, past hundreds of suburban and rural homes. It wasn’t until I was almost home that I identified what seemed odd about the passing landscape. Except for a few busy Amish homesteads, every yard was empty

Where the hell was everybody?

I was reminded of Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, with its call to restore unstructured outdoor play as an important part of childhood. The book made good sense to me. But as with many remedies prescribed for the emotional well-being of kids, this one would benefit adults as well.

By all accounts, people of all ages have become more sedentary. Exercise, when can be shoehored into a busy week, often is restricted to intense workouts at a gym. In the process, the natural world becomes a static backdrop, something to be viewed through a window or in a documentary. A public affairs officer at Great Smoky Mountains National Park reported that abo
its visitors never get out of their cars. That same inertia keeps people inside their houses, as well. One reason must be that the home landscape often is no more than a sterile, chemical-laced backdrop, graced by the obligatory foundation plantings. It’s territory that no one is likely to set foot on expect to get to and from the house. There’s nothing to do, little to see
I’ve written and illustrated this book to suggest ways in which we can get involved with the plots of land on which we live. You’ll find a mix of the practical and the not-so-practical rather than a step-by-step approach. It’s all too easy for gardening to become one more chore in an overbooked schedule. Consult any how-to article or book on the subject, and you’re apt to squirm with guilt. In a finger-wagging article on its readers’ lawn care practices, Consumer Reports stated that a third didn’t fertilize as often as they should (three to five times a year), while fifty-seven percent were slackers when it came to properly raking leaves. And nearly half of the respondents hired people to carry out at least some lawn chores. With that kind of guilt hanging over homeowners’ heads, it is small wonder that they find themselves staying inside.
Within the memory of many of us, the yard once was a place to play, relax, observe the natural world, and grow food-- not just an occasional handful of mesclun mix, but enough produce to reduce the number of trips to the grocery store. In 1937 Gardens may be giving way to lawn, but the grass is getting less attention, too; nearly half of the homeowners in the Consumer Reports study hire out at least a part of their lawn care.

At the same time, there’s anecdotal evidence that kids are building fewer treehouses, slapping together gravity-powered gokarts, and playing capture the flag. And according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is medical evidence that heavy television watching may be correlated with heavy kids.

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