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A year ago, I hosted a picnic for adults and children at my writer’s hut (really more of a nostalgic folly) in a big wild garden in the Chilterns in southeastern England.
At one point, when I wasn’t burning sausages on the barbecue, I noticed that three boys, aged from seven to 11, were gathered around a tree stump, with intent looks on their faces. For a moment, I was transported back to my own childhood, when I roamed that big garden on the lookout for butterflies, moths, daddy-long-legs, beetles and spiders – or for reptiles and amphibians, grass snakes, frogs, toads, slow worms; even for the odd mammal, such as a vole, shrew, stoat or weasel.
But, looking more closely, I realised that the boys were not staring at an insect, a frog, a toad or a snake, but at that much more fascinating, protean, contemporary entity, an iPad. A frog or a snake, I suppose, can only be itself, whereas an iPad can be anything you want it to be.
Fast forward 10 months, and I was attending a preview screening of a new feature-length documentary about reconnecting kids with nature called Project Wild Thing, which goes on general release next month.
It is part of a bigger, multi-agency, multi-partner effort under the same name to counter what American writer Richard Louv calls “nature deficit disorder”: the lamentable (to me at least) fact that children spend less and less time playing outdoors and more and more time staring at screens.
One of the partners of Project Wild Thing is the National Trust, Europe’s largest conservation organisation, which has an astonishing 4m members in the UK. A report commissioned and published by the Trust called Natural Childhood analyses the extent, and the costs, of children’s alienation from nature, and discusses ways to reverse it.
There are striking statistics to back up the claim that children today are more cut off from nature than their parents or grandparents: half of children, the report says, cannot tell the difference between a bee and a wasp, while just one in three can identify a magpie.
The potential costs – psychological, social, and epidemiological – of this alienation are equally striking. About 30 per cent of our children are obese or overweight. More shockingly, about 35,000 children in the UK are on antidepressants.
How much of this can be put down to nature deficit disorder is debatable but the National Trust points to findings that children who have little contact with nature experience attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illness. More than a century ago, the Trust’s founder, Octavia Hill, put it more simply: “The sight of sky and things growing are fundamental needs, common to all men.”
Everything about this resonates with the Slow Lane philosophy. I also liked the Project Wild Thing film, although I must admit to having certain reservations about it.
The director and “star” of the film, David Bond, is an engaging character who does not come across as a stern moraliser or evangelist. In fact, Bond presents himself as a typical, harassed, town-dwelling father with two young kids who love – no, the better word might be adore – TV.
“It’s so relaxing,” croons his daughter, who does a pretty good job of upstaging her father throughout. Bond’s first task, before saving the natural world by reconnecting it with children, is to get his kids to go outside.
In terms of his wider campaign, Bond’s strategy is to go around, with tongue firmly in cheek, as the “marketing director” for “nature”. Of course there is no such post, and “nature” is not (or not yet) a public company. But if, as Christopher Ricks once argued in an essay on William Empson, irony “must be true to some degree in both senses”, (that is, I presume, in both the ironic and the non-ironic sense), then the surface meaning here seemed in danger of overcoming the ironic one.
Bond, in his role as a marketing director – and with his sense that he was selling a product that he believed quite sincerely was the best on the market – is rather too convincing.
Maybe he’s right, and the only way to connect with today’s kids is on their terms, by offering one more better app or product than the ones they have on their iPhone or can buy in the Apple store. But I am uncomfortable about this commodifying approach, which makes nature compete in an already crowded market.
Nature exists before and beyond any market or, indeed, any human construction at all. It is, in fact, what we grew out of and are still absolutely part of, and cannot abstract ourselves from, however hard we try to forget that dust we are, and unto dust we must return.
The iPad I mentioned earlier was left behind at my picnic a year ago, which turned out to be a valedictory one; I did not want to install a new nature app on to it but to bury it, without honours, in one of the vegetable beds of our old kitchen garden.
More columns at www.ft.com/eyres