by Susan Hellauer
Nature Deficit Disorder noun 1. The human cost of alienation from nature
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Okay, it’s not actually in the dictionary . . .yet.
The term was coined by journalist Richard Louv in his modern classic study Last Child in the Woods (Workman, 2005; revised 2008) to describe the negative effects of a steep, one-generation slide in children’s exposure to the natural world. Louv points to the obvious reasons: safety concerns and the electronic communications that have turned childhood play inside out.
Long gone (but not really that long) are the days when mom said to her school-age kids, “Go outside and play!” and didn’t expect to see or hear from them until the streetlights came on. In suburbs like Rockland County, or even my beloved Bronx, it often meant hours in a park or a wooded area building forts, searching for caves, streams, strange rocks and weird bugs, and holding pagan ceremonies far from grownup eyes.
What we once introduced to each other, child to child, is now a task for teachers and parents (and grandparents, aunts and uncles). Time spent in nature creates connections not only with rocks, plants and creatures, but with science, history, art, literature, and with each other. And for grownups? “Peace,” “clarity,” “feeling alive,” are just some of the things that my hiking friends say they get from their time in the woods.
Hike noun 1. A long walk, especially for pleasure or exercise [Merriam-Webster Dictionary]
In 1868, the legendary naturalist John Muir arrived by ship in San Francisco. He immediately asked about a road out of town, and walked 300 miles to Yosemite Valley. In Rockland County, you don’t need to leave town to find hiking and walking trails. They’re just moments from your front door, many featuring spectacular views, and are a resource for all of us to use, protect, and share.
Even so, will one generation of nature-deprived American kids turn into two or three, or more? For this Earth Day, we asked some local hikers to answer the question: “Why Hiking Matters.” Here’s what they said.
A de-cluttered mind
Nyack resident Laura Pakaln is a volunteer gardener at Bear Mountain’s Trailside Museum, volunteer invasive plant species stalker and remover, a member of the Sierra Club and a supporter of the New York State parks system. She taught K-1-2 at Upper Nyack Elementary School from 1993-2008.
Hiking matters because it takes us out of ourselves and connects us to the natural world, the parts of life we often forget about. When we lose that enriching perspective, we lose a little bit of ourselves.
Hiking alone, or just walking in the woods with my dog, is the most therapeutic experience I can have. I feel safer surrounded by nature and much calmer. When I immerse myself in the surrounding beauty and sounds, I am always amazed and often excited by what I see and hear: Spring peepers calling out for mates; a mother eagle feeding her chicks; Tom turkey out for a stroll; a cacophony of 17 year cicadas; early spring columbine and Dutchman’s Britches growing on the sides of trails. Nothing seems more profound to me at that moment.
Hiking moves a person through different habitats with various ecosystems. This is really the best way to see and experience the diversity of the natural world, by being right in the midst of it. Oddly enough, I do some of my most creative thinking when I am walking or hiking. I think that’s because it allows my head to de-clutter and flow more like a stream. The physical benefits of walking and hiking cannot be under-estimated, either!
A difficult climb
NY State Licensed Guide Lorraine MacKenzie volunteers as a hiking leader for (among others) the Nyack YMCA and the Adirondack Mountain Club. “I’m at my happiest when I am standing on top of a mountain,” says the Blauvelt resident.
Last year I led a group of teens to the top of Hook Mountain. It was in early July and the raspberry bushes were full of fruit. The children were amazed at the sight and were even more astonished that they could actually eat the berries. They picked the bushes clean! One child asked if the store owners came into the woods to pick the berries and sell them. I explained that that’s what farms were for. It was also a lot cooler in the woods than on the pavement. The plants and trees produced not only food but also shade. The hot day wasn’t so hot anymore.
Farther down the trail we encountered make-shift bridges, defined paths and trail markers. One section of the trail paralleled Rte 9W. I explained that the trail we were on started at the George Washington Bridge and ended 200 miles north in Albany. They were glad we were not walking that far but now knew that these trails were used to travel to different destinations before cars were invented, and that what now takes less than two hours used to take a few days.
After a steep climb up the mountain and some complaints, we summited the Hook. A strong sense of accomplishment overcame the group when they stood on the rock face and could see Nyack High School, the Tappan Zee Bridge and New York City in the distance. The difficult climb was forgotten and the beauty of the landscape made it all worthwhile.
I love taking people of all ages into the woods. We all experience a connection to what is real—not man-made or electronic. We see our surroundings from a different perspective and always at the end have a strong sense of accomplishment. (The exercise factor is an added bonus.) I feel that I remind people of the value of the environment and give them a reason why it should be protected.
Tom Perry is a science teacher at Nyack High School. He is a Nyack native, and a resident of Valley Cottage. Tom and his son Tyler are gradually hiking the entire Long Path, and blog about it. He refined my question to “Why Does Hiking Matter in School?”
I was sad when we moved from the old Nyack High School at Midland & 5th to our new location on Christian Herald Road. I had graduated from the old school in 1980, and came back as a teacher in 1989. The new building is so far from town. But, what an amazing campus! We have two streams, a small pond, a garden, and lots of woods to hike in.
Our Nature Trail leads up to the Long Path, which goes for miles in each direction. Better yet, we have teachers who make good use of the outdoor opportunities. My earth science colleagues and I love to take our classes out in the woods. Our botany & horticulture classes work in the garden. The environmental science classes are in the streams. And we have two Physical Education teachers who have their classes hike around a hillside loop. I have seen art classes and English classes out in the woods also.
Hiking is a wonderful part of education. The combination of fresh air, exercise and scenery wakes the students up and broadens their horizons. Wildlife encounters create special memories. There are learning opportunities around every curve of the trail. Students who are lethargic indoors often come alive when they are out in the woods. Science and history come together as we explore the natural world, and the ways people have interacted with the landscape. There is a special kind of magic that happens in the woods, and hiking is the key to unlock a world of learning and enjoyment.
The deep woods down the street
Retired last June after 38 years as a phys-ed instructor and coach in the South Orangetown Central schools, Bob Hudson now wears many hats at the Orangetown Parks and Recreation Department. He leads their “Hike of the Month” club.
What amazes me every time I hike is that, even though we live in built-up area here in Orangetown, just take five steps into one of our trails and you’d think you’re in the Catskills or the Adirondacks—in the deep woods somewhere.
Back in the 1960s, when I was growing up here in Orangeburg, my friends and I would go up Clausland Mountain, build a fort and stay up there for two days. There were woods all over the place then. Now they are mostly in protected parks—but people don’t take advantage of this great resource right in their backyards as much as they could.
Nature Deficit Disorder? It’s a real thing, and it shows that kids were meant to be outside. I created a nature trail behind the William O. Schaefer Elementary School where I taught—in the same woods I grew up in—and we explored it year round. The students were always amazed at the wildlife, the plants, insects and birds.
I’m not a naturalist—I don’t know the name of every single plant. I hike mostly for the exercise, for the fresh air, the terrain, the rocks, the roots, the hills. It just makes me feel alive.
Nature will take care of you
Laurie Seeman and Joanna Dickey are co-directors of Strawtown Studio, an arts-based environmental education not-for-profit that creates programs for children and communities to connect with the natural world (and a sponsor of this column). They’ve been fighting Nature Deficit Disorder since 2003. Joanna responded:
Hiking with your children creates lasting memories for your family, lasting relationships with nature and builds a deep understanding of the world around you. The most valuable aspect of hiking with your children is that you do not have to do anything. Nature will take care of the experience. There is not one instance I have ventured into the woods both as a child and now with children and not come out with an adventure, discovery or a story to tell.
Some parents feel daunted by the idea; here are some simple tips to get outside with your children:
- Take your time. “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson said.
- Ask questions and wonder with your child.
- Stop and use your senses: Listen, touch, observe.
- Return to the same place. Children learn and thrive in familiarity
Whether it’s a stroll, a hike, or exploring the backyard, getting outside opens the door to a living world of possibilities. And if nothing else, it’s free!
- Sierra Magazine: “The Wilderness out Your Front Door” (May/June 2017)
- The Hudson River Valley Greenway Trail Program in Rockland County
- Orangetown Parks and Recreation is rolling out a new “Hike of the Month” program led by Bob Hudson, free of charge (registration required). Contact the rec office for more information or to download their brochure.
- The Nyack YMCA sponsors monthly hikes from May to November, led by Lorraine MacKenzie. Schedule will be posted soon on the YMCA website.
- NY NJ Trail Conference. Headquartered in Mahwah, NJ, this venerable nature-advocacy nonprofit publishes news and information about hiking in our area, and has an interactive map covering more than 2,000 miles of trails from NYC up into the Catskills and out to the Delaware Water Gap.
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