"We Cannot Live in a Virtual World": A Q&A with AMC Annual Summit Speaker Audrey Peterman

Audrey Peterman has visited more than 160 of the 397 units in our National Park System. But she didn’t even know the parks existed until she and her husband, Frank, discovered them on a cross-country road trip after their youngest child graduated from college.

The experience, which they document in the book Legacy on the Land: A Black Couple Discovers Our National Inheritance and Tells Why Every American Should Care, transformed them into environmental advocates. They founded Earthwise Productions, a consulting and publishing company, in 1994 and since then have focused on breaking down barriers so that all Americans, regardless of ethnic heritage, can better appreciate our natural treasures.

Audrey Peterman’s new book is Our True Nature: Finding a Zest for Life in the National Park System. She will be speaking at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Annual Summit on January 26.

I chatted with Audrey recently about children’s experiences of the natural world. Here are highlights of our conversation.

Q: What was your experience of nature as a child?

A: I grew up in Summerfield, Jamaica, “the village that it takes to raise a child.” It’s in the countryside and everyone knew everyone back at least three generations. We had no fear of other people or fear of nature. Life was communal, with everyone contributing.  It was our job as kids to walk to the standpipe to collect water, so we made it a social affair—we’d all go at the same time, and there was much playing and laughter. Our biggest weekend outing was to the mango bushes, and we’d gather around sunrise on Saturdays and walk to the fields where there were acres and acres of mango trees. We’d pick big, red, ripe, juicy mangoes and eat them while they were still warm, with juice dripping down our faces and arms. Then we’d fill our baskets and walk back home. So I was never separate from nature.

Q: What do you see as some of the challenges facing children today?

A. I am grateful that people are increasingly coming to realize that we have removed children from nature and so are literally robbing them of their birthright to be outdoors, to discover, to experiment, to be free. I was at the launch of the Children and Nature movement some years ago, and I heard people saying that besides redesigning playgrounds etc., we might actually have to teach kids how to play. At that moment I realized that as a society, we have gone completely off the rails. When kids are so scared of the outdoors that we think they may not know how to behave in it, that means our species has become divorced from its life support system, at least in this part of the world. How long can anything survive, separated from its life support system? We cannot live in a virtual world, and yet that’s what we’re socializing our children to do.

Q: How can we address this disconnect between young people and the environment?

A: This did not just happen. A whole segment of society is working on technology to take us forward. We have to engage the innovators as part of the solution. We need to convey to them the information from Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, for example, so they understand the damage that the over-concentration on technology is doing to our children—including their children. I think we are at a place similar to where we were with the tobacco industry quite recently, and now the tobacco manufacturers are investing in programs that help deter young people from smoking. How do we make that happen in the outdoors movement? I think the first step is to start that conversation. I know so many grassroots organizations that are reconnecting young people and their families to nature, using their own sparse funds and sometimes even bankrupting their personal lives, but they do it out of their commitment. We can help the tech leaders find joy and purpose and balance in their lives again by becoming part of the solution.

Q: How does spending time in the natural world affect you?

A: When you are out in nature, there is more happening than can ever be quantified. The fresh air, the sunshine, the sounds of birds—it nurtures all the senses. On our morning walk today, I saw the most beautiful orange-red bougainvillea and memories instantly washed over me from my childhood. I wonder what is going to trigger pleasurable memories for our children in the future, if they’re spending their youth mostly living inside playing electronic games? In nature, I’m connected to joy all the time. I think the high rate of depression today is perhaps linked to how little time people spend outdoors.

Q: How can we change the situation you are describing?

A: What is required is a mass awakening. We are out of balance. Everything we use, everything we have—even the most sophisticated instrument—comes from nature. And yet nature is most ignored and often treated with contempt.

It is vital that parents wake up and realize that connecting our children to nature is a principle thing you have to do. Just like you have to give your children an education, you also have to expose them to plentiful doses of unsupervised play in nature. When kids get in a car today, they immediately put on their headphones to watch a movie. When our grandchildren are in our car, they get excited as we exclaim at a hawk, a cardinal, or just a beautiful view outside the window. I am not advocating that we rip our children apart from all their electronics, but I am suggesting that as parents and caretakers, we have a responsibility to moderate their use and make certain the children are getting some stimuli direct from nature.

Because the big question is, how viable are we as a species if we continue down this path? Thankfully, we still have time to wake up, and adjust. Everything I do is to try to help that awakening along.

Photo courtesy of Audrey Peterman.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog, written by Heather Stephenson.

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