Rob Cowen is one half of Rob and Leo, authors of Skimming Stones and Other Ways of Being in the Wild
Today I will be one of many attending the Natural Childhood summit in London. It is a marker of the growing ranks of people and organisations coming together to address the societal creep towards an entirely indoor childhood that such a forum for discussion is happening in the rarefied atmosphere of a large hotel. A few years ago, it wouldn’t have drawn enough people.
Thankfully, and not least because of a lot of hard work on the part of bodies like the National Trust, this issue is beginning to be recognised as central to the health and happiness of our children and our future society in general. There is still much to do and many hands make light work, not least with increasing publicity and petitioning government, but I would add a few words of caution: we must never lose sight of our focus – getting children outside.
An incident occurred a few weeks back that really got me thinking about how detached we have become from our closest surroundings. I was giving a talk and demonstrating how to build a woodland den, one of the twelve activities in our book Skimming Stones and Other Ways of Being in the Wild. Afterwards, a nice girl of perhaps 15 or so approached from the audience and asked if she could speak to me.
“Of course,” I replied.
“I really want to go into the woods and build a den, but I’m scared.”
“What are you scared of?”
“Because I heard on TV that they are dangerous.”
I reassured her that our monochrome friends posed no threat and that if they detected her anywhere nearby, badgers would be very unlikely to appear from their sett, let alone savage her as she slept. She seemed reassured and vowed to try a night in her own den soon enough. It only occurred to me later that she may have heard the recent news headlines about badgers and bovine TB and misunderstood.
If she did, she would certainly not be alone. As human beings, we evolved to have a hands-on and active engagement with nature and wild animals, yet for many of us, our only connection now is through the filter of a screen. Wildlife documentaries bring us closer to animals we would never otherwise learn about. They astound us with the unknown and give us sights that would take a lifetime of dedication to achieve for ourselves, but alone, they are not enough. Nature at its rawest is not something that can just be enjoyed from the comfort of an armchair. It must be experienced firsthand. We should all interact with nature outside our front doors; we should get on our wellies and teach our children to study the insects in our backyards with the same fascination with which we watch killer whales hunt seals in far-off seas in HD. It is good for us, good for the kids and good for the planet.
A shift in the consciousness of society in light of climate change is such that children are likely to be taught at school the types of fish at risk of overfishing. This is a vitally important consideration for a responsible civilization yet, while kids may develop a strong ethical compass and be able to reel off the names of obscure species at risk of extinction, they may never have caught and held a fish. They might never have felt a heartbeat in their palm. And yet it is precisely that kind of intimacy and physical contact that brings the real empathy and understanding; it awakens something in us that even the most knowledgeable conservationist with the most shocking statistics couldn’t achieve.
When I was a boy, I had no concept of coral reefs or meerkats, but I knew how rooks called and what a wild rabbit smelt like. Days spent lying up in the same grass, playing around warrens engendered a familiarity and a fondness. Even now, when walking the woods after a day’s work, I sometimes get that scent in my nostrils again and am instantly transported into the subterranean world that exists beneath our feet; I picture the does and bucks huddled for warmth in the warren. It is the kind of experience that enriches any walk and reveals the true magical otherworldliness of nature, a place that should be always be an inspiration, joy and sanctuary for everyone in the UK.
So, when I’m sitting in the hotel today listening to the summit presentations, I might just shut my eyes occasionally and re-focus. I’ll think of walking out as the long, tawny light of a September evening settles like a falling sheet over the harvested fields and hope it is something my children will grow up to cherish, for one thing is sure: we can never expect future generations to care for and enjoy our fields and forests, mountains and rivers and seasides and coasts and all the myriad creatures therein if they don’t feel a personal and profound connection to them.