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Know the West

Children need the wild

  In one of the eight essays that make up The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places, Gary Paul Nabhan relates an amusing but poignant scene he witnessed about 10 years ago when he was asked to arrange a meeting between a noted Native American educator in Arizona and a Phoenix television news team.

The educator, a Tohono O'odham woman in her 80s, graciously accommodated herself to the television cliché of walking slowly around her garden, arm in arm with a bouncy news celebrity. The interviewer then asked the wrong - or precisely right - question: "Well, Laura, you and the other elders out here on the reservation have made your living from the desert for a long time ... Why do you think the younger generation is not keeping up these traditions?"

The elderly woman pointed at the camera and said, "It's that TV! They're all watching that TV! They just sit around in front of it; they hardly go outside anymore, so how can they plow or plant or gather the fruit? That's the problem right there!'

Nabhan and co-author Stephen Trimble are foremost spokesmen for the landscapes and indigenous peoples of the West, and although their Western perspective shows in many of these essays, their message has no regional boundaries.

Children everywhere, they show, have diminishing contact with natural environments, even as some of them have been provided with increased opportunities for "environmental education" in classrooms or through mass media.

As Nabhan explains, education tends to treat nature as a distant abstraction, and biology has become "one of many exercises in logos, reasoning, but has very little to do with bios, life."

The authors' barbs at the education establishment notwithstanding, the heart of their book is in describing how children relate to natural environments, how we, as adults, tend to lose our affinity for nature, and how parents can preserve and encourage their children's affiliation with creatures and habitats which lie outside the dominion of urban, industrial culture.

The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places by Gary Paul Nabhan and Stephen Trimble. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994. $22, hardcover.

* Clyde McConnell