The other day at the grocery store I bought two containers of strawberries. I always check the label to see if they are from Oxnard, CA; this time there were two options, and I chose the Oxnard berries. Purely sentimental reasons. We moved to little Port Hueneme, CA (which is surrounded by Oxnard) when I was in fifth grade and stayed through the summer before my final year of high school. The smell of strawberries reminds me of the fields surrounding town, not just of strawberries, but onions, broccoli, lettuce, celery, and other vegetables. The drive to the stake center in a neighboring town was perfumed by farm smells. I'm sure that many of those fields have been covered in houses now, but Oxnard continues to produce a lot of vegetables. When I think of Oxnard I also think of the smells of eucalyptus trees, the feel of the ocean breeze on my face, the smell of rotting fish at the pier, hot Santa Ana winds, and the smell of wet earth from spring rain. My childhood memories are full of other sensory input from the rest of the places we lived--sagebrush in Idaho, papery bougainvillea blossoms in San Diego, blazing orange leaves in Maryland. I don't know if I'm unique in my sentimental attachment to smells, colors, textures, and tastes.
I have been thinking about this lately because I just read two books on the importance of nature in our lives. The first, Last Child in the Woods, talks about what the author terms "nature deficit disorder" in the lives of children. He discusses changes in the way that children interact (or don't) with nature and ways we can change our society to encourage a "sense of place" in our children and a better attachment to their local environment. While I found a number of his points interesting, I actually had a little trouble reading the book and it seemed disjointed at times. The other book I read, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, was much more fun to read. The author is certainly enthusiastic about her subject and I can understand why the book is generating so much positive press. She describes her family's efforts to spend one year eating only seasonal food that they have grown themselves or acquired locally. I loved it because I love food and I would love to learn about gardening, plus the writing is really that great. I have heard it presented as somewhat of a how-to or call-to-arms sort of book, but if you read closely you will find that Barbara Kingsolver spent a number of years in preparation for her year-long experiment. I don't think that I'm feeling fired up about raising and killing my own chickens just yet, despite having read this book.
Reading both books reminded me of the extent to which nature really influenced my childhood. On the one hand, I grew up in the city. I've never lived on a farm. I've also never been a particularly active person and didn't spend a lot of time hiking or communing with nature in that way. On the other hand, I spent a lot of free time outside in unstructured play. I walked to school for most of my childhood, even through high school. My mom grew up on a farm and we often visited my grandmother's farm in Wyoming. I know that milk comes from cows, carrots grow from seeds planted in a garden, and raspberries come from bushes and are only best in July. My mother is also very committed to the importance of fresh food, gardening, and canning. We even had our own chickens for a time; I have vivid memories of a dish of eggs in our fridge that had come out of the insides of the chickens we'd just slaughtered. I thought it was the coolest thing ever--shell-less eggs directly from the chickens. We also spent time as a family camping, hiking, exploring tide pools at the beach, and other outdoor activities. I'm grateful my mom valued nature and made it an important part of our lives.
The main thing that bothered me about the first book was that the author never really was able to answer his main question: why is nature important for children? What benefits do they get from spending time outside, getting to know local plants and animals? He pretty much takes it for granted that time in nature is good, and I agree. I just can't figure out why, and maybe no one ever will. I think one benefit I've had was a sense of place; I know how to look closer and really savor things that make each part of the world special. The world is getting more homogenized and globalized, and I think it's good to preserve the unique features of each area. Both authors point out that our understanding of science and natural processes like evolution of species or the life cycle of plants is seriously damaged by a lack of exposure to animals and plants. I actually don't have a lot of experience with observing these things up close, but I think that experiencing the death of pets as a child or the difficulty of trying to grow a garden helped me deal with change. Animals get old and die; sometimes an early frost kills your plants; nature can humble us and teach us that we are not all powerful.
This post is getting really long and I'm not sure what my point is. I'm feeling like I've lost some of my connection to nature and I'd like to get it back. I especially want to do this for my kids. Every year I think that we'll try camping or go for a hike or start a garden, but it never manages to happen. Hopefully I'm finally building up the energy to make a change this year. Last year we tried picking our own blueberries and the end result was enough mosquito bites to send S-Boogie to the emergency room with a badly swollen hand. I hope that we can start having more positive experiences with local food, and the only way to do that is to keep trying. Of course we'll be taking baby steps, because as long as California strawberries are only three dollars a package I'm going to consider that as "local". It sure smells like home to me.