A national movement seeking to foster the reattachment between children and nature continues to make great strides, despite the ever-growing enticements of the digital age.
Throughout the nation, numerous organizations have been developed under the "No Child Left Inside" banner. Many of these efforts were prompted by Richard Louv's book, Last Child in the Woods-Saving your children from Nature Deficit Disorder.
Concerns about the long-term consequences of this detachment on children's emotional well-being, physical health and learning abilities, has been the focus of Capitol Hill hearings, state legislative action, grass-roots projects, and numerous state and federal initiatives to get more children into the woods.
However, over the years, I've noted a disturbing trend that has developed regarding the effort to bring children, 'back to nature'. I am not concerned with program content, for I recognize the importance of introducing children to the outdoors.
My concern centers primarily on the focus of such efforts, which by and large, appear to have concentrated on urban and suburban kids. Certainly, I understand that these are populations in need of greater exposure to nature, simply due to the fact they are physically further removed from it.
Green space is available in very limited quantities in the concrete confines of most urban areas, and city parks are far removed from what we consider 'our park'.
Similar to other rural communities across America, most Adirondack towns are blessed with a multitude of wild lands, wild rivers and wild animals. These tremendous natural resources are often easily accessible for recreation, on the fringes of our villages.
Although a majority of the No Child Left Inside efforts have focused on suburban and urban youth, we cannot afford to overlook the need to offer comparable opportunities for our own children, in our own communities. Traditionally, rural youth remain overlooked and underserved.
Our children may grow up surrounded by a fantastic, forested abode; but without the skills to enjoy their surroundings; they will remain as detached from nature as the kids on K-Street in Washington, DC or in Compton, California. There is a false perception that rural kids somehow know everything about the woods and waters, as if such skills are bestowed by birthright. The stereotype holds that by living in close proximity to wild lands, local youth are mysteriously imbibed through some odd sort of backwoods osmosis with incredible wildwood wisdom.
Sadly, it doesn't work that way. Kids still have to learn about the woods and waters from someone, somehow, someway; the same way adults do.
For rural communities to remain sustainable, leaders must recognize the importance of providing local youth with opportunities to connect with their surroundings. We have always placed greater value and protection on the places we utilize and enjoy.
We must also instill within the youth an appreciation for the region's natural resources. Local kids deserve such an opportunity; it should not be an advantage afforded only to the advantaged. We must realize that the current youth of our communities will be the future leaders of these communities. They should be valued as two-legged, mobile repositories of our combined culture and history, a virtual bank of shared customs and values, traditions and desires.
Consider this, as you stare down the Main Street of your own town. What would you like to pass along? What component of community life is the most important aspect to save for future generations? Hopefully, your community bank will not be filled with deposits that earn 'No Interest'.
The next generation
Without a mentor, or the mentorship opportunities provided through such traditional channels as scouting or 4-H, many rural youth will continue to lack the ability and know how necessary to effectively enjoy their surroundings.
If they are disconnected from nature, they will become strangers in their own land, and they will remain so. They will suffer, and the community will be all the poorer as a result. If they don't use it, the place will never carry any value.
I fear this may be the first generation of rural "indoor children", detached and largely disconnected from the abundance of natural pleasures readily available in their own backyard.
It should be obvious, but local youth must come to recognize the Adirondack Park is a very special place. There is a reason the region continues to attract over ten million travelers every year, and they must understand.
We must learn to put aside the negative rhetoric, and all the sorry, old, anti- enviro-maniac nonsense that has plagued the region since the 1880's. I know, I'll take a lot of flack for saying so; but isn't it about time to move on and to recognize what a truly incredible place we've got. Need a reminder? Take a trip of 100 miles in any direction, you'll be happy to return home.
An old saying sums the mentality up pretty well, "A man is not without honor, lest it be in his own hometown". I believe similar sentiments holds true in the commonly voiced, local view of the Adirondacks, "A Park is not without honor, lest it be in your own backyard."
If this type of mindset is ever to be overcome, there must be a more concerted effort, on a local community level, to instill our local youth with a greater appreciation for their surroundings. We learn to love what we enjoy, but only if and when we have the means to enjoy it.
I believe the most effective method to ensure the long-term vitality of our communities is to provide our youth with the means and methodology to fully enjoy their surroundings.
I'll use another analogy to illustrate my point. I never knew how good a cherry pie could taste, until I tried one. Then, I knew I had to learn how to bake one.
Comparably, I never realized how many Adirondack adventures were available, until I learned to paddle a canoe, and cast a flyrod. If we provide local youth with the skills necessary to fully utilize the local woods and waters, there would be far less chance of the 'brain drain and bright flight" threatening our communities.
Joe Hackett is a guide and sportsman residing in Ray Brook. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org