Addressing Nature-Deficit Disorder

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, April 27, 2014 (Earth Day Sunday)

Psalm 23:1-3a ESV

William Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned”

Nature-deficit disorder is one of the maladies of our time.  Such is the contention of author Richard Louv in his books, Last Child in the Woods (first published in 2005) and The Nature Principle (first published in 2011).  I ran across and purchased The Nature Principle while browsing at Books-a-Million a few months ago, and then I ordered Last Child in the Woods soon thereafter.  I have been frantically trying to finish both of these books for the past couple of months in preparation for today’s sermon.  So I owe much of what I say today to these two books, which I will more or less summarize for you.

Louv actually was responsible for introducing the term “nature-deficit disorder” in 2005 in Last Child in the Woods “as a way to describe the growing gap between children and nature” (TNP, 3).  It is “the increasing divide between the young and the natural world, and the environmental, social, psychological, and spiritual implications of that change” (LCW, 2).  “Within the space of a few decades,” Louv says, “the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically” (LCW, 1).  Whereas children of my generation and most of your generation spent a great deal of our time outdoors in the world of nature, children today spend most of their time indoors in front of a television set or computer playing some kind of electronic video game.  Basic facts about the natural world that children used to take for granted are now unknown to many children who are virtually cut off from the world of nature.

Louv says that “By its broadest interpretation, nature-deficit disorder is an atrophied awareness, a diminished ability to find meaning in the life that surrounds us, whatever form it takes” (TNP, 11).  “Nature-deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses” (LCW, 36).  Collectively, nature-deficit disorder “threatens our health, our spirit, our economy, and our future stewardship of the environment” (TNP, 5).

“In 2009, CBS’s The Early Show featured the ‘twenty-five best cities in America for nature-deficit disorder’ (as in how to avoid it)” (TNP, 99).  “Some researchers have suggested that the nature deficit is growing fastest in English-speaking countries” (LCW, 35).

 The good news is “Studies suggest that thoughtful exposure of youngsters to nature can even be a powerful form of therapy for attention-deficit disorders and other maladies” (LCW, 3, 35).  Exposure to nature can lead to lessened depression and stress reduction.  Louv stresses: Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health (LCW, 120).

It is interesting that in what is probably the most-beloved passage in the Bible, the psalmist forms a vital connection between God or the Sacred and the natural world.  “He makes me lie down in green pastures.  He leads me beside still waters.  He restores my soul.”  Such are the traditional words that most of us are familiar with.  But these two verses can be translated in a variety of ways that emphasize the restoring, healing powers that the natural world can have for us, when we avail ourselves of them:

“He lets me rest in fields of green grass” (GNT).  “He lets me rest in grassy meadows” (CEB).

“He leads me to quiet pools of fresh water” (GNT).  “He leads me to restful waters” (CEB).

“He gives me new strength” (GNT).  “He refreshes my soul” (TNIV).  “You refresh my life” (CEV).

In a nutshell, the restorative, healing powers of grassy meadows and beautiful streams are much more available and potent than we might ever have imagined them to be.  There are restorative powers within the natural world!

The healing powers of Nature have long been known.  Richard Louv notes that Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, “declared, ‘digging in the soil has a curative effect on the mentally ill.’  Beginning in the 1870s, the Quakers’ Friends Hospital in Pennsylvania used acres of natural landscape and a greenhouse as part of its treatment of mental illness” (LCW, 45).

Romantic poet William Wordsworth, in his poem, “The Tables Turned,” also speaks of green fields and the restorative power of Nature.  I learned to love the poetry of Wordsworth when I did a Masters of Art in literature in the early 1990s.  All of life is rooted in nature, and we cut ourselves off from nature to our detriment, whereas being connected, or reconnected to nature, brings greater health, satisfaction, and joy in life.

For those who can’t for some reason go to the outdoors to enjoy the world of nature, studies have shown that by bringing nature indoors—indoor plants, natural objects (such as seashells and pine cones), images of the natural world, even small bonsai gardens—can have soothing, healing, spiritual benefits.  I have begun creating some bonsai gardens, which I find very relaxing and refreshing for my soul.

Louv relates the story that was carried in a back issue of San Francisco magazine.  On the back page, the magazine printed a photograph of a small boy, his eyes wide open with excitement and joy, leaping and running on a California beach, with storm clouds and crashing waves behind him.  A short article that accompanied the photograph explained that the boy was hyperactive, he had been kicked out of his school, and his parents did not know what to do with him.  However, they had observed that nature had a calming effect on him.  So for years they took their hyperactive son to beaches, forests, and rivers to let nature do its good work on him.  The photograph was dated 1907.  The boy’s name was Ansel Adams, one of the most famous nature photographers of all time. (LCW, 102-103). “Stress reduction, greater physical health, a deeper sense of spirit, more creativity, a sense of play, even a safer life—these are the rewards that await a family when it invites more nature into children’s lives,” Louv observes (LCW, 163).

The future belongs to those who reconnect with, even find themselves as part of, the natural world.  “Every day, our relationship with nature, or lack of it, influences our lives” Louv says.  “But in the twenty-first century, our survival—or thrival—will require a transformative framework for that relationship, a reunion of humans with the rest of nature . . . .  a reconnection to the natural world is fundamental to human health, well-being, spirit, and survival” (TNP, 3).

It is important for us to not only strive to preserve and conserve the natural world, but to also help create the natural world by actively planting gardens where there are none; creating small parks (what Louv terms “button parks”); planting native trees, shrubs, and flowers; increasing native wildlife habitats; and such.

“[T]he future will belong to the nature-smart—those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of nature, and who balance the virtual with the real” (TNP, 4).  “[A] meaningful connection to nature is fundamental to our spirit and survival, as individuals and as a species” (TNP, 268).

In summary, as this Earth Day Week draws to a close, we are reminded that connecting with Nature is good for us; not just for children, for all of us, regardless of our age.  Immersing ourselves in Nature can lead to greater physical, emotional, and spiritual health and wholeness.

We do well to get our children and grandchildren out in the natural world as much as possible, encouraging learning and discovery of all things having to do with Nature.

As Thomas Berry pointed out, “the natural world is the physical manifestation of the divine” (TNP, 268).  To connect with Nature is to connect with the Sacred.  So for some of us, connecting with Nature becomes a sacred experience.

All of us are charged with protecting and conserving this wonderful world we live in.  But even more, whenever possible, we need to also be co-creators with the Divine as we work to create and expand Nature by planting trees, cultivating gardens, even creating small natural parks or wildlife habitats when we can.

By doing these things, we can enjoy greater emotional, physical, and spiritual health, and we can take positive and practical steps toward addressing nature-deficit disorder.  Amen.

Works Cited:

Louv, Richard, Last Child in the Woods (LCW).  Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2005, 2008.

Louv, Richard, The Nature Principle (TNP).  Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2011, 2012.


About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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