NOURISHED BY NATURE


The North Cascades

By Richard Louv
Excerpted from the foreword to The North Cascades

For anyone who has ever lived within visual range of the great mandibles of the Northwest, the North Cascades and the Olympics, the distant sawtooth ridges left their mark. My family lived for a year and a half in Seattle. From my attic office window, when the rain and mist lifted, I could see the Olympics. When my wife and I walked up the hill behind our house, and looked toward the east, we could also see that other range of distant peaks, which somehow seemed more mysterious, a lost world. Exploring them, we saw and felt the massive strength of old-growth cedar and hemlock, saw the dark hanging moss, entered groves and open meadows pinned by shafts of light, emerged to the long sky and sudden granite spires sharp enough to pierce the heart. We were changed by the nature of this place, nurtured by its beauty, humbled by its danger.

Over the past two decades, researchers have attempted to calibrate the benefits to human health of urban parks and wilderness forests, rivers, of our contact with other species, of star-filled nights seen from a sleeping bag rolled out near a mountain meadow. A growing body of evidence indicates that people of every age who regularly recreate or learn in more natural environments are physically and mentally healthier, happier, and test better in school. Science can never take the full measure of the value of the natural world; in fact, scientists struggle to even define “nature” (we know it when we see it), in part because humans are nature – the watcher being watched. Nonetheless, a growing body of evidence, emphasizing the impact of nature experience on human health and cognitive abilities, does provide a fresh argument for the protection of wilderness and the expansion of nearby nature, but also for cities as potential engines of biodiversity. This argument includes but goes beyond the usual list of benefits, among them the extractive value of natural resources, the efficient engineering of watersheds, the necessity of clean air and drinking water, or even traditional measures of beauty.

Ongoing studies by the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois show that direct exposure to the outdoors—its flowers, trees, leaves, moss, fungi, dirt; animals, large and small, winged and furred; and natural landscape and horizon—can significantly relieve symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Scientists at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom have found that the more species that live in a park, the greater the apparent psychological benefits to human beings. In related work, researchers at the University of Rochester, in New York, report that exposure to the natural environment appears to lead people to nurture close relationships with fellow human beings, to value community, and to be more generous with money. Kinship with the larger community of species, along with our affiliation with natural landscapes, can build our social capital and help us feel and be more alive.

This research, combined with common sense and millennia of human experience and our survival instinct, is encouraging the emergence of a new nature movement, one that reaches beyond the necessity of sustainability in the forms of better mental and physical health, sharper cognition, more creativity and productivity, and the nourishment of spirit. As a result of this movement, nature-based schools are growing in number. Biophilic architects (who weave natural elements into every aspect of the human habitat), new agrarians who bring food production close to home, landscape architects and designers who renew yards and neighborhoods with native plants, ecopsychologists and nature therapists, and many others are widening the definition of green jobs. Some physicians, particularly pediatricians, now recommend nature time to their patients. Across the continent families are banding together to create multiple-family nature clubs. We see a growing legion of citizen naturalists. 

The three major environmental challenges of our time—climate change, the biodiversity collapse, and the disconnect between children and nature—are linked. This book encourages us to go beyond the turning of pages, to personally, directly experience the explosions of ptarmigans on snowfields, the wildflowers in early spring, the shadows of rain and mist, and to carry those memories and pass them on.

My brief relationship with this region taught me how nature, if fully valued, can help build a sense of regional and personal identity. When my wife and son and left Seattle and returned to San Diego, I came to see my own bioregion anew, as a purposeful place all its own. The North Cascades ecosystem, with its staggering beauty and wildness, can give that same gift to many others. This rugged chunk of the Northwest, so close to high-tech Seattle or Bellevue, is a local, regional, national, and worldwide resource of inestimable value, a reminder of who we are, a suggestion of who we could be.

Richard Louv is the author of The Nature Principle and Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. He is also chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and recipient of the Audubon Medal in 2008.

The North Cascades: Finding Beauty and Renewal in the Wild Nearby, published by Braided River, the conservation imprint of Mountaineers Books (copyright 2014)

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