Feb 5, 2010, 11:25

by Lon Woodbury

This seems like a strange question to be asking while living in a country where everybody talks about going "green." (Green of course tends to symbolize and idealize lush vegetation and trees like the planet Pandora in the movie Avatar). From the government, TV advertising and even in casual conversations with friends, I hear plans of "saving the planet" or "I'm very serious about ecology" or expressing fear that "global warming" might destroy life on earth (which is about as un-green as you can get.)

It has been my observation that many more people are interested in saving the wilderness than are interested in really experiencing nature and the wilderness. That's too bad, because experiencing nature (and forests for that matter) is what it is all about. Nature, the wilderness and the forests, are something one cannot really understand without experiencing them. Without this experience, any appreciation of nature can only be mental abstracts. Without enough experience to be comfortable in the woods, the feeling often is fear - fear of dangerous animals like bears, or cougars (many city dwellers have nervously asked me if there are bears where I live). I'm not sure anybody can be effective at saving the wilderness and the forests unless he/she has really experienced them.

I see this from a unique perspective, at least in a country where some 90 percent of the population are raised and live in officially designated urban centers. I was born and raised in north Idaho, a very rural part of the country, and, after several years of urban living, have returned. This was where a Saturday recreation for me might consist of a 20-mile round trip hike to the top of a mountain visible from home, just for the joy of being outside appreciating the trees, vegetation and forest critters that might come my way.

Upon graduation from high school, my summer was spent on a forest service lookout on top of a mountain for early detection of forest fires. The common highlight of a day was dangling my feet over the edge of a catwalk of a 50 foot high tower, watching the rapidly changing shades and colors of the sunset on the horizon and surrounding mountains. Later in the season it would be watching the deer and elk playing just below the tower on the summit, learning to bake huckleberry pies on the wood stove from berries picked just below the tower, or living 50 feet above the ground in the middle of a summer lighting storm that rocked the tower, on occasion hitting the tower. Amazingly, an important part of the deal was they paid me enough for this summer of work to pay for a year of college, - tuition, books, room, board and incidentals (this was before college tuition and expenses skyrocketed of course).

My upbringing gave me a deep personal appreciation for nature, forests and the wilderness through years of experiencing it. I've found this is no longer very common in this country, especially among young people. They seem to have adopted the 1974 first wilderness preservation national legislation concept that wilderness (and thus nature) is something to be set aside to be protected from human involvement. Many seem to feel that wilderness is a place that is dangerous and unnatural. Others seem to see the vast wilderness expanses of the American West as something like a big park, an environmentally controlled place to be visited on a weekend through carefully developed areas like highways, well defined pathways or patrolled campgrounds. There is something distorted about it when young people see the streets and high-rises of the city as more natural than the wilderness or forests.

There is even a term coined to describe this lack of experience of the woods and nature. Richard Louv, in his book "Last Child in the Woods" used the term "Nature-Deficit Disorder" as a cause for many of the problems young people have such as the rise of obesity, attention-disorders and depression. In other words, Nature-Deficit Disorder is the lack of experiencing the woods or nature.

There are efforts to address this problem by numerous wilderness programs. The most interesting are the wilderness therapy programs for troubled teens. Although officially most credit for their success is attributed to the therapists, actually, most wilderness workers tell me the most profound and healing impact comes just from the students experiencing the wilderness. They tell me that while all the rest is important, it is still supplementary to the basic wilderness experience.

Pacific Quest on the Big Island of Hawaii explains in a blog post their program in the context of their students experiencing nature through their unique approach of "back to the land" in their gardening. There are several dozen wilderness therapy approaches based on the concept of using the nature experience to heal struggling teens (as well as pre-teens and post-teens). These pioneering efforts have been well received and many students testify to having the experience of their lives, usually referring to their getting introduced to the wilderness as the highlight.

For those without behavioral problems, Outward Bound, National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and many other programs offer opportunities for city dwellers and others to get a taste of experiencing the wilderness, mostly with non- or low-impact methods.

The movement to teach experiencing the wilderness is even expanding to include pre-schools, as reported by the New York Times in For Forest Kindergartners, Class Is Back to Nature, Rain or Shine. (

As usually happens in a dynamic society when a problem presents itself, such as teens with self-destructive activities, numerous individuals step forward with solutions. The most effective will thrive, as wilderness therapy programs have done despite the recession. Experiencing the wilderness and the woods seems to be making a comeback. Even public and various mental health institutions are seeing the success of these wilderness therapy programs and are adapting some elements to their own institution like sponsoring climbing walls, wilderness trips, ropes courses etc.

[You can add your comments or read comments by others on my blog at]

© Copyright 2012 by Woodbury Reports, Inc.