(Editor’s note: As many of us are busy meeting, greeting, and learning at the APH annual conference ‘Turning Points’ in St. Louis this week, I hope you will enjoy this encore post from May, by our president, Sarah White.)
In 2005 Richard Louv published a book titled Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. In the opening chapter he describes a television ad depicting an SUV racing along a beautiful mountain stream while in the back seat, two children watch a movie on a flip-down screen, oblivious to the breathtaking landscape beyond their windows. He sees in this the tragedy of children deprived of the restorative power of nature.
I see something even worse: children deprived of family stories. These were once the standard entertainment of families on long car trips. The backseat DVD player has isolated those children from both nature AND family.
If Nature Deficit Disorder exists (described by Louv as a range of behavioral problems stemming from too little time in nature), I propose there exists a corollary Family Nature Deficit Disorder, marked by a lack of connection to the legacy we’ve received, which can lead to problems like loneliness and depression.
Nelson Henderson, a 19th-century Manitoba pioneer, had a message for his son Wesley on the day of his high school graduation:
“The true meaning of life is to plant trees,
under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”
Wes included that advice in a family history he wrote in 1986. Today it has propagated to 527,000 Google hits. Henderson’s words clearly strike a chord.
Why do we plant trees, under whose shade we will not sit? So that our children will not be the last to have access to nature, and healthy emotional development. For that same reason we must “plant family trees”—in other words, tell stories about our ancestors’ gifts to us, stories that convey the gifts we wish for our descendants.
If you think my use of “nature” to connect environment and family history is just playing with words, consider the following story. My friend Jane is a direct descendant of lead miners who came from Cornwall to Mineral Point, Wisconsin in the early 1800s. Last fall she made a pilgrimage with her cousins back to the old country. Through genealogical research they had planned an itinerary that took them to the village of their forefathers.
“Looking at that landscape, I felt at home,” Jane said.
“More than I feel at home here. I felt deeply that I belonged there.”
She was experiencing the powerful interaction of environment and personal history, a healing of Family Nature Deficit Disorder.
The resonance between nature (meaning the environment) and nature (meaning a family’s package of heritable traits) is hard to ignore.
Your ancestors’ group of talents, attitudes, beliefs, ambitions, values—this is your natural birthright. This group of traits and talents—your family’s nature—is the link that connects generations. What traits and talents are shared in your family?
Stories are the vessels through which that nature is recognized and celebrated. When Wesley Henderson published his father’s words of advice in a family history book he responded to the call of family nature.
Nature-as-environment or nature-as-family—Immersion in either can be restorative. The children Louv describes in the back seat of the SUV racing along a beautiful mountain stream, deprived as they are of both environmental and family nature, are victims of a particularly harmful type of neglect. Their parents are failing to plant a tree under whose shade their descendants can sit.
Write down your family’s stories. Share them. By so doing, you plant seedlings that nurture the future. You give your children’s children not just shade, but deep roots.
About today’s contributor: APH President Sarah White provides personal history services for individuals, families, businesses, and communities through her business, First Person Productions.
Photo of cousins sharing a singalong at a family cabin at Lake Winona, Indiana, is from Sarah White’s collection.