Does technology merely distract us from the natural world—or can it help us gaze more intently at its varied forms? Richard Louv, author of the new book The Nature Principle, discussed this and more during Orion’s live web event in June, “Reimagining Nature Literacy.” Listen to a recording of the conversation here.
I’m not keen on the kind of electronic technology that makes us more aware of the gadget than of nature (iPod-guided tours of natural areas, for example). The worth of any nature-oriented getaway gadget should be measured by how long it takes us to look away from the screen, to put down the gadget—at which point, hopefully, we’ll want to use our unaided eyes and other senses to feel and be fully alive.
In The Nature Principle I quote Janis Dickinson, director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which conducts the Celebrate Urban Birds project and uses Internet participation of citizen naturalists to keep track of bird populations and migrations. Dickinson asks, “How do we create experiences for people, particularly in cities, that foster awareness of the natural world? It is possible, even likely, that a new generation of technonaturalists will document their outdoor experiences not with paper and pen but with electronic data, digital images, and video, creating new communities of action and meaning.” She adds this caution: “It is our overriding belief that spending real time in real nature, with its rhythms, sights, smells, and sounds, may be facilitated with technology but cannot be fabricated!”
So, can we come up with new uses for technology that get kids and adults outside in a way that stimulates rather than simulates the senses?
When I asked some of my colleagues and friends for suggestions for other imaginary or existing products and services that could connect people of all ages to nature, they offered dozens of ideas. Among them: wildscape kits with native plant seeds to naturalize the backyard (with coupons to local native-plant nurseries and web-based resources); and iPhone apps specific to the flora and fauna and topology of your own bioregion. A prominent conservationist suggested night cameras and video traps to “catch” seldom-seen animals in nearby nature. “Prices are falling and quality is improving,” he said. “Purchase one, mount it to a tree in your local canyon, and see what’s going on. Upload the video to your Facebook page.” Once the entrepreneurial gene kicks in, it’s easy to start thinking of such products and services.
Some of these ideas may not be your cup of organic tea—and yes, there’s a certain contradiction between preserving nature and consumer products. But let’s give ourselves a break. Would we rather the commercial world focus on everything but a connection to the natural world?
As a technonaturalist myself, I’ve become increasingly likely to take a digital camera with me on hikes. While some people find that photography detracts from the experience, I find that the camera makes me slow down and look more intently than I normally would. After one hike, I was sitting at my computer, reviewing photos of rock patterns and tree bark. I was suddenly startled by something I had not seen when I took the picture.
Hidden in the bark was an eye, looking back at me.
Richard Louv is author of The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder, from which this is adapted, and Last Child in the Woods. He is also chairman emeritus of The Children & Nature Network. For more information on his writing, see www.richardlouv.com.