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Book review of Richard Louv’s “Last child in the woods”

Following is Richard Carstensen’s review in the Fall 2006 issue of Discoveries:

Whenever I visit my parents in a suburb of Rochester, New York, I pack my binoculars and slip into a black-willow forest behind the 2-acre parking lot of a nearby Jewish temple. I can walk to this forest in 7 minutes from my childhood home. I cross a ditched creek and begin to cast about for a fading trail that leads into a 20-acre cattail marsh.

Cover of book from author

Cover of book from author

Growing up, this marsh was our wilderness. It was big enough to be scary, but scary in a good way. This was where we hunted frogs, turtles and snakes, and fell slowly in love with the earth.

The persistence of this lovely marsh–which we mistakenly called“The Swamp”–is nothing short of miraculous. Only its un-drainable clay substrate has saved it from the upper-middle-class residential development that now completely encompasses it. I’m thankful that I can still reconnect with the place that molded me, but going there always makes me sad. In terms of habitat, The Swamp has actually improved; there are far more deer and herons than when I played there 44 years ago. But I would gladly trade the deer for a few grubby kids; in the past 20 years I’ve never seen a youngster in The Swamp, or even any sign of kid activity.

Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv, is an in-depth analysis of this disturbing trend. But it’s more than a lament and warning. The book is also a celebration of the child-nature bond, and a challenge to adults who must defend it. Today’s children are the first generation on earth to be raised without meaningful interaction with nearby nature. Louv points to rapidly accumulating evidence—both scientific and anecdotal—that the disconnect is a fundamental cause of growing problems such as childhood obesity, attention disorders and depression. The book has caused a stir in educational circles and among city planners.

From the perspective of Discovery Southeast, Louv’s book provides a welcome validation of our work. Although the importance of the child-nature bond is intuitively obvious to most Discovery members, objective evaluation of the long-term benefits of natural history education and hands-on outdoor experience is very difficult. Last Child presents results of the latest of these studies that collectively are beginning to constitute a mandate for educational and land-use reform.

Obstacles to the child-nature bond are unfortunately many. As with wildlife (and kids are wildlife), habitat-loss is probably chief among these obstacles, at least in the lower 48 states. Vacant lots keep disappearing, and No Trespassing signs are harder to ignore. Another issue that was of little concern to my parents but much in the nightmares of today’s young families is what Louv calls “the bogeyman.” The media loves child-abduction stories almost as much as mountain-lion attacks, and although the statistical likelihood of either is vanishingly small, perceived risk is keeping kids out of the woods.

Yet another obstacle is the “criminalization of natural play. . . As a powerful deterrent to natural play, fear of liability ranks right behind the bogey man.” Legal obstacles to nature play come from 2 basic sources: the fear of injury to children (and the landowner’s consequent fear of lawyers); and the well-intended restrictions on land use meant to protect natural habitats. One of Louv’s pet peeves to which I can relate is the illegality of tree-houses. His 4-level childhood treehouse (in an oak) sounds strikingly similar to mine (in a willow).

As opportunities in nature decline, distractions increase. Malls, electronic
games, computers, and heavier school and extracurricular schedules are keeping kids indoors. Louv concludes that, ironically, parents must structure “unstructured time.

Okay, so the child-nature bond is seriously threatened throughout the lower 48 states. But is this a problem in Southeast? Many of us came here for Alaska’s increased elbow room, lower crime rate, and easy access to nature. In theory,
even an urban community like downtown Juneau, or suburban developments like Mendenhall Valley should provide more opportunities for children to connect with nature than anything an unlucky rich kid in Rochester, New York could dream of. And certainly some families have achieved this.

But ask any Discovery naturalist what percentage of the students in his/her classes have significant contact with nature. It may vary from school to school, but the average is probably less than half. Louv has identified an ailment of sweeping proportions. The child-nature bond has been breaking down long enough that even the parents of many of our grade-schoolers–few of whom grew up in Alaska–had little childhood experience in the woods. What they never knew, they can’t pass on. Last Child will sadden and inspire you, and provide some of the tools we all need to reconnect people and place

Faith of Cranes

Faith of cranes: finding hope and family in Alaska.


Following is Richard Carstensen’s review from the Fall 2011 issue of Discoveries:

Faith of cranes: finding hope and family in Alaska. Hank Lentfer
(Mountaineers, 2011)
The Last American Man. Elizabeth Gilbert (Viking, 2002)

Some thoughts on Eastern & Western American manhood

I’ve recently read 2 books about modern-day Daniel Boones—guys who turned their backs on the American Dream and headed into the woods, to take their spiritual and bodily sustenance more directly from nature. Both are characters you’d want to have been hanging out with if fears of Y2K had proven better grounded. Both are in prime manhood: feral, supremely skilled, with charisma sometimes ironically bestowed upon those whose goals and lifestyles might seem in little need of it. One is Appalachian, salvaging ecological sanity in the land that Boone emasculated. The other is as Western as the continent gets, reveling in its last healthy old-growth.

Other divergences may stem partially from that geographic divide. Megalomania, and attraction to it, for example, seems more of an eastern preoccupation. A premise of Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man, her biography of Eustace Conway, is that America’s Daniel Boones, in whatever century, seek wilderness for solace and refuge from dysfunctional fathers. Their drive for perfection in every endeavor is hounded deep into adulthood by a warped parent who withheld love and praise throughout childhood. The result: talent so unique and newsworthy that a famous Manhattan author (Eat, pray love) writes your life story; flocks of idealistic disciples follow you into the woods; and—true to your patriarchal curse—your girlfriend cycle is more Hollywood than hillbilly.

A fascinating hypothesis, and masterfully told tale—non-fiction, no doubt, as far as it goes. But I’d urge Elizabeth Gilbert to expand her sample size beyond Boone, Crockett and Conway, and consider alternate motives for a life in nature. She might especially enjoy an evening of belly laughs with Alaska’s answer to Eustace, named Hank Lentfer, author of Faith of cranes: finding hope and family in Alaska.

Full disclosure: I’m a longtime friend of Hank’s, thus unqualified to fairly compare him with an eastern celebrity woodsman I never met. I’m additionally handicapped by aversion to gurus, preferring to take my nature in company of normal, relaxed people who go there just because it’s so danged beautiful, so obviously, the place where we belong.

That said, it must be acknowledged that Hank Lentfer is not normal. His heart is probably too alpine for anything east of the Mississippi. He tracked that heart wherever it led, while others gradually grew up, letting the trail go cold. Hank is maybe the most un-warped person I’ve ever known. Unlike Eustace’s, Hank’s wolfskin-parka childhood was privileged and loving, and he fledged to cheers from Mary and Jack, “expressing pride with every oddball, unconventional choice I have made.” Hank’s torment is not his personal past, but the wilderness-gobbling future his daughter will inherit.

How do you joyfully face that future? Most of us lack the grounding to graphically appreciate how diminished and tragic our future could (will) be. Still, mere intuition of our fate requires for many a denial that mutes pure joy. Hank has seen the best and worst the planet can offer. He knows the cost of a Leopoldian education: to live in a world of wounds. But this rain-forest woodsman, constitutionally incapable of denial, nevertheless made a promise to his unborn child—that the future would not break him; he’d be the rock for her that his father was to him. There’d be laughter— lots—in Linnea’s childhood. And after that, cheers for every choice.

Hank Lentfer’s offering to the freight-train future is alert, comic happiness. Homegrown spuds, hospice work, practical jokes, communal saunas, land stewardship, cross-party friendships, size-14 high heels, and an annual rendezvous with Earth’s loveliest mammal, Sitka black-tailed deer; all are elements of Hankster’s robust survival plan. As for cranes, faith to Hank is more trajectory than doctrine, an anthem you just can’t help singing, even over cornfields, because a windpipe longer than your body will not be silenced, and you’re fat from Alaskan marshes, and it’s time to fly.

Perhaps most remarkably, as his flight took on the sharing of ideas about wild hearts, community, and right-livelihood, Hank Lentfer swiftly emerged as one of Alaska’s funniest and deepest writers. Maybe his can-do persona does resemble that of Eustace Conway—who belatedly mastered horsemanship to a degree life-long equiphiles must find exasperating.

Conway’s biographer, the “bride-of-writing” Gilbert, says “I built my entire life around writing.” Hank Lentfer built his life around a woman, a girl, and the faith of cranes. The writing flows from that, sweet as water from a limestone spring.



Field Notes on Science and Nature

Field notes on science & nature

Michael Canfield, editor. 2011 Harvard University Press. Foreword by Edward O. Wilson

Why naturalists should keep journals

Why naturalists should keep journals


Can you remember where you were and what you learned in late April, 1993? Does it matter? Canfield’s ground-breaking collection brings together reflections on journaling, along with fascinating samples from the notebooks of a dozen well-known ecologists, geologists, and scientific illustrators. The chapters cover ornithology, entomology, ecology, paleontology, anthropology, botany, and animal behavior.

A few examples: ● George Schaller’s lion observations. ● Kenn Kaufman’s 1973 “big year,” and how his notes have evolved since then. ● Piotr Naskrecki’s relational databases and electronic field notes. ● Bernd Heinrich’s sketches and reminder-scribbles.

Until now, few researchers have shared their private journals with more than a handful of friends and colleagues. Each author takes you behind the scenes, offering tips gleaned from a long, prolifically archived career. The concluding chapter is by Eric Greene, an ecologist at University of Montana. He notices that journaling, which originated in the field sciences, has ironically migrated into the lab:

“I’ve been puzzled by my student’s initial negative reactions to journaling for a field ecology class. . . To see if this is a general sentiment, I informally polled many of my colleagues in a broad range of fields at several universities . . .In general, lab scientists in biochemistry, cell and molecular biology tend to keep much better notebooks . . .than field scientists in ecology, behavior and conservation biology.”

Here’s an essay—drawn in part from an interview with editor Canfield—on why it still makes sense to draw (that’s right; with an actual pencil, a la Kathy Hocker.)

I finished reading Field notes in winter, 2015, as I was preparing a talk for the Alaska chapter of the Wildlife Society. Concluding that talk, on the intersection of science and natural history, I made journaling (along with making maps) one of two core recommendations to the group. That presentation is archived in our TOOLs section as Focus & breadth: science and natural history in Southeast Alaska.

And by the way, lest you too consider journaling just a chore—by the end of Greene’s ecology class, most students are enthralled by process. The trick is to find a system that fits your goals and personality, something too fun to neglect. For more tips, check out our page called Journaling and blogging.

Our grandparents’ names on the land

Haa L’éelk’w Hás Aani Saax’ú: Our grandparents’ names on the land.

Thornton & Martin eds. 2012. Sealaska Heritage Institute; University of Washington Press.

2012 cultural atlas for Southeast Alaska

2012 cultural atlas for Southeast Alaska


Following is adapted from a sidebar in The Nature of Southeast Alaska titled Natural history of names:

Tlingit place-names are poetic tributes to this bountiful archipelago. The 2012 Tlingit place-names atlas, Haa Léelk’w Hás Aaní Saax’ú: Our Grandparents’ Names on the Land, represents decades of collaboration with fluent Tlingit speakers, preserving names of bays, streams, reefs, mountains, and villages. Orchestrated, researched, and compiled by Oxford anthropologist Tom Thornton, and Harold Martin, Haa Léelk’w Hás Aaní Saax’ú is a wonderful resource for Southeast naturalists seeking stories of their favorite lands and waters.

Unfortunately, all maps before Our Grandparents’ Names are dominated by Important White Guy Names (IWGNs). Places named by explorers typically honored dignitaries back home, and tell us more about faraway politics than about the land we inhabit. IWGNs designating who once scratched who’s back actually disconnect us from places. IWGNs cover stories of home like tasteless paint on fine hardwood: Prince of Wales Island, Shelikof Bay, Bucareli Bay.

Other Euro-names are worse than tasteless. Favorite and Saginaw Bays were named for steamships that destroyed Xootsnoowú and Kéex’ Kwáan villages. These insults top the list of names we now can restore to Tlingit: Wankageey, bay on the edge; and Skanáx Aaní, noisy beach country, respectively. Native Alaskans almost never named places for people. The place-grounded Tlingit language can tell a story in 5 syllables: Sít’ Eetí Geeyí means bay taking the place of a glacier. Other names reference Raven tales, fishing attributes, historic battles, shamanic deeds, or tidal patterns.

To know Southeast Alaska is to know her real names. Thanks to the generosity of the elders and Tom Thornton’s monumental archiving effort we’ve shared some of them with you in this book. Our convention in most cases is to give the Tlingit name first, followed by its translation in italics, and the English, Russian, or Spanish IWGN in parentheses. For example: Kadigooni X’áat’,island with spring water (Spuhn Island). To Tom and Harold and the hundreds of contributing culture bearers: Gunalchéesh!


The Nature of Southeast Alaska

It’s a little unorthodox for authors to review their own books, so I’ll defer on this first one. But it is probably the best place to start, for newbies or aficionados, in a literary exploration of the Alaskan rain forest. Below is a peek inside the introductory pages.
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