The Bond of Shared Solitude: Family Connection in the Natural World

children nature[Adapted from “The Nature Principle”]

Boredom has its benefits. So does solitude, that lost art in the age of wall-to-wall media. To occasionally be alone — not lonely, but alone — is an important part of parenting and of marriage. One time, my wife Kathy rented a room at the beach, and spent a weekend with no electronic interruptions, no demands for time or attention — just the sound of the waves and gulls. She came home looking even younger than she usually does.

A few years ago, facing a book deadline, I drove to the Cuyamaca mountains. My friends, Jim and Anne Hubbell, had invited me to house sit a magical little Hobbit house on their property, and I planned to spend a whole week there, alone. I realize taking work on a retreat is a contradiction, but even with work at hand, solitude is elevating. I had done this once before, spending a week in a bunkhouse made from an abandoned railroad car in Mesa Grande, had worked during the heat of the day and then wandered at dusk through the hills.

This time, the accommodations were better, a charming little house with windows of stained glass — I even had electricity, and a comfortable bed to sleep in. In the gray dawn on my first morning there, I opened my eyes to see a coyote standing next to an open window. It stared at me. I blinked. It was gone.

I got up, made coffee, and went to work.

During these days of solitude, moving clouds and lifting wind would begin to bring voices — of a father and a mother, now gone, and of my wife and children. On the fourth day, Kathy and the boys, Jason and Matthew, arrived for a visit. In solitude, even for a few days, a person changes subtly; the familiar phrases and patterns seem odd, somehow. So our first minutes together felt a little awkward. But this is why taking a retreat, as a husband or wife or parent, is a good thing. Familiar patterns can shield us from true familiarity.

At the end of their visit, Kathy took me aside and said that Jason had commitments at home, but Matthew would like to stay with me for my remaining three days. He was terribly bored at home, and needed a break from his brother (and his brother needed a break from him). Of course, I said, as long as he understands that I need to work, and he’ll have to entertain himself.

At 11, Matthew was in the between time, in the gap between childhood and adolescence. This is a particularly magical stage in a boy’s life, a time when it’s good to take a break from familiar patterns — to spend some time in silence.

My wife and older son drove off, and Matthew and I went through the house to look for books for him to read. There was no TV in the little house and no radio. Not a single electronic game, either. He picked out a Tolkien novel and another book about a boy who adopts a wolf cub. He sat on an old couch behind me, and respecting my need for quiet, began to read.

Three hours later I realized he had not said a word. I turned around. He was asleep, holding Tolkien like a stuffed bear.

That evening, we walked up the hill and swam together in a round, tiled pool under a quarter moon, and later, we listened to the wind come up and the coyotes jabber in fits and starts. For the next three days, we talked only occasionally, usually in the pool or at dinner. He was usually a voluble boy, so I was surprised that silence came so easily to him.

The absence of electronics (except for my laptop computer) helped. So did the wildness of the land around us. So did the fact that his father was there, but quieter than usual. I asked him to take charge of feeding the cats and dog. He gave names to the cats, who followed him around the property, scrambling up the oaks to show off for him. In the evenings we swam or walked, and he took his camera, and snuck up on the deer that wandered through an orchard at dusk.

Matthew and I moved into a new rhythm. I got to know him better during those days, and perhaps he came to know me better, not because we talked, but because we didn’t. As a parent, you capture such quiet moments when you can, in the loudness of time.

Connect Your Kids (and Yourself) to Nature with Five Creative Tips

Richard’s Tips from “The Nature Principle” and “Last Child in the Woods”

  1. Just do it – and think simple. If we want our children or grandchildren to experience nature, we’ll need to be more proactive than parents of past generations. For small children (or older ones, too), start in the back yard. Encourage them to build forts, dig a hole, or plant a garden. A small pickup load of dirt costs the same as a video game, and provides more hours of creative, self-directed play. Some of the best toys are the simplest and least expensive. Did you know that the cardboard box and the stick have been inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame?
  2. Be a hummingbird parent (not a helicopter parent). To reduce parental fear, Michele Whitaker, a guest blogger for The Grass Stain Guru, suggests that we become hummingbird parents: encouraging young children to play outside, but watch from a distance. “I tend to stay physically distant to let them explore and problem solve, but zoom in at moments when safety is an issue (which isn’t very often),” She writes. Notice that she isn’t hovering over her kids with nature flash cards. She stands back and makes space for independent nature play.
  3. Create or join a family nature club. Nature Clubs for Families are beginning to catch on across the country; some have membership lists of over 400 families. The idea is that multiple families meet to go for a hike, garden together, or even do stream reclamation. We hear from family nature club leaders that when families get together, the kids tend to play more creatively — with other kids or independently — than during single-family outings. C&NN’s Nature Clubs for Families offers a free downloadable guide on how to start your own.
  4. Help create a Homegrown National Park. Doug Tallamy, a professor at the University of Delaware, encourages children and adults to replant their yards with native species to create a vast network of wildlife corridors — ones that help make our cities into biodiversity engines, improving human health and well-being, and bring back butterfly and bird migration routes. As I quoted him in “The Nature Principle,” Tallamy argues that it “is now in the power of individual gardeners to do something that we all dream of doing: to ‘make a difference.’ In this case, the ‘difference’ will be to the future of biodiversity, to the native plants and animals of North America and the ecosystems that sustain them.”
  5. Submit your ideas to the CLIF Kid Backyard Game of the Year. You can find nature nearby, right in your backyard. The folks at CLIF Kid, maker of organic snacks for kids, have come up with a great way for parents to reconnect their kids with outdoor play and their own imaginations. Now in its second year, the CLIF Kid Backyard Game of the Year contest asks kids ages 6 – 12 to submit their ideas for their very own backyard game. The rules are easy: Invent a game for two or more kids to play using basic items that can be found around the house or in nature. Six finalists will win educational scholarships, bikes and helmets and a trip to San Francisco for the Backyard Game Playoffs in July. The grand prize winner will be awarded a $10,000 scholarship. Submissions can be made online:

[About the author: Richard Louv is the author of “THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting to Life in a Virtual World” and “LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” He is Chairman Emeritus of The Children and Nature Network and 2012 spokesperson for the CLIF Kid Backyard Game of the Year.]
Image: USFWS

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