Thursday, June 28, 2007

Fashion and Experience

Robert Michael Pyle, one of the pioneers of the children and Nature issue penned an essay in his book The Thunder Tree called The Extinction of Experience. It is this essay that has served as a foundation for a lot of the thinking going on about children not being connected with nature.

More recently, Bob wrote an article in Defenders Magazine a while back that explained the roots of our ecological crisis, including the role of extinction of experience.
I believe that one of the greatest causes of the ecological crisis is the state of personal alienation from nature in which many people live. We lack a widespread sense of intimacy with the living world. Natural history has never been more popular in some ways, yet few people organize their lives around nature, or even allow it to affect them profoundly. Our depth of contact is too often wanting. Two distinctive birds, by the ways in which they fish, furnish a model for what I mean.

Brown pelicans fish by slamming directly into the sea, great bills agape, making sure of solid contact with the resource they seek. Black skimmers, graceful ternlike birds with longer lower mandibles than upper, fly over the surface with just the lower halves of their bills in the water. They catch fish too, but avoid bodily immersion by merely skimming the surface.

In my view, most people who consider themselves nature lovers behave more like skimmers than pelicans. They buy the right outfits at L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer, carry field guides and take walks on nature trails, reading all the interpretive signs. They watch the nature programs on television, shop at the Nature Company and pay their dues to the National Wildlife Federation or the National Audubon Society. These activities are admirable, but they do not ensure truly intimate contact with nature. Many such "naturalists" merely skim, reaping a shallow reward. Yet the great majority of the people associate with nature even less.

As usual, Bob is right, and maybe we're into nature now without getting muddy.

A good example from our consumer culture is The North Face's woman's Denali Jacket. I'd bet four out of ten 14 year old girls wear one all winter long, to school and the mall.

A friend of mine, an excellent climber, once wore a $4.99 windbreaker out to the crag just to stick it to the lycra clad rock jocks wearing the newest crag fashions, who spent more time posing than climbing. On the other hand, at least those folks were out at the crags. The Outdoor Industry, including The North Face, is doing everything they can to get people into outdoor sports, and they are committed to connecting kids to nature, as their future business depends on it. Let's hope they have the ideas and the vision to help reverse this extinction of experience. In the short term though, is fashion, rather than getting outdoors, keeping these companies afloat?

I think in some cases, the answer is yes.

Bob Pyle's article is here.