Tag Archives: escape into nature

Inside or Outside?

A few months ago, my dad built a nice patio in our front yard. It is outside and only 15 feet from the street, but trees offer privacy. There are shaded parts and sunny parts and there are always birds chirping and a nice breeze. When the sun was out, I would do all of my homework sitting there, and it was much more enjoyable than sitting inside.

I found a very interesting expose in the New York Times, on kids spending time outdoors. It featured an editorial by Nicholas Kristof, an article about kindergartners that spend three hours a day in the forest, and a chance for students to talk about what they think of nature.

Kristof mentions a book called Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv. Louv’s thesis is that the baby boomers are most likley that last generation that will share an intimate connection with the land and water. What this means, is that our generation will be far less connected (face it we are) and further generations will be even less so. It’s almost inevitiable. I remember reading a book by Isaac Asimov, a reknowned science fiction writer, in which cities became enclosed metropolitan areas, completely distinct from nature. I think that is a entirely possible, however disgusting it may be. Granted, it will take hundreds of years to get there. But still, it could.

The most interesting thing I saw was something that Louv calls ‘nature defecit disorder.’ Essentially, not being in nature is linked to depression, obesity and ADD. It makes sense. There is an overwhelming sense of calm and serenity you can gain from reflecting in nature. At the same time, it encourages young kids to be active. When I was young, my friends and I didn’t need video games to keep us busy. Our imaginations took us everywhere in parks and backyards. And this activity fights obesity.

I think that a big problem is that nature often comes into conflict with efficiecy. If you put computer engineers on laptops on a park bench in Central park to work, they would not get work done. That is, unless they were already so lost to the world. And these days, its all about cramming as much into your day as you can. That leaves no room for some time for fun or relaxation in nature. Too many people would rather run on a treadmill than go run at a county park. Too many people would rather hurry home than stop and smell the roses.

I have been trying to understand how this relates to our heightened awareness of environmental problems and the trend to going green. It seems hypocritical to drive a prius and use cloth bags at the grocery store, but not spend time outdoors. If we are trying to save the world for later generations, why not enjoy it for ourselves in the meantime?

While it may not be the most productive thing to sit and watch a sunset from a hilltop, or the tide come in on the beach, it is certainly worth the time. Nature, like friendship and family, goes beyond having a monetary value and for that reason we should treasure and cherish it more than we do. It deserves our love, respect and attention.

the beach in half moon bay CA

Into the woods and out of the woods and home before dark.

Saturday night, nearing ten, I pressed my way through the cackling, calling crowd, into the courtyard behind Florence Moore auditorium, narrowly avoiding a wolf, his arms-outstretched, his head tilted back to the large yellow moon. Instead, I walked right into a prince. Apologizing and straightening my shirt, I pushed onward, finally reaching the comforting dark beyond the crush of people. I waved absently to my companions and set off alone. My mind was atwitter. Though I walked into nothing but concrete and asphalt, my thoughts were with the woods.

Stephen Sondheim’s ode to Grimms’ classics debuted in 1986 and opened on Broadway the following year. I’m a product of that same era, and Into the Woods played a pivotal role in my early childhood (together with Gypsy and Les Mis – my other foundational texts – this may explain more than I’d like about my personality). I was always slightly afraid of Into the Woods, in a way that was only matched, in those early years, by Disney’s Dumbo. And yet I watched it again and again – often stopping before the end, postponing the inevitable demise of the Baker’s Wife beneath the galumphing foot of the giant, but always starting again. The words to the title tune are burned on my brain.

Saturday night, as I marched my way back to the parking lot, shawl wrapped tightly about my shoulders, keys cold in my hand, I tried to piece my childhood fright together. What is it about the woods?

Sondheim’s woods are a place of abandon, of freedom and of violation. Social roles and societal rules don’t hold in the woods; the dicta of civilization can’t permeate the trees. At first, the woods are simply about sex – and violent sex at that. Both violence and fornication remain into the second act, but they are joined, in the woods, by forbidden friendships, gender equality, infidelity of all stripes, and, of course, mysterious, sooth-saying men.

The rub, of course, is that the woods is where innocence goes to die. But to simply say that woods = maturation is reductive – a poor simplification of a fairly complex work. The woods aren’t meant as a metaphor for growing up, the final goodbye to innocent childhood. Rather, they call for the end of parental naivety.

The woods are where adults are forced to confront themselves and, more importantly, their illusions of control. The few children in the story – Little Red Riding Hood and Jack of beanstalk fame – change little from curtain to curtain, though one could easily argue they have the most done to them in the course of the play. It’s the adults who bear the brunt of character development and it’s the woods that push them to it. The witch bemoans and then accepts, at last, her lack of power, relinquishing first her magic and then, just before the curtain falls, her now-departed daughter. Cinderella abandons her lush dreams for a happier, and more faithfully mundane, reality. The Baker’s Wife, before she meets her tragic end, stops micro-managing, embraces her desires and her sexuality, and gets down with a (married) member of the royal family. (The fact that the lovely lady dies promptly after said coitus is a whole other can of worms, ripe for somewhat indignant and feminist discussion, but I’ll leave it aside for now.)

The only adult who doesn’t give up control in some capacity is the Baker and that’s, well, because he never had any. Like the children, his life was ruled by outside forces – spells and societal norms – and it is in the woods that he is able to shake off these binds and construct his own happiness. Single (and adoptive) fatherhood, perhaps an eventual tryst with the former princess, perhaps a reconstructed business in the village, maybe even a side-venture – the witch is surely to have left her garden for good. Or maybe, he’ll opt to stay in the woods.