Emily Articulated: Nature Deficit Disorder

By Emily Erickson
Reader Columnist

Rain was quietly pattering the tin roof of my dry cabin as I stuffed my backpack with two weeks worth of dirty clothes. I wrapped myself in my waterproof coat, absentmindedly slipping a paperback book and my cell phone into my pocket as I headed out the door. The phone read “no service” just as it always did when I was on my property. Letting the latch click behind me, I began my mile and a half long trek into town to take care of some long overdue errands.

Emily Erickson.

It was the summer of 2014, and I was living in Skagway, Alaska.

I was working as a tour guide for Jewell Gardens Organic Garden and Glassblowing Studio and lived with a small community of guides, gardeners and glassblowers in a thousand-person town tucked in a valley surrounded by ocean and mountains.

My daily commute consisted of a two-mile walk or bike (as I was car-less) to the cruise ship littered docks, from which I herded aimless and awe-stricken tourists into a big bus, Jewell Gardens bound. My possessions fit into the 70L backpack I’d eagerly strapped on months prior, and my connectivity to the outside world was achieved by accessing the free wi-fi available at the town’s public library.

It was the most simply I had ever lived, and it was beautiful.

As I sit in a pile of chords, powering my phone with my laptop, my laptop with the coffee shop outlet, and a row of people next to me all doing the same, I can’t help but question how I got here, and the inevitable implications of being so incredibly plugged in.

In 2005 sociologist Richard Louv introduced the concept of Nature Deficit Disorder, or the idea that there is an increasing phenomenon where people, especially children, are spending less time outdoors connecting with nature. And as a result of alienation with the natural world, are a plethora of emotional and behavioral problems on the rise.

In his book, “Last Child in the Woods,” Louv argues that this reduced connection with the outdoors is a byproduct of “parental fears, restricted access to natural places, and the lure of electronic devices.”

His research consisted of spending ten years traveling the United States compiling data from both urban and rural families, finding consistency in parents feeling fearful of letting their kids engage in unsupervised, and imagination-based outside play. Instead, parents were more inclined to enroll their children in the safety of structured, and often indoors, after school programs.

Additionally, especially in urban areas, he observed reduced access to available natural places, with commuting to an unrestricted wild area too difficult for many families to incorporate into their regular routines.

Finally, he concluded that the attraction of spending time indoors is higher than ever, as people grow more dependent on electronics for their daily lives and entertainment.

And as people become more disengaged with the natural world, their dependency on a fast-paced life and constant stimulation becomes more prevalent.

When presented with moments of downtime, like in the Joel’s line at lunch, we stare at our phones, consuming rapidly flashing images of news headlines and dog pictures on Instagram, instead of engaging in simple mind wandering or quiet conversation.

When we have 30 minutes to kill, we watch an episode of “The Office,” instead of wandering through the woods.

We do this, despite the bounty of evidence that being outside, especially as it relates to physical activity, is associated with increased mental and physical health, and decreased anxiety and sadness.

As I reflect on the simplicity of my Alaskan summers, the nostalgia I feel is every bit as much about being unplugged and the experiences that afforded, as it is about the amazing scenery and the job I could hardly consider work.

Fortunately, here in North Idaho, we live in one of the most beautiful and natural areas in the world. We have access to more State and National Park and Forest than nearly anyone else, and exist in the safety and comfort of a small town.

Because of this, we have every reason to practice simplifying our lives and to start swapping our screen time for trail and lake time. We can find places of quiet and spend them in thought. We can strike up a conversation with the person on the barstool next to us. We can engage in the world we live in.

And certainly, if a Millennial can do it, so can you. See you out there!

Emily Erickson is a freelance writer and bartender originally from Wisconsin, with a degree in Sociology and an affinity for playing in the mountains.

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