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  • Child's Play:Nature-Deficit Disorder and Mark Twain's Mississippi River Youth
  • Barbara Eckstein (bio)

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods (2006), believes that a majority of children—he means children in the US—suffer from nature-deficit disorder.1 "The (second) frontier—which existed in the family farm, the woods at the end of the road, the national parks and in our hearts—is itself disappearing or changing beyond recognition" (4). Structured games and circumscribed play have replaced the freedom, fantasy, privacy, and healing that Louv believes children earlier found in their outdoor explorations. He fears that these constructs will teach children that in unruly nature risks abound, ghosts reside, while in chalked and manicured outdoor play, a medical or legal remedy exists for every mistake (131). "The urge to affiliate with other forms of life" that E. O. Wilson calls biophilia (qtd. in Louv 43), when absent or distorted, may result in what countercultural historian of ecopsychology Theodore Roszak calls "dysfunctional biological relations" (qtd. in Louv 44). Roszak claims that the condition is serious and prevalent enough to warrant inclusion in the American Psychology Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (Louv 43-44).2 Introducing the collection Ecopsychology, Jungian James Hillman observes that the discipline of psychology could continue to seek subjectivity in human nature alone, making the "cut" between human and not human at the skin or it could instead "venture to the interior in a less literal manner: no cuts. The interior would be anywhere . . . . [Psychologists would be] admitting [as did [End Page 16] Hippocrates 2,500 years ago] that airs, waters, and places play as large a role in the problems psychology faces as do moods, relationships, and memories" (Hillman xxii).

The label nature-deficit disorder begs the question, what is nature? Naomi Schalit sees danger in Louv's utilitarian idea of nature as a pill. Nature's value, she argues, lies apart from what it can do for us. Diane Gordon, instead, appreciates Louv's 10 years of interviews, seeking diverse opinions on the relationship among nature, childhood, and psychic health. Gordon values what we could call discursive nature. Bruno Latour pushes this idea further. Believing that the concept of nature has been too controlled by the idea that rationalist scientists uncover absolute facts, he proposes a focus on a successor to nature that is an assemblage to be slowly composed, not a nature always already there (476-77). Latour's manifesto glosses Louv's popular project that could be said to compose nature rather than find it. But Louv's book has no special interest in the distinction, nor does it acknowledge the limitations of the human-scaled nature that circumscribes its examples. A prosthetic apprehension of nature through microscopes or telescopes, for example, can elicit human wonder and curiosity, maybe even humility and biophilia, as readily as a naked-eyed view from a mountaintop. That said, Louv would probably agree that nature is a negotiated and material complexity of which humans with our interpretative sciences and rhetorics as well as our bodies are a part. No cuts.

But wait. If we sit down to dinner and carve a beef roast, mash a potato, slice a mushroom, we are in fact making cuts between our species and others. Louv has little to say about necessary decisions that put this food on the table rather than that or in the work that it takes to get it there, but interspecies engagement does provide four of the five trends that characterize what he calls the new, third frontier "populated by today's children" (19). These are "a severance of the public and private mind from our food's origins; a disappearing line between machines, humans, and other animals; an increased intellectual understanding of our relationship with other animals; the invasion of our cities by wild animals (even as urban/suburban designers replace wildness with synthetic nature); and the rise of a new kind of suburban form" (19). His popular book, available in gift shops of National Parks and Monuments across the US, maintains a humanist focus on the offspring of Homo sapiens. Yet in taking responsibility for imagining a viable future...


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pp. 16-33
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