• ljmarkson

The Future is Dependent on Connecting Children to Nature Every Day

Updated: Mar 10

"Today’s children, growing up on lawns and pavements, will not even have nostalgia to guide them, and soon the animals will be not only missing but forgotten". These words were written in 1993 by Sara Stein in her inspirational book about reclaiming nature in our own yards called Noah's Garden. She was truly prescient. Twenty-eight years later, the children she worried about are the millennials who are now supercharging the housing market. They’re the same couples moving into my increasingly upscale intown Atlanta neighborhood, and they are repeating history as they raise their own children. Wildlife is disappearing at an alarming rate and these folks aren’t changing their behavior.

Despite this charming and well cared for home being almost 100 years old, a sparse, lawncentric landscape like this, devoid of mature trees, bushes, and habitat for wildlife, offers no connection to nature and nowhere for children to explore outside.

In my neighborhood lawns still rule. The damage being done is worrisome.

  • Mature landscaping is routinely removed for reasons I don't fully understand. When new neighbors moved in next door a few years ago they took down a 45-year-old native maple because they claimed to have had a "bad experience" with a tree in their previous yard. I have no context for this behavior.

  • Crews with multiple 200mph gas powered leaf blowers remove every bit of natural matter from the ground, leaving compacted, lifeless dirt where there should be a rich layer of humus teeming with life.

  • Urban wildlife is not welcome and removal services are called if squirrels, chipmunks, racoons, possums, or snakes dare appear. To keep lawns smooth moles and voles are subjected to barbaric extermination with awful names like Savage Mole Trap!

  • Neighborhood chat groups are filled with people seeking service referrals for wildlife removal, mosquito spraying, various pesticide applications, chemical lawns, and commercial landscape crews. There are long, animated threads about how to remove or kill squirrels that dare eat homegrown tomatoes.

  • Yards are blanketed with chemicals to keep insects and anything that isn’t grass from living.

  • Where there isn’t grass, extensive patios with the obligatory outdoor kitchen, firepit, and landscape lighting are built.

  • Small pools are starting to appear, even on tiny .2 acre lots.

  • Another more disconcerting trend is homeowners are doing away with grass itself and installing toxic plastic astro-turf for their children to play on.

These are the signs littering the yards in my neighborhood. The children growing up in these toxic yards will treat their own yards the same way when they grow up...although at this rate, by then there won't be many insects to exterminate.

Nature is nowhere to be found. The children who are growing up in these lifeless yards are not outside picking up rocks to see what insects are under them, gleefully chasing fireflies at night, touching pill bugs to see them roll up in a ball or click beetles to see them play dead then click and flip in the air,

In a yard where insects have been exterminated and the ecoystem has been intentionally stripped of natural matter by weekly mow and blow crews, children won't find moisture-seeking ancient pill bugs and see them curl up in a tiny, armored ball when touched.

I’m not suggesting these parents don’t value nature. They think globally and agree on environmental truisms such as the need to slow down climate change, stop deforestation, reduce plastic consumption, and save endangered wildlife. They just aren’t connecting the dots between protecting the environment and being a good steward of their own yards.

A connection to nature is ironically missing in this well-meaning yard sign suggesting we respect nature, science, and each other. The ear-splitting noise and air pollution from a weekly mow and blow crew not only makes the yard inhospitable to wildlife but shows a lack of neighborly respect. An unnatural landscape of non-native invasive vinca, liriope, English ivy (out of photo range), and a monoculture grass lawn is treated with pesticides proven by science to destroy nature. This is not a yard where children will form a lasting relationship with nature.

These same parents travel to local and faraway places to give their children memorable experiences in nature. On weekends they might visit the aquarium, zoo, a local nature center, or go to their beach, mountain or lake house. Vacations may be spent experiencing nature tourism in places like Costa Rica, Wyoming, or any one of America’s spectacular national parks where awe inspiring wildlife can be appreciated. Yet when they return home to a sanitized yard, the message to respect and appreciate nature isn’t repeated. They may travel to Pismo Beach to see monarchs migrating or to the local butterfly house at a Natural History Museum, but they won’t see more than a passing native butterfly in their own yard because of the indiscriminate use of pesticides that exterminate all soft bodied insects, including the caterpillars that turn into butterflies.

There is no need to go to migration hotspots like Pismo Beach or to a butterfly house to see monarchs if you have a chemical free yard filled with native plants. In the fall monarchs pass through cities like Atlanta when the blue mistflower (conoclinium coelestinum) is blooming. We can bring them back if everyone creates a safe and welcoming yard for them to travel through.

There is an immediacy to change this trajectory. Since Noah's Garden was published there are 27% fewer insects, and the bird decline has only increased. In the last 50 years we’ve lost 25% of our North American birds. By the time the children now playing on astroturf grow up, it may be too late to save nature. I’m sincerely not trying to single out older millennials who are the children of boomers and only doing what recent generations before them did. As a group they happen to represent a peak disconnect from nature and what they’re doing to their own yards is alarming.

Katydids are some of the most threatened insects because they feed on plants and are sensitive to habitats where insecticide and herbicides are used. Surprisingly, there are more species in suburban areas where they can find niche habitats to survive than in urban or rural areas. We need to reclaim backyards as wildlife habitat so children 30 years from now will still be able to listen to the katydids' nighttime music.

There are still plenty of activist older millennials and I’m encouraged by positive signs from the tail end of the millennials and from Gen Z who are more willing to change their lifestyle to be more sustainable. The vital message from conservationist like Doug Tallamy is resonating as young people just starting to build a life are living in the world with fewer animals that Sara Stein warned about. They’re acutely aware of their personal impact on our environment and embrace a more authentically organic and natural lifestyle. They’re advocates for change and are creating new trends by tearing up their lawns to plant edible landscaping and wildlife habitats. When they have children, they’re exposing them to the natural world every day in their own yard.

The system works...children learn what they live. This is my darling child gently cradling soft chive flowers in our backyard cottage garden a few years after Noah's Garden was written. She represents the younger millenials. She is getting married next year, and her dream is to have a house in the country with acreage where she can live a more natural and sustainable lifestyle that embraces wildlife. If she has children, they won't be disconnected from nature.

There’s hope. The opportunity to nurture nature for the next generation is as simple as creating a backyard (and frontyard!) haven for wildlife and today’s children are watching and learning. In the future, they will make this part of who they are.

A naturescaped yard like this offers a magnificent opportunity for a child to explore and connect to nature every day...as well as a safe haven for wildlife.

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