In America they have a name for it: Nature Deficit Disorder. Nature, says the writer Richard Louv, is more important than you think.Think that sounds a little flaky, a little Yankee New Age claptrap? Well, read on…
Nature, continues Louv, is fresh air for the mind. It is the link between life and happiness. But increasingly, it has become a missing link. To more than half of us aged 30 or less, nature is only of marginal interest. Like the girl who, when told there was a wild badger in the garden, glanced up from her ipod and mumbled, "This affects me – how?"Perhaps instead of telling her, that info should have been Tweeted?
Yet when it comes to public policy, nature is always up there as a big deal. Parks and public gardens are managed with wildlife in mind. And we have never had more freedom to roam. We can go where we like over open hills and downs and commons. Forbidden forests have been thrown open to inspection, and liberally supplied with car parks, loos and picnic tables. The Government is committed to open access all around the coast. We must be the most walker-friendly country in Europe.Oh, I think we can guess, can’t we?
So what is amiss?
One reason, of course, is that parents worry that their children might be abducted and abused. Or that they could get run over on our busy roads. Or even, according to social research at Hertfordshire University, that they might get their expensive trainers dirty. Unlike the generation that went through two world wars, we are not inclined to take risks. For many parents and children, the countryside has become off-limits, outside the safety barrier, an uncomfortable place.And who has led this sea-change in the way we view nature?
That’s right. It’s been the Righteous, all along:
But there is another barrier to appreciating nature, and it is this: even when you find it, you are not allowed to touch it. Nature used to be associated with freedom, freedom to see and think unstructured thoughts, and to wander as you please. But all too often the nature experience now involves some corralled "country park" or "discovery centre" or guided tours by people who may or may not know much but are usually pretty hot on the dos and don'ts.Nature, you see, isn’t to be approached without a full safety certificate, 24 page risk assessment and experienced guide.
And this is England. We aren’t talking about going on safari in Africa here…
I call it the Don't Touch culture. The don'ts include picking or playing games with wild plants, catching pond life or flying insects, foraging for wild food, climbing trees, or burning wood on a campfire. Many people seem to think such activities are illegal.And why, exactly, would they think that?
Well, because the Righteous have introduced that concept, of course. By harassing and hounding people who pick up stones from a beach, by carpeting the countryside with ‘Don’t Touch…!’ signs, they hope to freeze people into a permanent state of worry, where the only safe thing is to do nothing at all.
Doubt has even been raised about the legal position of picking blackberries by the wayside.And if that tactic didn’t work, they could always fall back on the pollution angle…
Personal, direct contact with nature is being discouraged by fusspots and busybodies and control freaks who seem to want to regulate every waking moment of our lives.They don’t ‘seem to’. They do, indeed, want to…
You can read their disapproval in the small print under the welcome sign at the entrance. Look but don't touch. You know it's illegal.And you won’t, either. It isn’t in their interest to educate the public as to what their rights actually are, but to keep them in a permanent state of wondering what, if any, rights they have…
Well, actually it isn't. It is not, for example, against the law to pick wild flowers, though you don't hear many conservation bodies saying so.
Yet the state never intended it to be like this.Oh, really? Are you sure about that?
I’m not. Not at all.
It happened in this way: back in the Eighties, after a bit of bother over the sale of wild bluebells and primroses, a law was introduced to make such activities an offence. But to make life easier for the lawyers, it included a blanket clause making it illegal to dig up any wild plant by the roots.Because lawyers and civil servants are people, just like any other. They’re lazy. They take the path of least resistance, if they are allowed to do so.
Hence, in the eyes of the law, and for no better reason than a tidy statute, weeds and edible roots are protected with the same force as orchids.
And so, we all lose something, if the people we employ to oversee this process of lawmaking fall down on the job.
I’m looking at you, MPs and Lords:
We can also still forage for winkles and cockles, but as the author of a recent book on wild food noted, the law is a nightmare: "I defy anyone not having a firm and comprehensive grip on the law to collect half a dozen different things from the beach without committing an offence." As for mushrooms, an enforceable Code of Conduct allows us to gather a small basketful so long as we do not sell them on, but some public landowners have been reluctant to allow us even that much.Because the creeping, paralysing fear of doing the wrong thing prevents anyone from doing anything. Just to be safe.
To seek an example of how this alienation from nature is subtly encouraged, you need look no further than the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Designed to meet the needs of seven-to-nine-year-olds, the latest edition of the dictionary includes such modish words as blog, bullet point, biodegradable, Xbox, chatroom and MP3 player, all of which are deemed to play an important part in the lives of children today. But to make room for them, the editor has excised many of the most familiar objects of the countryside, words such as acorn, conker, dandelion, minnow and magpie.And that is why I think this is the saddest article I’ve ever read. Because it never used to be like this.
In proscribing minnows and conkers, the editor claims she is only responding to the needs of contemporary life: "Nowadays most children no longer live in semi-rural environments and see the seasons. The environment has changed." What a thought: children who do not experience the changing seasons, nor will have any name for the things they find on a simple country walk.
When I was growing up, although I didn’t live in a rural environment, parks (and forests and moors and the shore when on holiday) were my favourite place. Fishing for minnows, picking flowers, hunting for fossils and stones to polish, or just exploring. No worries about traffic (the Green Cross Code took care of that), or paedophiles (we were taught to be wary of strangers, but not to be afraid of them), or H&S (we were expected to be sensible).
Technology is wonderful, but it really is no substitution for a life…
How do we break free of the Don't Touch Gestapo?He suggests a start:a repeal of the Theft Act to once again allow the right of forage.
But I can’t see that being anything other than too little, too late. Without the wholesale cull of the H&S brigade and all the other Righteous from our institutions, this situation isn’t going to be reversed in a hurry.
And generations will grow up never knowing what they’ve lost…
Related: Leg-Iron's post on how extraordinary actions are now frowned on by those the Righteous have brainwashed into fearfulness.