This week, I had the pleasure of seeing one of my idols speak in person. Richard Louv, author of the groundbreaking book Last Child in the Woods, was speaking to a gathering in Portland Maine, about his new book Our Wild Nature. Louv has become fascinated with not only the connections between humans and the fellow creatures we share our planet with, but also the benefits that accrue as a result of those connections. Animals – domestic and wild, benefit from connections to humans in numerous ways (as opposed to the damage inflicted when humans fail to acknowledge the connection). Humans, Louv points out benefit in any number of ways from their connection to animals - from the mental health benefits of therapy animals, to the profound awe we feel when we encounter wild animals, to the varied benefits that accrue from a more diverse ecosystem. Diversity is healthy not just for organizations and political systems, it’s essential for healthy ecosystems.
It was so gratifying to hear Louv speak, and realize as I sat in the auditorium, that many of the positive effects he was discussing, have been on display at camp where we have (in 2019) chickens, goats, ducks and dogs. We’ve been noticing the connections mediated by some of the animals for a few years now – several individual campers will go to feed and watch the chickens during free time, those campers start chatting about the chickens, then they start talking about themselves, each other and camp, and soon each of those campers has made connections with other campers. Chickens have done their job.
One of the things I may not have given enough credit to, is simply the connection to the animals themselves. It seems so obvious - as a dog owner - I feel a deep and abiding love for that smelly furball. Of course campers and staff create connections with the goats, chickens (ducks???). Animals are patient and persistent teachers in some of the most elusive subjects. We learn that it’s okay to just love something. We learn empathy simply by interacting with animals, attempting to understand their needs and concerns. We learn the importance of being still and listening, or of being calm and listening. We learn that when something else depends on us, we need to be attentive and responsible. The domestic animals at camp reinforce our best habits.
We also share connections with those nondomestic animals in our lives. At camp we all hear the sounds of loons crying across the lakes in the middle of the night, and feel the hairs rise on our arms in response. We see the owl swoop through the trees at dusk, or the bald eagle circle overhead at midday. We see the dozens of turtles basking in the sun, squadrons of dragonflies, the hummingbirds, and the occasional fox or groundhog, going about their lives. In these moments, we get a quick glimpse into the wider world at play, the wilder world we are a part of, but sadly apart from. Louv suggests that the feeling that results from these encounters is awe. We need a sense of awe in our lives, some real magic, to connect us and motivate us to the wild world.
Of course, I can’t write this blog without reference to the celebrity members of our community this summer. I refer, of course, to Virgil, Dante, Jackie, and Wilson, our four mini (well, 3 mini, and one kind of big) goats. The goats were new this year, as were our 9 ducks, and they added to our existing flock of chickens. Now, we’ve always had a dog around camp, and Penny makes it abundantly clear that is has always, and will continue to be, all about her. These furry and feathered little souls are very much a part of camp, and campers and staff alike delighted in spending time with any or all of them. We love them for simply what they are. But if we are quiet and still enough, these gentle, happy little creatures, will help us understand some really important things. We are so fortunate that camp has the space, both literal space for these animals to have a very sweet set up, but also the space in our schedules to allow time to be spent just watching, or being with, these animals. It does wonders for us.
Finally, Louv would argue, and we agree wholeheartedly, that these connections are essential for the animals with whom we share our world. As a society, we have allowed ourselves to become distant from the creatures that we are responsible for, the creatures that rely on us, that we rely on. This is a dangerous development, for them and for us. In an interdependent system, one side cannot disengage without risking systemic collapse. Our role is to understand, and appreciate, the role that animals play in our lives – physical, emotional, and social roles. We hope that by having a few cute furry or feathered camp members, and by observing the many others who share their year-round home with us during the summer, we at MTC gain a truer understanding of what is required of us.