Author Richard Louv is best known as the author of Last Child in the Woods, his 2005 bestseller that established the phrase nature-deficit disorder and helped spark an international movement to examine the health benefits of spending time outdoors. His ideas were initially seen as radical—recall that in 2005, the iPhone didn’t exist yet—but today they’re ubiquitous. Now Louv is back with a new book, Our Wild Calling, that presents more radical ideas, this time about the need for humans to rekindle our relationships with other species. Outside editor Christopher Keyes spoke with Louv about the basis for his theories and why even the most serious scientists get that something special happens when we engage with wild creatures.
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Michael Roberts (Host): In 2005, author Richard Louv wrote what was an unlikely bestseller. It was titled Last Child in the Woods, and it helped spark an international movement to examine the health benefits of spending time outdoors. Today, this idea is ubiquitous. Every week, it seems, there's another headline about a study showing that being in wild places helps us deal with anxiety, or depression, or even PTSD. Back in 2005, though, the iPhone didn't even exist yet. In Last Child in the Woods, Louv was concerned about Nintendo as something called a “kid pager.” Anyway, the point is Louv proved to be a visionary, able to see a growing problem that the rest of us missed in our excitement about new technologies. His ideas were initially viewed as pretty radical, but Louv was right. And his book led to the creation of nonprofits that facilitated new research and expanded access to public parks. This includes Louv's own group, the Children in Nature Network.
The Last Child in the Woods came out, there were about 60 studies on the impact of time outdoors. Today, there are close to a thousand. Now, Louv is back with his 10th book, Our Wild Calling, which focuses on the importance of human interactions with animals, whether pets and wild creatures. Something he believes has the same kind of therapeutic benefit as being in nature. If you think of being encouraged to hang out with raccoons sounds a bit new-age-y, you're not alone. As Louv explains in the book, scientists have historically stayed away from research on human animal relationships because they were afraid of being labeled quacks.
Outside Magazine editor Chris Keyes reviewed Our Wild Calling for our November print issue, reported that when it comes to interactions with wild animals, there's still limited empirical evidence to support that this is good for us. And yet, he suggests it's worth hearing Louv out on the idea, given the author's track record. Chris recently called Louv at his home outside San Diego to talk about the book. and why even the most serious scientists don’t seem to understand that something special happens when we engage with wild animals. Something we don't really understand. Here's Chris.
Chris Keyes: So I'd like to begin where your book begins, when you're in Alaska, and you have the strange meeting with a fox. I'm hoping you could start by describing that memorable encounter.
Richard Louv: Well, I was at a camp on a lake on Kodiak Island where there are almost as many Alaskan brown bears as there are people. And I was walking from the cabin up to the lodge where my son was waiting for me, and I was supposed to be paying attention. Because the bears wander through camp quite a bit. And, uh, I was staring at my wallet, I was going through my wallet for some reason, and suddenly, I realized there was something in my path and I stopped. And these two eyes were looking at me. Very bright, very piercing eyes.
Unfortunately, it wasn't, uh, a bear. It was a, a fox, a black fox, uh, a very large black fox. The foxes there on Kodiak or some of the largest in the world. And it was staring at me intently and it wouldn't move.
And we stared at each other for a while. And I had this sense that I was looking into another place, into a place I'd been before but couldn't remember. And after a while, with the fox not budging, I stepped forward and it stepped to the side. And I thought, you know: Is it rabid? I don't think so. It doesn't want me to feed it. Nobody fed the foxes there. And so I walked a little ways, and it walked beside me, walked up the path. And I said: You want to go with me? I'm gonna go into the lodge. And it kept walking with me, and finally it veered off into the high grass. But it was this odd moment that kind of reminded me of how often I had, particularly as a boy, had encounters with animals that, um, I couldn't explain. That there was some kind of communication that I couldn't really understand.
So that was a little bit of the genesis of this book: to try to understand that that elemental relationship, almost primal, indescribable beyond language, relationship we have with other animals. Um, you know, the way that Descartes viewed animals was that they were machines. And that has gripped Western society at least for a long, long time. But that's changing. Increasingly. We know that animals are far more intelligent. Some of them are far more intelligent than we thought. There’s an oceanographer that I tell his story in the book. Paul Dayton at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in LA Jolla, California. He talks about being out in the ocean, on the bottom of the ocean one day, collecting samples. And he felt something large move above him. That's usually not a good sign, when you feel something really large. And it moved above him and it stopped above him. And he looked up slowly and he sees these tentacles come down.
It was a giant octopus, the type that have 12-foot wingspans. And this thing looked at him and decided he was a clown and it came down, and got him, and it wrapped him up in its tentacles. And, and he said, people think those are soft. They're not. They're really hard and they're impossible to get off of you. And uh, about around that time he realized he was running out of air. So he kicked off, used his last bit of strength, and kicked off the bottom of the ocean and he began to go up in the column of water with the octopus attached to him. As he went up, the octopus moved around his body. He could feel the razor-sharp beak moving around his neck. And it came so its face was in front of him and he's looking into the octopus's eye and he said now this would get him in trouble.
He said it was some of his fellow scientists, but he said he thought that he and the octopus, at some point on that ascension to the surface, made a nonaggression pact. That's how he put it. And he thought he was goner, and then suddenly, he breaks through the water, through the surface of the water. The octopus is there, still looking at him. Kind of lets go of him a little bit. It had already been relaxing. And Paul had already relaxed, which is interesting, because that's what prey do. That's what the gazelle does in the lion's mouth. And so he watches this octopus pull away from him. They're still making eye contact. And then the octopus begins to drift down into the darkness and disappears into the darkness. And what does Paul do? He rips off his mask, takes a gasping breath, and chases the octopus down.
He dives after the octopus and he swims as far down as he can get. Why in the hell did he do that? And I asked Paul that. And he said, he has no explanation other than it was, to him, a kind of spiritual moment. He's one of the most famous oceanographers around. He's in his early... late seventies, early eighties. He says he's old enough, he doesn't care what people say any more about a thing like that. He's highly respected, but to him this... this was something… it was similar to what I had felt, and what so many of the people described. I collected hundreds of stories to write the book. And many of the people talked about this sense of transcendence, and they wanted it again.
Keyes: So much of your book, as you say, almost every scientist, expert, person that you talk to, as part of this book, you would ask them if they had a particular encounter with an animal that was memorable or made an impact on them. And it seemed to be almost to a person. They all had something if pressed, some of them, these wild stories, like the octopus story, that you share. And I'm wondering, after all the research that you've done on this book, and all those stories that you've heard, you know, going back to that encounter you had with the fox... Do you have a different understanding of what was going on, and why you think that fox was following you that day, and what happened between you?
Louv: I write about the fox in the introduction to Our Wild Calling, and the name of the introduction is a mystery. I still believe it's a mystery. I still don't fully understand it. I don't pretend to. Um, and that's part of its attraction. That's part of its power. Is that we really don't fully understand this and we need mystery and wonder. And one of the interesting things too, as I wrote that. I spent four years working on the book. Is that I learned pretty quickly that it was the same phenomenon I had seen when I was researching Last Child in the Woods about the disconnection between children in nature. When I would talk to people, it didn't matter who they were: They could be sociologists. They could be parents down the street. They could be kids themselves. But usually they were older. Um, they immediately wanted to tell me about their own childhood: about their special place in nature.
It didn't seem to matter what somebody's politics or religion was. They all wanted to share that with me. They wanted to tell me about the treehouse they had when they were a kid, if they were old enough now to have had that experience, because many kids have not had that now. So immediately there was this storytelling factor. They wanted to tell me the story of their own kids too. With this book, with Our Wild Calling, immediately, people wanted to tell me about the dog they had when they were a kid, or the cat, um, or the pigeon. Or they wanted to tell me about the encounter they had with the coyote walking through the backyard, or with the bear on Kodiak Island, or wherever. They wanted to tell that story.
And they wanted to tell other people that story. And John Young calls that story catching. I mean, this is very old. People have always done this. And they did it around campfires, you know, millennia, millennia ago, in which they would tell about their encounter when they were hunting or just when they were out there with a wild animal, and they would act it out around the... physically act it out. Become the animal around the campfire. People still have that in them and they still want to do it. And in those moments, again, it's impossible to feel alone.
Keyes: Yeah. And another, I think another word for that, which you described in the book, is awe. This importance of awe that happens when you have such an encounter. And I think that's a great illustration of it. What is awe, and what do we know about it? And why is it important?
Louv: Well, it's an increasing topic of study. There are more and more people looking at its effect on us and on our mental health, on our psychological wellbeing, on even our physical health. Uh, and we feel it usually in moments in which we are insecure... facing something much larger than us. We're certainly not in what DH Lawrence called the know-it-all state of mind. When you're feeling awe and wonder, uh, you're not in charge of the world or the universe. And I think that's what many people feel when they have this feeling. And it doesn't have to be with a predator. It doesn't have to be with a large animal. It can be… I mean, one of the guys interviewed was a scientist in Canada, who had this feeling with the protozoan when he was looking at it through a microscope and it moved from point A to point B very quickly. Like he couldn't see it. It moves so fast. And he, again, he had this sudden awareness that there was agency there. That protozoan had made a decision. And as simple, and as basic as that sounds, it filled him with awe and wonder. We need more of that in our lives. I mean, we don't have a lot of that in the... You know, it's very seldom have a sense of awe and wonder when you're playing a video game or uh, on Facebook.
Frick-Wright: We'll be right back.
Keyes: So before we talk more about wild animals, I want to talk a little bit about pets. And first off, as you write about, there's been this huge increase in pet ownership in America. What do we attribute that to?
Louv: Well, a lot of people attribute it to, um, millennials who are delaying having children, and so they want a substitute child. Or grandparents age people, boomers, who want surrogate grandkids. Uh, I don't think it's that simple. One of the central themes of Our Wild Calling is the theme of, uh, loneliness. Of human loneliness. That there is an epidemic in the world that medical folks are recognizing of loneliness. And some of the studies World Health Organizations, and others have said that human loneliness is about to pass obesity as a reason for mortality for death. That it's very dangerous. It produces many of the same diseases as smoking and, and other things that we do to ourselves. But we don't recognize loneliness is having this kind of effect on us.
But it does. I think that that loneliness, that human loneliness, it's not just because of Facebook or it's not just because we're plugged into our iPhones, I mean, I'm not anti-tech. I think it's because of something, it's based on an even deeper loneliness, which some have called species loneliness. The studies of urban nature, for example, show that the parks—the urban parks—that have the best benefit for human psychological wellbeing are the parks with the highest biodiversity.
Now, why is that? I don't think that's an accident. I think that we are desperate not to feel alone in the universe. To some people that takes a religious... religious significance. But with or without formal religion, we don't want to be alone in the universe. And we're not. We're surrounded by life. We're surrounded by other beings. We're immersed in complex societies that we don't even see, and personal relationships with those creatures that we don't give enough importance to, or at least some people don't.
Keyes: And when thinking about, you know, the need for these human-animal interactions and creating this awareness of, you know, sharing this earth with all these other creatures, where do... how should we think about zoos in this day and age, and the importance of those in terms of, you know... The whole justification most recently was that it's some of children's, you know, best exposure to animals. Even if it isn't an ideal situation to see them. And after reporting this book, how do you feel about zoos?
Louv: There is a section in the book about zoos, and one of the people I profile is a man I call the zookeeper who hates zoos. And he's in Phoenix, or was in Phoenix. He's moved since then. But he was in charge of the Phoenix Zoo. And he was very ambivalent about zoos for all of the reasons one can guess. He still did it, though, because he saw it as an opportunity. They would often in the Phoenix that would bring in animals that had been hurt, that could not be released into the wild. And he would invite families to come and help take care of them. And kids in particular were good at this. He also accepted, for instance, rogue elephants. When I visited him, my wife and I met a rogue elephant that had killed someone, and it was under his care. And it was a very nervous, anxious elephant.
And it made a kind of a waving, uh... it would weave its trunk back and forth and sway in kind of a syncopated, uh, syncopatic rhythm. It was very disturbing to watch. So he made it a refuge for animals that have been hurt. That's not all the zoo did. But he was ambivalent about zoos. Other people that I've interviewed who work for zoos see more of the benefit of them. Uh, and of course, zoos have critics who would never be satisfied with captivity of any animal. And I understand that. But there is a movement among zoos to, uh, do a couple things. In addition to continuing their conservation work, to play more of a role in the surrounding, uh, territory. Not only looking at lions and tigers from other continents, but looking at the animal life in their own bioregion and helping protect it.
And many of them are helping create family nature clubs, which is something that we've promoted, multiple families who joined together to create a pool of families who, because of their fear of strangers, don't often get outside into nature. And they had this pool of other families, and they say they put on the internet, or they make phone calls, say: Oh, I want to take my kids to the park next Saturday. Anybody want to go with us? And then so multiple families will team up and go together. And there's perceived safety in numbers there. You don't have to have a foundation grant. And all of that. So zoos have been one of the leading organizations in helping promote that. Uh, so there are really good things that zoos... Petting zoos, by the way, are, are leaving. The children's zoos are turning far more into places where, uh, children learn to use more of their senses, learn to eat, learn more about the animals themselves rather than just little machines that walk by that you can pet. So there is change in zoos.
Keyes: And what about, so, let's say... Okay. So I live in a small city. And there are animals around. I have children. What are the ways that you recommend people try to establish an awareness, and even a relationship, with the wild animals that they're, you know, cohabitating with?
Louv: Well, one of the ways is to be with other people who are learning about it. Is to learn who is learning. And hiking groups, or even walking groups in urban areas, can together learn about the critters that they encounter. Um, that's one way. Some of the institutions that can make a huge difference are zoos, can make a difference. So can natural history museums, who could encourage people to replant their yards with native species that produces the insects that feed the food chain, that actually could help bring back biodiversity in some areas of some cities. There are libraries now that we, I call them natural libraries or nature prairies, that are creating places for kids and anyone to read outside the library under the trees. I believe that libraries, because there's pretty much one in most neighborhoods, could become centers of bioregional awareness. They could have special sections right up at the front of the library of books and media about the life within that specific bioregion in which you live. They could have, they could, uh, sponsor, family and nature clubs. Again, because they're a trusted place, libraries—they’re a place people know where they're at—you can go there and have meetings. They could play a great role in this.
And by the way, obviously education, the schools can play a huge role and there's controversy about using animals in classrooms, and I report on that. But this awareness of who we are as a species by getting to know other species I think is fundamental to education. I should mention here that none of this is new. Indigenous people have known this for forever. Some indigenous people still have a deep understanding of this. And, in fact, that indigenous knowledge should be much more a part of our education system than it is today. And part of that indigenous knowledge is about our deep relationship with the animals we share this earth with.
Frick-Wright: That's Outside editor Chris Keyes speaking without the Richard Louv about his new book, Our Wild Calling.
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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.