Our back yard slopes down and away from the house. It is a former river bed, and has been carved gently over time. Decades ago, the town of Easthampton rerouted the river, bending it dramatically away from our property. What remains behind my house is a little stream, a minor tributary, a ribbon of still water winding through a young forest and a think tangle of wetlands.
From our kitchen window, which faces southwest, we have seen wild turkeys wading through three feet of snow, young deer with their white spots shining in the morning light and rabbits that bolt almost as soon as you set eyes on them. We’ve had a mother bear and cubs walk alongside our house and down through the yard, and at night we often hear coyotes, the young cubs’ howls sound like screams. Squirrels leave husks from our walnut tree around the yard and moles twist long tunnels beneath the grass. Birds fill the morning thick with song. Sparrows, bluejays, and crows tumble through the air, chasing each other from branch to branch, while herons sail with slow grace through the trees and huge hawks circle above watching it all.
My wife and I lift our young son up onto the kitchen counter, where he kneels with his hands pressed against the window, looking out across our wild backyard. Sometimes he responds with bright glee bubbling up, pointing and babbling with excitement. Other times he just stares in quiet awe, studying the animals as they move across our yard and disappear into the shadowy forest. Holding him there, my hands on his knees, his small back pressed up against my chest, I feel his heart beat and his deep breaths expand and contract. Through his eyes I see the world anew and share in the wonder of those moments.
Seeing my iPhone sitting clumsily on a side table, my son lunges at it with a speed that still catches me off guard. He pokes at the on button and with a deft swipe of his finger, the screen glows to life. By the time I reach him he has already found the app he wanted and a grid of animal pictures, organized alphabetically, fills the screen. He flicks at the screen and the little tiles scroll up and out of sight. With another sharp poke he chooses one square and a lion roars to life before him, and he roars along with it. “Lion!” he proclaims as if he calls it to life by naming it. He shuffles the squares again and pulls up a hippo. “The hippopotamus swims in the water,” he informs me sincerely.
One window, one screen. How do these two things shape the way my son sees and understands the world?
We try hard to limit the amount of time he spends in front of screens of any kind. Once or twice a week we’ll let him watch some Sesame Street, or play a game on one of our phones. In those interactions I’m struck by the version of nature he encounters on the screen, versus the one he sees through the window. On TV he sees monsters on Sesame Street, talking train engines and dinosaurs that travel back in time on the railroad. On the iPhone, he is drawn towards the most exotic fauna – lions, tigers, alligators – bypassing deer, raccoons, or other local beasts. What is it about this medium that encourages the extreme or outlandish?
I have no doubt that the delight he exhibits watching one of these shows, or the way he becomes engrossed in an animal app, are as meaningful as his awe and wonder watching animals in our backyard. Indeed – watching him interact with an app or dance and sing along with something on the television – it’s clear that in moderation there is both great emotional and intellectual benefits to some of these games and shows. But it is interesting to see how these different experiences seep into other parts of his life.
Weeks after our son saw a mother bear and cub in our backyard, he was still talking about it. Out of the blue he’d say something like, “the bear went away,” or tell a friend, “I saw a bear.” I have seen the way that our wild backyard, and the animals he’s seen there, leave an imprint on him. That said, I have also seen him sing songs from Sesame Street, or copy games he saw there, in the days and weeks after watching an episode. But I’ve never seen him talk about an app after the fact. While the apps are deeply interactive ways for him to experience nature, it is utterly “of the moment.” Once the screen goes dark, so – it seems – does the experience.
In his new book, “The Nature Principle,” Richard Louv quotes Janis Dickinson, director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, who asks, “How do we create experiences for people, particularly in cities, that foster awareness of the natural world? It is possible, even likely, that a new generation of technonaturalists will document their outdoor experiences not with paper and pen but with electronic data, digital images, and video, creating new communities of action and meaning.” That term, “technonaturalists” sounds at once chilling and yet somehow full of possibility. I wonder, as technology infuses and mediates so much of our daily experience, especially for our kids who are growing up in a profoundly more screen-centric world, how that will change our experience of nature.
It’s worth noting that Disckinson adds this caution: “It is our overriding belief that spending real time in real nature, with its rhythms, sights, smells, and sounds, may be facilitated with technology but cannot be fabricated” through technology.
I’m writing this as Hurricane Irene bears down on New England, and realize that my experience of this storm is a case study in this tension between windows and screens. For the past few days, like many up and down the eastern coast I have been tracking the storm’s path via interactive websites like the New York Times storm tracker, and reading first hand accounts of the storm on Facebook and Twitter. Yesterday my wife showed our son Sesame Street’s hurricane episode to prepare him for what may be coming through our area today.
All night I listened as rain fell on the tin roof outside my bedroom window. In the darkness the trees that encircle our home bent and swayed in the wind. When the dim morning broke Irene was still hours from us and I decided to suit up our son, and go for a “hurricane hike” with him. With our rain jackets flapping behind us, we walked down the street feeling the warm wind and rain swirling around us. I was worried he’d be frightened by the wind or upset about getting wet, but he loved it. He pointed at the deep water already creating streams out of our streets, and threw leaves into the currents, marveling as they raced away. He listened to the roar of water rushing down a storm drain, and tasted the rain on his lips.
As we felt the wind picks up, we headed back for home with a new understanding of the storm we couldn’t have gotten from interactive graphics or videos. Even looking out the window only hinted at the energy and force of the storm that was headed our way. As we dried off, back in the house, he looked up at me and said “let’s do it again.”