Last child in the woods

26

Dear Artist,

Just when I thought we might have maxed out on syndromes and disorders — attention deficit disorder, highly sensitive persons, etc., yet another has shown up in the studio inbox. Among the forest of responses to my letter on trees, “Nature Deficit Disorder” was mentioned by several artists. As webmaster Andrew Niculescu has gone mountain climbing, Michelle Moore, a high school student who is helping in the studio over the summer, spent last Friday trying to sort your letters out. From every viewpoint, artists identify with trees, endow them with spirit, wish to honour them, and bemoan their loss. To many, they remind us of our estrangement from natural places.

Girl in White in the Woods, 1882 Oil on paper mounted on canvas by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

Girl in White in the Woods, 1882
Oil on paper mounted on canvas
by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

Two months ago I was hanging out in Gorky Park in Moscow. Signs warned not to walk on the grass. Kiosks offered all manner of food and souvenirs, a Ferris wheel plied the sky, and beyond the manicured trees, buildings, like those around Central Park in New York, watched. As the kids were screaming up and down the pathways in front of me, I asked, “Where’s the nature?”

Journalist Richard Louv has given this condition some thought. In his book, Last Child in the Woods, he notes that sensationalist media and paranoid parents have scared kids out of the woods and fields. Safe, regimented sports are favored over imaginative play. Kids may know about the Amazon rain forest’s endangered species, but have little or no personal contact with the world of nature. Technological advances, while opening up a wealth of virtual experiences to the young, have kept kids indoors. In his research, Louv found a growing body of scientific research that suggests children who are given early exposure to nature thrive in intellectual, spiritual and physical ways that others do not. By reducing stress, sharpening concentration, and promoting creative problem solving, play-within-nature is emerging as a promising therapy for some current childhood conditions. A dose of nature is what kids need. He also notes that considerable harm has already been done.

L’allée Des Alyscamps (1888) oil on canvas by Vincent van Gogh

L’allée Des Alyscamps, 1888
oil on canvas
by Vincent van Gogh

It’s my take that nature-oriented media helps kids of all ages to inhale the outdoors. The quality of this stuff is getting better and better, but we have to remember that it isn’t the real thing. Nevertheless, through sensitized vision, the artist draws attention to our greater universe — and to the magnificent diversity and specificity of the wild kingdoms. Step outside. We are needed.

Best regards,

Robert

PS: “Families too can show the symptoms — increased feelings of stress, trouble paying attention, feelings of not being rooted in the world. So can communities, so can whole cities. Really, what I’m talking about is a disorder of society.” (Richard Louv as told to Sarah Karnasiewicz)

Tree Roots (1890) 19.7 in × 40.6 inches oil on canvas by Vincent van Gogh

Tree Roots, 1890
19.7 × 40.6 inches
oil on canvas
by Vincent van Gogh

Esoterica: Artists are a bridge to the greater world of nature. Painters, photographers, filmmakers and writers can choose to be nature’s advocates. With increased urbanization, the inner city and the ghetto are the most in need of nature and the art of nature. A frog in hand breeds no evil. We artists work for a higher purpose. A remarkable film, March of the Penguins tells the story of the Emperor penguin in Antarctica. The demonstration of tenderness, familial care, group cooperation and mutual well-being within the circle of life and death is a metaphor of what humanity might be. To be witness to this march is to begin to understand why we all must be one.

This letter was originally published as “Last Child in the Woods” on July 19, 2005.

Landscape with Snow

The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

I devour nature ceaselessly. I exaggerate, I sometimes I make changes in the subject; but still I don’t invent the whole picture. On the contrary, I find it already there. It’s a question of picking out what one wants from nature. (Vincent van Gogh)

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26 Comments

  1. I found this letter so close to my heart . Thank you .. I have to retreat to the forest to connect myself in these crazy times !
    My sister and I grew up in the forest and creeks in Lynn Valley , we new every tree !..

    • Sharon Ormerod on

      Thanks for such a meaningful article. I’m a plien aire painter part of the time and studio artist as well. Those precious moments when nature opens up, the clouds roll, wind blows, snow falls, shadows move , birds appear refresh the soul and energize me. I’m so blessed to enjoy nature and my wish is that more people can find this peaceful experience. Thank you for your blogs

  2. I have not seen this Van Gogh painting before of tree roots and I have been a student of his for some time . Can you tell me anything about its origins or where it now resides? PS I love it

  3. So it must also be the parents who are afraid to walk in the woods. A good doze of nature can be had as a family thereby eliminating any concerns of the parents of possible child kidnapping.

  4. Thank you so much for confirming this information. I was fortunate to be a “free range” kid in my early childhood. The trees were my friends and my audience, whispering to each other “She plays so beautifully” when I played my mandolin on top of our hill in Oskarshamn, Sweden, where we lived having fled as refugees from Estonia.

  5. I love the replies to this article, as well as the article having felt the soulful way of trees and the comfort of nature. We also live close to Lynn Valley canyon, now, but I grew up near the Kruger National Park, as a child, and I still have memories of flowers in our garden being at eye level, and the world of being, the trees brought to my life.
    Thank you for the paintings and the comfort of your article.

  6. I love this article. I have been fortunate to have spent parts of my life in nature. It’s what I paint and I love it. When I am in the middle of a painting, I feel relaxed, happy and I can put the storms of life aside. Nature heals the spirit and soothes the soul. It behooves us all to ensure that our children and grandchildren have this experience.

  7. I Know about trees! As a child, the masses of waving branches and shimmering leaves cheered me on in complete love. Just as they did only this morning, 60 years later.

  8. As a geologist slogging through forest thick wildernesses, trees were my enemy. In my old age there are few paintings of mine that do not feature trees. Even the Sonoran desert, now my spiritual home, is rife with beautifully twisted mesquite trees that are my favourite. It’s all a matter of perspective; the difference between inconvenience and appreciation.

  9. No one mentioned the poem….

    I think that I shall never see
    A poem lovely as a tree.
    A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
    Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
    A tree that looks at God all day
    And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
    A tree that may in summer wear
    A nest of robins in her hair.
    Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
    Who intimately lives with rain.
    Poems are made by fools like me
    But only God can make a tree.
    Joyce Kilmer, 1913

    • Thankyou for reminding me of that beautiful poem. We memorized it in school way back when, and I still remember every word. I grew up and played in the original woodlands of southern Ontario just outside of Toronto; knew every tree and wild flower. Wonderful memories.

  10. Thankyou I thought I was the only one with “ a tree thing”!! I have always identified with the spirituality of trees and I regularly greet special ones as i travel into and out of the city . When not painting I am tramping in the mountains which is often ! I need that connection with nature …and of course I paint landscape s . Always an inspiration. Robyn Eastgate-Manning

    • Sandra Donohue on

      I have seen the film and read the book…just so wonderful and heartwarming! There is also a lovely childrens’ book about a woman who planted lupins.

  11. I love this post. Most of my free hours as a child were spent outdoors playing alone or with friends and family. This experience has been a lifetime gift of Joy, creativity and inner peace.

  12. Patricia Neil,Lawton on

    I love this letter and can happily relate to it. As a child living in Powell River, and only a few houses from “The Bush” …. As the forest around us was called ! I lived , with my best chums, in that wild, berry filled tree filled sanctuary….. Bears, Cougars, Skunks and every wild creature lived there with us; toads and all the small creatures too. None of us came to harm. We climbed Valentine Mountain; overlooking Haslam Lake and Powell Lake and sometimes came across unsuspecting lovers ! What a happy, sun filled childhood memories I treasure.
    Patricia Neil Lawton.

  13. I remember reading Last Child In the Woods several years ago and remember that one of the take aways from the author was that children who don’t experience the joys of woods and fields don’t grow up wanting to financially support parks and nature projects .

  14. There is definitely a “disorder of society” with all the social media and the devices that are today so near and dear to the hearts of youngsters. It’s truly appalling. Getting out in nature no matter whether one is an artist or not is really refreshing to the soul. The beauty to be seen is amazing. One only needs to look around. We have been blessed with the most creative universe imaginable. I give thanks to God.

  15. Douglas Newman on

    The healing solace of the natural world. To be within her depths is to reclaim one’s beginnings. We all have the same Mother.

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http://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Vaughn_Over-the-River-and-Through-the-Woods-wpcf_300x225.jpgOver the River and Through the Woods,
oil on canvas,
30 x 40 inches, 2016

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My aim as a painter is to bring to life a slice of the world as I experience it. Light, color and form are my vocabulary.
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