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The Last Kid on the Beach?by Jim Lynch
In my story a thirteen-year-old boy lives an unsupervised summer in which he gets his entertainment and mental nourishment from exploring Puget Sound tidal flats. My intent was to play with the notion that most of us go through life so oblivious to the natural world around us that a boy who simply pays attention could come across as a genius, even a prophet.
I didn't dwell on how unusual it would be for a modern teenager to not only be obsessed with nature but to have the freedom to explore it. Yet readers soon let me know it rarely happens anymore, which made me realize that despite setting the novel near the present day, my child star, Miles, is a throwback.
Listening to readers age nine to ninety has made it clear that while more children than ever know about the importance of protecting the environment, a shrinking percentage actually experience it or have any personal relationship with it.
Why is that?
There obviously isn't as much nature as their used to be, but that isn't the main reason. Fear of sex offenders and pedophiles their mugs menacingly placed in local newspapers and other threats have shortened the leashes on children. Those specters, coupled with the Internet, video games, and other electronic distractions often leave little time, desire or opportunity for kids to immerse themselves in the environment.
This phenomenon was examined in a book released last year called Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. One of Louv's boldest conclusions is that American kids today suffer from "nature-deficit disorder."
He points to studies that show the average child is allowed to roam one-tenth as far from home as he/she was thirty years ago. He argues that encounters with nature foster concentration skills whereas more routine interaction with rapid video images and instant messaging does the opposite. And he quotes a fourth-grader: "I like to play indoors because that's where all the electrical outlets are."
What rings true for me is that nature rewards concentration. The more you focus on an animal, a beach, a forest, or sky, the more fascinating it gets. And I suspect doses of nature would be far more effective than Ritalin at improving the attention spans of many children.
Miles has his own complicated problems, but he concentrates well and has a vast attention span as he slowly navigates through one of those epic childhood summers that many readers over forty particularly identify with.
To adequately tell Miles' tale and crawl inside his marine-obsessed character, I spent lots of time on the water and the flats, watching, listening, learning. I rarely saw unsupervised children, but it didn't cross my mind that I was writing about the last kid on the beach.
Rachel Carson was a lodestar of sorts for the novel. Often credited with starting the environmental movement in the United States, she was the first eloquent science writer to explain the interconnectedness of nature to the masses. Her oceanography books, The Sea around Us and The Edge of the Sea, were revelatory blends of science and poetry that gave the ocean a powerful voice in the 1950s. She later exposed the dangers of pesticides in Silent Spring. Yet at her core, she was a dazzled beachcomber who, like Miles, enjoyed nothing more than roaming the flats.
I'm pleased that indoorsy people seem to enjoy The Highest Tide as much as outdoorsy people. Yet listening to readers has been disconcerting. It sounds as if the environment has turned into some abstraction like liberty or justice to protect. It seems like the notion of kids routinely exploring and experiencing nature on their own is nostalgia.
Carson would likely be thrilled to see all the environmental champions, groups and crusades that have emerged since her death in 1964, but she'd be worried about the children.
In her final writings, she urged parents to help their children sustain a sense of wonder with the natural world that could serve as "an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, [and] the alienation from the sources of our strength."