Sunday 25 November 2012

A Risky Business

[Just a few of the many dangers in life!] 

There are plenty of things in life that can kill us. Indeed, as Hank Willams sang, "I'll never get out of this world alive”. But that doesn’t stop us from pretending, imagining, planning and coddling ourselves into a nice safe life. It’s as though we can keep all danger, even death itself, at bay through meticulous planning.

Most days I walk in the bush behind our place. As I’ve described here before there is a seriously bad erosion gully just behind our house. Local walkers and mountain bikers have negotiated their way around and through it for many years. So I was rather taken aback when I wandered up one day to find danger signs installed, and the gully taped off with red and white warning tape. Suddenly there was a frisson of danger about this ordinary piece of bush!

[You have been warned! The new sign in our bush.] 

Aside from the fact that the tape has made access across the (now “officially” dangerous) gully a little more difficult, I have found myself avoiding the gully. It’s as though I now have an anxious parent hovering nervously over me. “Ooh be careful here dear… This looks nasty … Best go around it, you don’t want to trip over and hurt yourself.”

It’s silly. I’m a bushwalker with over forty years of experience. I’m still moderately fit and agile. And yet I find myself being unaccountably careful around this spot. What’s going on? I’ve come to see it as a tiny domestic example of what’s going on in the wider world. We’ve all become risk averse. We seem to look for metaphorical airbags against every possible eventuality.

It has effected our parenting styles in a huge way. Fearing that bad things happen out of doors, where “strangers” and “hazards” lurk, we have bred a generation that is more at home in front of a screen than in the bush; a cohort that thinks angry birds are found on screens not in trees. A recent report by the British National Trust* found that:

·      On average, Britain’s children watch more than 17 hours of television a week: up by 12% since 2007.

·      In addition British children are spending more than 20 hours a week online, mostly on social networking sites.

·      As children grow older, their ‘electronic addictions’ increase. Britain’s 11–15-year-olds spend about half their waking lives in front of a screen: 7.5 hours a day, an increase of 40% in a decade.

I think of Watership Down, Richard Adams’ influential fantasy fable from the 1970s. In his wonderful story about rabbits escaping disaster, the fleeing group of hungry, bedraggled rabbits is given help by another group of plump, sleek, calm rabbits. Briefly our heroes are tempted to settle down to this easy life, albeit that they would be caged. Only at the last minute do they realize that these rabbits are bred and fed for the (human) table.

Is it a huge stretch to see that we risk having a generation of children who are plump, sleek  and wired, but who don’t connect with the natural world? And unlike Watership Down’s caged rabbits, this generation doesn’t seem to be growing up calm. Just one example is that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is increasing at disturbing rates. Obesity and serious allergies are among many other serious issues.

[Happy Play: as simple as throwing rocks in a creek] 

The good news is that there may be a “nature cure”, of sorts. Researchers have found that exposure to nature reduces symptoms of ADHD in children threefold compared with staying indoors. And exposure to the natural environment has also been found to reduce stress and aggressive behaviour in children, and give them a greater sense of self-worth.*

It’s possible that’s what I observe most days on my walk to work. The track down the rivulet passes beside our local school, and quite often there are children playing in the grounds. I hear them whoop and holler like chimpanzees, or chase one another fiercely, or kick footballs or talk animatedly. It is a happy sound, and not one that I’ve ever heard from children interacting with a screen.

[The "forbidden" gully, taped off for our safety.] 

My own hollering is more circumspect these days, and usually restricted to calling to our almost-deaf dog, Noo. But this week, on one of our pre-work rambles in the bush, I lost track of her briefly. When I found her she was heading through the “forbidden” erosion gully. When she ignored – or didn’t hear – my yells, I followed her into the gully. I stepped over the warning tape, back on the old familiar path across the gully. I realised I had a big grin on my face. Sometimes it feels good – even necessary – to take risks.


* from “Natural Childhood” by Stephen Moss (National Trust, 2012)

1 comment:

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