Gazing at stars rather than screens

Published: Sunday, February 9, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 7, 2014 at 5:00 p.m.

It took an evening listening to Finnish music in the dark to revive my hope that my daughter will develop a love of nature.

Last weekend, a stargazing event brought hundreds of people to the Hickory Ranch portion of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

The event — a fundraiser for Friends of Paynes Prairie — included telescopes, a hayride and the band Vellamo rather incongruously but beautifully playing Finnish folk tunes.

It was my wife Colleen's idea to go. I was reluctant because our daughter Kate, who turned 2 in November, is prone to turn into a little monster when the sun sets.

But Kate seemed delighted to be outside at night, seeing stars obscured in our light-polluted neighborhood. While she's still very young, I hope these kind of experiences plant a seed in her that later blooms into an appreciation of the outdoors.

A few years ago, author Richard Louv made the rounds in Alachua County discussing his belief that children today are suffering from "nature-deficit disorder." Louv's 2005 book, "Last Child in the Woods," explored the idea that electronic gizmos and overprotective parents were depriving kids of beneficial outdoor activities.

We're taking the first steps in exposing Kate to nature, including a recent trip to the La Chua Trail on Paynes Prairie. But the overprotective part of the problem was illustrated there in the extreme: I spent much of the visit worried my little daughter was going to become alligator bait.

The bigger issue is at home, when we turn too quickly to electronic diversions. As my wife and I get ready for work in the morning, it's hard to resist keeping Kate occupied with an iPad playing an episode of "Curious George."

Of course, it's also a struggle for adults to keep little screens from taking over our lives. The Oscar-nominated movie "Her," featuring Joaquin Phoenix, presents a future in which people develop personal relationships — and even fall in love — with their smartphones.

As those phones and other devices get smarter, it's harder to separate the virtual and physical worlds. Once machines are sophisticated enough to do everything from drive our cars to calm our fears, the line between man and machine is forever blurred.

Louv recently wrote another book, "The Nature Principle," that extended the nature-deficit problem to all age groups. The principle holds that reconnecting to the natural world is essential to human health, well-being, spirit and survival.

Louv suggests that the future belongs to those who develop a deeper understanding of nature and balance the virtual with the real.

"For the jaded and weary among us, the outdoor world can expand our senses and reignite a sense of awe and wonder not felt since we were children; it can support better health, enhanced creativity, new careers and business opportunities, and act as a bonding agent for families and communities," Louv writes in the book's introduction. "Nature can help us feel fully alive."

Certainly being closer to nature on Paynes Prairie is a good recipe for being closer as a family. I hope my daughter grows up to appreciate looking at the stars as much as looking at screens.

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