Hidden in Plain Sight

A Review of Richard Louv’s The Nature Principle

The Nature Principle:  Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder
Richard Louv
Algonquin Books 2011, 320 pages
Reviewed by Rebecca Barria

I consider the gnat carcasses smashed between the pages of my copy of The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder a mark of the book’s success. The book propelled me to action: I started reading it indoors and finished it under the canopy of a magnolia. And there my awareness expanded. 

I’ve spent many an afternoon under the magnolia that shades our neighborhood playground, but I’d hardly noticed it before that crisp afternoon. I was suffering from what Richard Louv calls plant blindness.

A recipient of the Audubon Medal, journalist Louv has written eight books exploring the connection between nature and community. In his newest book, The Nature Principle, Louv, an animal lover, explains how he once joined a guided hike near his home to overcome his own plant blindness. He discovered fire poppies and desert broom and that the “land, seemingly mild, lacking in drama, is, in fact, dynamic.”

As I sat under the magnolia, my three-year-old son gifted me a leaf to use as a bookmark, and I noticed not just its broad width and glossy veneer, but also the grain-sized insects and velvety patches of algae populated across it.

In Louv’s previous book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, he coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the growing disconnect between children and nature, and its consequences, including atrophied awareness. 

Louv revisits this theme in The Nature Principle, but focuses on the adults. Today more people live in cities than countryside and our youth spend 50 plus hours a week plugged in. Louv argues that the more tech-centric our lives become, the more we need nature to act as a counterbalance.

Exposure to nature promotes better health, mental focus, boosts in serotonin levels, generosity with money, human bonding, physical healing, and reduction in crime, among the other things that Louv cites in his book. Nature achieves such feats, perhaps, because she unlocks our senses, including our sense of place.

My kids tugged at my hands and pulled me to the wild edges of the playground. Beyond the tennis courts, tarped pool, and manicured boxwoods, a small trail opened into woods that I didn’t even know existed. I also suffered from place blindness.

I live in a fast-growing Atlanta suburb with a significant greenspace deficit, so wilderness sometimes feels elusive here among new tracts of houses the size of starter castles and non-indigenous cypresses planted in evenly-spaced rows. 

My five-year-old daughter declared, “I’m the leader,” and marched past the blackberry brambles into the woods. We followed the curve of a water-carved trail, ducked under fallen trees, and picked wildflowers gone to seed.

“We cannot protect something we do not love, we cannot love what we do not know, and we cannot know what we do not see. Or hear. Or sense,” Louv says. When my daughter pointed out lichen smattered across a rotting log, my senses fanned outwards and my spirit filled with affection for the woods that I’d only just met.

For Louv, reconnecting with nature does not necessarily involve complicated, expensive gear and grand treks into the distant wilderness. He urges us to start close to home by conserving nature and re-naturing the places where we live, learn, work, and play. We can do such things as landscaping our yards with edibles and natives, planting trees in previously grazed lots, building office buildings to provide views of nature, incorporating nature experiences into school curriculums, and creating button parks in densely built neighborhoods.

“Even in the loudest, most congested cities I usually find remnants of the natural world hiding in plain sight,” Louv says about the restorative walks he takes when he travels. Behind a Hooters bar, he once watched a red-tail hawk swoop; behind the gated courts of my neighborhood tennis club, I encountered an enchanted forest.

My kids and I returned from the woods that afternoon clasping our treasures: not mere leaves, rocks, and twigs, but lush bouquets, crown jewels, and magic wands.  And our senses restored.

Rebecca Barria is a city girl with a pastoral spirit. She’s a former teacher turned homemaker who lives with her husband on a 0.4 acre-lot in Atlanta, where she mothers her two children, writes a food column for Patch, a community-specific news platform, and tends her ever-expanding organic garden. Rebecca is at work on a series of vignettes based on her mother’s coming-of-age in the Deep South. 

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