There are many other symptoms of our estrangement from the world. I once spoke to an extremely intelligent high school graduate who was not sure in which direction the sun rose. Bill McKibben tells of a camping trip during which he learned that adolescents who had lived their whole lives in the Adirondacks did not know there was such a thing as the Milky Way. I've heard an astronomy teacher lament that, after Star Wars, students lost interest in the "boring" view through a telescope, and a naturalist complain about the television generation's disinterest in the not-sufficiently-exotic local flora and fauna.
None of this reflects a shortage of information. The problem is that today something is substituting for the child's intimacy with the world. And if you want to know the nature of the substitution, consider the lenses, video screens, instrument panels, windows, phones, loudspeakers, books, faxes, billboards, newspapers, magazines, and various protected environments through which we gauge our relations to the world. How can the child possibly feel that the natural world counts for much of anything at all?
Michael Crichton tells of a young boy who looked at all the sea creatures in a public aquarium and asked, "Is this virtual reality or real reality?" The audience, I think, was expected to be disconcerted by the boy's cluelessness. Rightly so. But let's picture the situation for a moment:
After a couple of hours watching Saturday morning cartoons, the boy is handed a lunch extracted from various cans, bags, and cartons and cooked in a microwave oven. Then he leaves the house with his parents and gets into the family station wagon. Driving off with the radio playing, they pass blindly through the local environment at fifty miles per hour, and then negotiate the traffic and lights of downtown, where virtually everything to be seen has been constructed. Eventually they park their car in a huge lot near a large, concrete building, enter the lobby of the building, buy tickets at a movie theater-like ticket window, walk through a large hall filled with weird, eye-catching promotional posters, go down some stairs, and then, along with a crowd of total strangers, they enter a series of rooms whose glass walls display the brightly colored forms of exotic fish dredged up from the bottom of the Atlantic.
Now, ask yourself: Is this boy peculiar for having some uncertainties about the "reality" he is being hustled through? Or are we the ones hopelessly out of touch, failing to appreciate the problems of disconnection and incoherence written all over the surface of our daily lives?
In my opinion, the most revealing thing about this story is our own surprise at the boy's puzzlement. The degree to which we have subjected him to a manufactured, chaotic, and disconnected sequence of images and experiences simply escapes our notice.
Now, I happen to believe that the construction of truly human environments is no bad thing. In fact, it is one of our highest callings. But there is no denying that what we have constructed so far is more an assault upon the world and a fragmentation of it than a crowning of it.
Realistically, I think we should have expected the boy to exclaim, "Wow! Where'd you get those awesome 3-D screensavers?" But whatever the child's response, we can be absolutely sure of one thing: his experience had almost nothing in common with that of the young Tom Brown, Jr. eventually to become a famous tracker and wilderness expert who was mucking about in a local stream, entertaining the crawdads, at the fateful moment when he met Stalking Wolf. That stream became a teaching resource for Stalking Wolf because it was connected via a thousand pathways to Tom's interests and daily existence. It was there.
Those of you who have read Tom Brown's books know that Stalking Wolf, the old Apache scout, had a peculiar way of teaching his young student during their ten-year partnership. Stalking Wolf was no citizen of the Age of Information, for his "coyote method" came close to being a flat-out refusal to divulge information. In response to questions he would say things such as "Go ask the mice," or "Feed the birds." The student would immediately be off on a new adventure of days' or weeks' duration.
To teach fire-making with a bow drill, Stalking Wolf gave Tom a piece of oak from which it would have been impossible to coax a live coal. Only much later (and after long struggle) did Tom discover that, using cedar wood, he could start a fire almost instantly, thanks to the techniques he had honed so well upon the recalcitrant oak. So now, not only did he know how to make a fire, but, much more importantly, his skills grew out of an understanding of the world in which he was embedded.
Tom went on to develop survival and tracking abilities that seem all but supernatural to many observers. He has located lost persons and helped to track down criminals for law enforcement agencies. During recent years, he has devoted his life to teaching others.
Interestingly, though, he quickly gave up the coyote method of teaching. It simply doesn't work for most people today. They just get lost and discouraged because, unlike Tom with the crawdads, they have no time and they're not connected to anything. Or, rather, their connections are one-dimensional, abstract, arbitrary, and of uncertain reality. The creek is one thing, but how do you make a child's world out of a concrete building with exotic "screensavers"?
We can begin to attack the problem, but it always involves grounding the child in a world to which he can relate on as many different levels as possible. The daughter of one of our neighbors grew up to be a marine biologist, and I'm sure aquariums figured in her upbringing. But when she was a little girl, and throughout her youth, her parents took her to the seashore at every opportunity. They waded through tide pools, explored, and had adventures.