I got my first issue of The Sun the other day. I was amazed, when I read Readers Write, how many drug addicts, prostitutes, unwed mothers, and truck drivers read the magazine. My mental image of Sun readers had always been of lesbian anarchists, plant-spirit-medicine practitioners, and stained-glass artists.
I was moved on so many levels by the interview with Richard Louv [“Nature-Deficit Disorder?” by Arnie Cooper, February 2007]. He makes a thoughtful and long-overdue case for children’s need to be in nature. And it’s not just children. I am reminded of a night last summer when I invited some city-dwelling friends to my farm to cook out over an open fire and watch the Perseids meteor shower. They all commented on how peaceful it was in the country. One of them noted the sound of crickets chirping and asked (seriously), “So, how long does that go on?”
Richard Louv didn’t mention one big reason children don’t play outdoors: no corporation stands to make a fortune from it; therefore it isn’t actively marketed. Rather, target marketing has aggressively discouraged children from any activity that doesn’t require consumption. It doesn’t occur to kids to invent their own pastimes in nature because no sponsor has told them to do it.
Richard Louv says that children are obese today because they don’t spend enough time outdoors. I live in a lower-middle-class, inner-city Latino neighborhood, where children often play ball, jump rope, and ride bikes. I have even noticed chalk outlines of hopscotch on the sidewalk. The scene outside my windows reminds me of the life I led as a child in the fifties. Yet many of these children are overweight. To my mind this reflects our meat-based culture, where little boxes with burgers and toys in them have replaced staples like rice, beans, corn, tortillas, and fruit. Is it any wonder we have an obesity problem in this country? Lack of interaction with nature is not the primary culprit; the American diet is.
Arnie Cooper’s interview with Richard Louv annoyed and frustrated me. As an environmentalist and teacher, I was deeply offended by his generalizations and blaming of organizations such as PETA, school districts, teachers, and environmental groups. I invite Louv to visit our new, open, elementary-school campus and witness the active role students play in learning about their immediate environment. I invite him to talk to our school district about the changes that have taken place in our wellness policies and how we encourage active and healthy lifestyles. I urge him to consider how beneficial San Dieguito Regional Park will be to people and creatures of all kinds for generations to come if we preserve the area rather than, as Louv suggests, build treehouses in it.
As I read “Nature-Deficit Disorder?” my five-year-old daughter ran back and forth between her room and the yard with large, leafy branches ripped from a shrub. When I asked what she was doing, she replied, “I’m fixing things up to make them more real.”
My first response was to tell her to stop. All I saw was the mess, the dirt, the bugs, the denuded plant. But because I’d been reading the interview, I kept quiet. When she asked me to come see, I stood in awe of her work: leaf beds for stuffed animals, leaf tea cups for dolls sitting on leaf chairs, leaves sticking out of books on a shelf, a leaf highway under toy cars, leaves taped to the walls, and leaves laid on her bed in the shape of a heart.
Connecting to nature means playing in it. The branches of the shrub will grow back. I just hope my daughter will always want to make things “more real.”
Like Kelly Barnhill [“I Star in My Own Made-for-TV Movie,” February 2007], I, too, was once a starry-eyed new teacher, out to change the world, or at least my little corner of it in central Los Angeles. Barnhill’s care and compassion showed through on every page, but I knew how her story would end. At the age of thirteen a child’s academic fate is sealed. It is far too late by then for a teacher to make much of an impact, no matter how promising the student might be.
Most of my kindergarten students were already lost to indifferent parents, an educationally barren environment, and the drug-crazed, money-mad culture that has taken over America’s inner cities.
I applaud all teachers who can remain committed year after year. I couldn’t.
To Kelly Barnhill: I am writing to answer your implied question about your student Marcus’s future. I work in a men’s prison as a psychotherapist and have met many Marcuses here. When they ask me how they can hope for anything better, I ask them another question in return: Is there anyone in your life who has seen the light in you, however briefly — a grandparent, a teacher, anyone? They always answer no. But over our months of working together, we discover there was someone like you, a teacher who planted the seed of hope, who recognized a student’s potential. I plant another seed: the notion that perhaps we have choices in this life long beyond the time when it seems there are no choices left.
Belief in oneself cannot be granted; each individual must claim it him- or herself. But that can’t happen until someone like you suggests what is possible. You have no idea what your recognition of the light in Marcus will mean to him in years to come. Do not sell yourself, or him, short.
I have been imprisoned now for seven years on a term that began three days after my seventeenth birthday. I am housed in one of California’s most violent and racially divided prisons, and when I received my February issue of The Sun I had recently been placed in administrative segregation. Two essays — “I Star In My Own Made-for-TV-Movie,” by Kelly Barnhill, and “Thick,” by Akhim Yuseff Cabey — were especially timely for me.
Reading Barnhill’s essay, I identified strongly with Marcus, though our backgrounds couldn’t be more dissimilar. I grew up a middle-class white kid in rural Colorado. But I was also that boy who said, “I already know I can read.” I, too, took a path that led away from those who cared for me.
In “Thick,” Cabey described a culture completely alien to me, and gave me a better understanding of diversity and adversity.
I thank these two authors for helping to keep my mind open.
The day after I read the February 2007 Readers Write on “Help,” a woman came into our health clinic with her daughter, who was scheduled to have an abortion. The mother left before her daughter saw the doctor. Later the mother called the clinic and told me she had planned to stay for the appointment, but when her daughter had walked out of the clinic’s bathroom sniffing and wiping her nose, she’d had to leave. She was a recovering addict herself, she explained, and watching her daughter snort cocaine in a health clinic before her abortion had been too much.
Now the daughter was missing — she hadn’t shown up later in the day for the actual procedure — and the woman was beside herself. What should she do? “I need help,” she said.
Usually I am in such a hurry that I say whatever I need to say to get people off the phone, but now her simple request gave me pause. Remembering the stories in The Sun, I took a breath and told her that I was there to listen.
I’d never heard of The Sun until a friend who is a longtime subscriber gave me a few of her old issues. I was totally enthralled with the high quality of the writing.
I am the librarian for a Buddhist meditation sangha, and when I brought in those issues, they were borrowed right away. Two different people made a point of telling me how much they loved The Sun. Then I took the June 2006 issue to work. During a slow period, I read Lydia Peelle’s beautiful story, “Sweethearts of the Rodeo.” I was so taken with it that I told a co-worker, who normally does not read for enjoyment, that she should read it right away. She did, and we had the pleasure of discussing what it meant.
What could I do but e-mail my friend and demand that she give me more of her old copies of The Sun?
I don’t want a subscription — I don’t want the extra paper in my house — but I will continue to borrow issues from my friend and then disperse them to others. And I’ve decided to send you a check for thirty-six dollars — the cost of a year’s subscription — to support the magazine’s continued publication.
I spend my days in a windowless building, securing “classified” information that, with a little ingenuity, can probably be found on the Internet. I also sit for hours in front of a computer screen, working toward an online graduate degree that I chose more for the future income security it promises than for any passion I might have for the subject. I feel buried alive under the weight of my discontent.
The Sun is a monthly reminder that somewhere, someone’s planting a vegetable garden. Somewhere, a virtuoso is playing a violin, and somewhere else, a young boy is sliding his bow along the strings for the first time, producing awkward, hesitant sounds. Someone’s writing a poem. An old man is biting into a peach, the juice running down his chin. A construction worker, who spent his day not in a cubicle but out in the fresh air, is taking off his hard hat, wiping his brow, and squinting into the sun.
I hold fast to the hope that when I’m out of the air force and following my dream of writing fiction, my stories will reach someone else who’s lost, struggling, and scared. I want my stories to be a beacon, guiding them closer to the shore they long to reach, the way The Sun does for me.