I’ve long been a convert to the idea that children (and adults) thrive with regular opportunities to explore and interact with the natural world, and more or less nodded my way through The Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv when I read it several years ago. Reading Louv’s arguments felt less like a revelation than a discovery of the unconscious familiar, as if he were putting into words a series of unformed ideas that already existed in my head.
The one exception to this familiarity was Louv’s section on hunting and fishing, which did feel new and prompted thoughts I didn’t have before. It’s been a good while since I read this, but what I most remember is that Louv makes some arguments – a bit tentatively, if I recall – in favour of hunting and fishing. He suggests that it’s an important means by which many people still interact with nature in a world of declining exposure, and that this demographic can support environmental conservation through advocating for the preservation of hunting and fishing grounds.
I find myself thinking about this often, because my husband loves to fish, and he is sharing that love with our children. Louv doesn’t hunt, but he does fish, and he recommends catch and release. I’m actually much more comfortable with my family’s fishing expeditions if they are catching fish for food (and while we don’t hunt, I feel the same way about hunting). We eat fish, and assuming that applicable fishing regulations and quotas are followed, catching our food feels like a connected and responsible way of eating, much more so that buying fish from the grocery store (which we also do).
But sometimes my husband takes my kids out fishing for fun. They never keep fish for mounting or display, but they will pursue catch and release fishing. As someone who doesn’t want to harm animals unnecessarily, I struggle with this. Catch and release is not without harm – some fish that are released will nevertheless die from injuries sustained when they were caught.
I’ve talked to my husband about this. He is not defensive about it, possibly out of respect for my feelings, but also because he is comfortable with how and why he fishes. When we are outdoors (at the cottage, at a seaside vacation, at the lakefront down the road), he wants to interact with his environment. In particular, he loves water. He knows that catch and release is imperfect, but it mitigates the consequences of sport fishing. As for food, he loves and appreciates eating a fresh catch.
It’s also become an important way of connecting with the kids, and a love shared with their grandfather – we often have inter-generation fishing. It’s also been a huge opportunity for learning and exploration outdoors. Both of my older boys could independently wield a fishing rod by the age of 5; no doubt my youngest one will too unless he masters it even earlier as youngest children will often do. My 8 year old got a fly fishing rod for his birthday and caught his first fish with it last week. The kids know about fishing equipment and technique, types of fish, preferred fishing habitat, which lures attract which fish, and whatever else they talk about on their expeditions which can last hours upon hours.
I can’t tell you what else they talk about on their expeditions because I don’t go. Routinely I am invited, they always want me to come, and routinely I don’t go because I don’t enjoy it. But Louv has helped me have some equilibrium with my husband’s and children’s love of fishing: within the confines of fishing not for sustenance, they are fishing responsibly and inhabiting their natural surroundings more fully than they otherwise would, which probably translates into a visceral rather than just intellectual desire to protect the environment.
This isn’t the only way to create powerful bonds with our surroundings, and it’s not the only way we do it. We pick berries at the cottage too, and kayak, and swim, and find snakes. We bike at home, go to parks and ravines, and participate in the PINE project, an amazing Toronto organization that fosters deep connection between individuals and communities to their natural environment. We garden.
As with so many things, maybe the best thing to do is remember that there are many roads to Rome, and few are without potholes. I went out for dinner last night, and by coincidence a friend mentioned that she just finished reading The Last Child in the Woods, after which she resolved to get her 8 year old daughter outside more. The goal was to get to the park by bike, which her daughter is still a bit afraid to ride. The first day they tried this, they ended up at Legoland. But they are trying again. And maybe they’ll end up at Canada’s Wonderland. Or maybe, at this very moment, they are riding on the boardwalk at just the right speed, with the breeze blowing in their hair, already planning their next adventure outside.