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Why we're disappointed with nature

It doesn't follow a TV script. But that's a good thing.

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If we need to get more people interested in nature, as a recent national report suggests, then maybe it's time we acknowledge a truth that few observers, even those of us who consider ourselves devoted naturalists, seem willing to admit:

Nature is often very boring.

What I mean to say is that nature can often be boring when measured against our longstanding human desire for compelling narrative and catchy endings – a cultural impulse that drives everything from books to movies to TV shows to video games.

Which is why, one gathers, Mother Nature isn't the most popular girl on the block these days, as evidenced by the latest findings of The Nature Conservancy. In a new study, the conservancy concluded that people across the United States and in other developed nations are spending far less time outdoors than recent generations.

After tracking such benchmarks as camping, fishing, hiking, hunting, and visits to national and state parks and forests, the conservancy concluded that the typical drop in these activities since 1981 has been between 18 and 25 percent.

That grim news has led to numerous calls to engage more of us, especially young people, in the wonders of nature.

But nature's magic, while deep and enduring, is not the kind that promises to pull a rabbit from every hat at any given moment.

Or so I was reminded a few years ago, when my young daughter's elementary school class followed the metamorphosis of some larva into beetles over the course of several days.

"How are the mealworms doing?" I asked after the first day of her class experiment.

"Doing?" she responded with a heavy sigh. "The mealworms aren't really doing anything."

The time-lapse techniques of television, which can fast-forward a cocoon to a butterfly before the station break, had conditioned my daughter to expect an equally speedy costume change in the glass jar holding her worms. Modern childhood could not prepare her for the glacial pace at which nature so often moves.


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