Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The McMansioning of America -- Part 2

My wife and I raised four kids in a 1000 square-foot, one-bath house that had been built more than a century ago for the family of a worker in the Ames shovel factory. It was a tight squeeze, but we all spent quite a bit of time outdoors. The kids were almost always out and about, playing with neighborhood pals and roaming the woods and meadows. There wasn't much to do indoors but get in each other's way.

The McMansion kids have lots to do indoors, and plenty of room to do it. Private bedrooms with computers and personal TVs. Game rooms. Media centers. As someone who has walked the same path every day for 40 years, I can vouch for the fact that today's kids seldom venture outside. No more forts in the woods. No more fishing on the bridge. No more dams in the brooks.

Something is being lost: a connection to the organic. In her book The Sense of Wonder, published in 1965, Rachel Carson wrote: "If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of childhood are the time to prepare the soil." Seeds and soil: she has chosen her metaphors carefully. What the child absorbs from nature is a sense of something whole and enduring, a lesson that cannot be learned in the world of instant obsolescence and virtual reality.

It will be unfortunate too if science looses its connection to the organic. In his autobiography, Naturalist, Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson describes his own childhood roaming the woods and seashore of rural Alabama. Nature gives the child "a compelling image that will serve in later life as a talisman, transmitting a powerful energy that directs the growth of experience and knowledge." It is better for the future scientist "to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical detail," he writes. "Better to spend long stretches of time just searching and dreaming."

Science is knowledge. Knowledge is power. Power bears enormous moral responsibilities. I would rather live in a world where those who exercise power had their sensibilities formed in contact with organic nature, rather than with the virtual indoor world of McMansion America.