I recently spent a month at home with my 4-month-old daughter, Eleanor Marie. During this time, I learned many things, some of them totally new to me. She’s my first child, and I’ve found out why every little girl is a daddy’s girl. And like every parent, I know my child is the most beautiful one ever. Beyond the normal new-child-in-the-world things, however, I’ve also learned things about my work, about Asheville and sustainable living.
In my nondad hours, I work for the state Division of Air Quality, helping people understand the sources and impacts of air pollution, greenhouse gases and health issues. And though I’ve worked in outdoor education for almost 30 years, Eleanor has helped me learn many things I already knew.
In Last Child in the Woods (Workman Publishing, 2005), author Richard Louv discusses “nature deficit disorder.” Simply put, children are spending less time outdoors and are getting fat, developing attention deficit disorder, depression and a fear of natural things. When exposed to the outdoors, these same children become healthier, more focused and less fearful.
I know this; I teach this. But Eleanor has helped me see the value of the outdoors in a new way.
We spent Christmas in Charlotte with my wife’s extended Southern family and a few of my people. Eleanor is a big deal: the first grandchild on either side of the family, and the first great-grandchild on my wife’s side. Everyone wanted to hold her for a few minutes, and my role was to change her diaper and hold her when she was fussy. Midafternoon, I stepped outdoors into suburban Charlotte, and a hosanna of angels came down from the heavens: A crying and agitated Eleanor took a breath as big as her first one and promptly calmed down.
Since then, I’ve walked outside with her as often as possible. When she’s outside she’s calmer and happier, a sponge that soaks up everything she hears and smells. On days when the weather prevents this, she’s more agitated. And after spending several hours outside she embraces sleep, rather than fighting it. Even stepping onto the porch calms her down. All this reinforces everything I know about being outdoors.
Our 20-minute morning walk takes us around the block. Eleanor gives everyone we meet a big smile and happy sounds; they all smile back. Somehow I’d forgotten how that simple pleasantry can make a day better and connect me to my neighborhood. I had to learn it from Eleanor.
Down our street is a playground; Eleanor loves seeing the children playing and meeting new people. After that we walk down one of Asheville’s newest sidewalks—created via eminent domain—and cross the street to another park with a pleasant wooded path. On the sidewalks, Eleanor watches everything with rapt attention. In the woods, her eyes are drawn to every sound. Only on the journey’s final leg—the place where the sidewalk ends—does the walking become hazardous.
Walking with Eleanor reminds me how much can be accomplished on foot. My practical upbringing urges me to do something useful while walking —get groceries, buy diapers, run errands. When we bought our home, we chose the neighborhood first, because within a 20-minute walk are three convenience stores, a half-dozen restaurants, two pharmacies, churches, a grocery store, a hospital, dentist and doctor, my favorite coffee shops—and no sidewalks for getting to them.
This forces me into a car—not an easy thing, as parents of young children know. I spend money on fuel, create air pollution, emit greenhouse gasses—and deal with the stress of a crying child. As much as Eleanor likes walking, she dislikes being imprisoned in the rigid plastic womb of the car seat. She’s not old enough to be carried on a bike, and even that is riskier than walking. With planning, I can take the bus downtown, and I’ll do this with Eleanor when she’s older. For now, however, we just walk around the block.
Eleanor has also helped me grasp what’s great about Strive Not To Drive Week. I serve on the event’s planning team, and we want to encourage people to find ways to travel without being utterly and totally alone in a car. This year, we’re asking people to pledge to take the bus, ride a bike, carpool or walk during the week of May 12-16 (see box). If you know someone who strives not to drive every day, nominate him or her for a Golden Spoke, Sneaker or Wheel award.
I can run some errands on my walks with Eleanor—collecting my dry cleaning, dropping her off at daycare or picking up this week’s Mountain Xpress. But I can’t get lunch or coffee, buy food or diapers, or pick up a prescription.
She would enjoy such missions, and they would make our lives a little easier come evening. Most days, however, my better judgment prevails; I haven’t wanted to chance the congested roads that lack sidewalks. That day may come, but meanwhile, she amazes me with her smiles, the joy she inspires in others, and her response to the wonders around her.