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Peter H. Kahn, Jr.
Peter H Kahn Jr., Ph.D.

We Don't Know What We're Missing

Experiences with nature - so deep and beautiful - that we're losing.

There are experiences with nature - so beautiful, so deep - that we're losing. We don't have to lose them. We can chose otherwise.

But it's difficult to chose otherwise because we're hardly aware of what we're missing. Why are we hardly aware? One explanation that I wrote of last month [click here] focuses on the problem of environmental generational amnesia.

In a nutshell here's the problem: Across generations people construct a conception of what is environmentally normal based on the natural world encountered in childhood. The upside is that children start afresh, unencumbered psychologically by the environmental misdeeds of previous generations. The innocence of youth. But the downside is enormous in that with each ensuing generation, the amount of environmental degradation increases, but each generation tends to take that degraded condition as the non-degraded condition, as the normal experience. Thus we hardly know what we're missing.

Here are a few examples of what we've lost to illustrate the difficulty of regaining what we hardly know.

Passenger Pigeons. None of us living today have experienced certain forms of interaction with nature that were common even one or two hundred years ago. For example, John Muir (1954/1976) wrote of experiencing the immense migration of the passenger pigeons: "I have seen flocks streaming south in the fall so large that they were flowing over from horizon to horizon in an almost continuous stream all day long, at the rate of forty or fifty miles an hour, like a mighty river in the sky widening, contracting, descending like falls and cataracts, and rising suddenly here and there in huge ragged masses like high-plashing spray..." (p. 46). Similarly, in the early 1800's, John Audubon wrote:

The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse....I cannot describe to you the extreme beauty of their aerial evolutions, when a Hawk chanced to press upon the rear of a flock. At once, like a torrent, and with a noise like thunder, they rushed into a compact mass, pressing upon each other towards the centre. In these almost solid masses, they darted forward in undulating and angular lines, descended and swept close over the earth with inconceivable velocity, mounted perpendicularly so as to resemble a vast column, and, when high, were seen wheeling and twisting within their continued lines, which then resembled the coils of a gigantic serpent. Before sunset I reached Louisville, distant from Hardensburgh fifty-five miles. The Pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers, and continued to do so for three days in succession. The people were all in arms. The banks of the Ohio were crowded with men and boys, incessantly shooting at the pilgrims, which there flew lower as they passed the river. Multitudes were thus destroyed. For a week or more, the population fed on no other flesh than that of Pigeons, and talked of nothing but Pigeons. (American Museum, 2008)

It is hard to believe, but humans wiped out the passenger pigeon. The last one died in 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoological Garden. It is now an extinct species.

The North American Buffalo. We wiped out most of the American buffalo, as well. Lewis and Clark (1953) wrote of this experience in their journal (their original spelling and punctuation from the early 1800's are left intact):

I sent the hunters down Medicine river to hunt Elk and proceeded with the party across the plain to the white bear Islands. it is now the season at which the buffaloe begin to coppelate and the bulls keep a tremendious roaring we could hear them for many miles and there are such numbers of them that there is one continual roar. our horses had not been acquainted with the buffaloe they appeared much allarmed at their appearance and bellowing. when I arrived in sight of the white-bear Islands the missouri bottoms on both sides of the river were crouded with buffaloe. I sincerely beleif that there were not less than 10 thousand buffaloe within a circle of 2 miles arround that place. (p. 422)

In the same way we do not experience the plethora of boundless winged life of the passenger pigeons, so do we not experience the plethora of the plain buffaloes, or the plethora of any animals. We might think we do. But that is because we do not know what we are missing. We have lost those experiences.

Pyle's Educational Activity. Robert Michael Pyle, nature-writer and butterfly expert, often speaks to groups about nature, and during his speaking it is not uncommon for him to engage an audience in a brief activity (Pyle, 2002). He asks the audience members whether they can remember a particular place from their childhood in nature where they would go and play and explore with friends, or perhaps a place to be by themselves, or a place where they would make forts, catch bugs, or be in the water. Usually most of the hands would go up in the audience. He would then ask people to describe these places. Sometimes the places involved creeks or ponds, or a big tree, undeveloped parks, and old fields. Sometimes the places involved a vacant lot in the city: a place at once near, secretive, in some ways wild, and full of possibility. Pyle (2002) writes: "Most people can relate the details of the spot and tell stories from their places that surprise even themselves with their remarkable clarity and nuance and the deep affection aroused" (p. 306). Finally, Pyle asks a question that can lead audience members to feel some sadness: "How many can return to their special places and find them substantially intact?" (p. 306). Not many people can. The tree may have been cut down. The waterway may have been filled in or diverted, making room for a new shopping plaza. Condos might now have been built on the vacant lot, or a highway might speed through it.

Pyle's educational activity encourages us to recognize the environmental losses within our own lifespan; and it allows us to ask what of these losses our children care about, or even understand intellectually.

The Highlands of Scotland. Many centuries ago the forests in the Highlands of Scotland flourished. According to Hand (1997) these forests were "grand as any on earth. Elm, ash, alder, and oak shaded the low-lying coastal plains and inland valleys; aspen, hazel, birch, rowan, and willow covered the hills; and beautiful, redbark Scots pine clung to the glacial moraines and steep granite slopes. The Romans called it the Forest of Caledonia, ‘the woods on heights,' and it clung to Scottish soil for millennia" (p. 11). However, at the start of the 16th century, with the coming of the English and the industrial revolution, the forests came under siege, and by the 1700's had been virtually eliminated.

Stone houses and coal fires replaced those of wood. Soils, exposed to harsh winds and rain, washed into streams and rivers, leaching fertility, destroying fisheries. Erosion cut, in many places, to bedrock. Woodland species - bear, reindeer, elk, moose, beaver, wild boar, wild ox, wolf (the last killed in 1743), crane, bittern, great auk, goshawk, kite, and seaeagle - vanished...By 1773, when Dr. Samuel Johnson toured the highlands, with James Boswell, the landscape was, in Johnson's words, a "wide extent of hopeless sterility." He remarked that one was as likely to see trees in Scotland as horses in Venice. (p. 12)

Today the Highlands of Scotland are one of the most deforested lands in the world. Perhaps equally disturbing, the Scots of today, according to Hand, have virtually no conception of a forest, of its ecological vastness and beauty. Hand presented these ideas in an essay he titled "the forest of forgetting." It is a forgetting that has crossed generations.

The Wilderness Society. Take a guess what year the following magazine editorial excerpt was written: "This [society] is born of an emergency in conservation which admits of no delay. It consists of persons distressed by the exceedingly swift passing of wilderness in a country which recently abounded in the richest and noblest of wilderness forms, the primitive, and who purpose to do all they can to safeguard what is left of it." In the last decade we have indeed witnessed the swift passing of wilderness in the United States; and environmentalist often speak of this problem as one which admits of no delay. The above passage was written, however, in 1935 as the opening to the first issue of the magazine for The Wilderness Society (The First Issue, 1993, p. 6). Thus environmental problems can be understood as equally serious across generations even while the problems worsen.

Mt. Whitney. Meloy (1997) writes that in 1929 her mother, then a child

bellied up to the edge of a sheer cliff on a 14,495-foot Sierra peak and, while someone held her feet, stared down into empty blue-white space. Local newspapers reported her as the first child to climb Mt. Whitney. "On that three-week trip we saw one other pack train from a distance," [her mother] recalled, "and we said the mountains were getting crowded"...[Now] thirty million people live within a day's drive of Sequoia and Kings Canyon parks. Space atop Mt. Whitney is rationed: you need a reservation to climb it from the east. (pp. 4-5)

Yet people today still speak of such outings in Kings Canyon as "wilderness" outings; and "non-congested" can refer to a packed freeway in the middle of Los Angeles as long as the cars are moving along in a timely fashion. Apparently - as in the case of the above snapshot from the Wilderness Society - across generations the same environmental construct can refer to worsening environmental conditions.

Rowing to Latitude. Over several decades, Fredston (2001) rowed more than twenty thousand miles of some of the wildest coastlines in the arctic waters. During one of her later expeditions, she and her husband were rowing along portions of Norway. She describes some of the beauty of the land. But then she adds:

Still, even the undeniably beautiful portions of the Norwegian coast that send visitors from more developed, congested parts of Europe into raptures seemed sterile to us...That experience frightened us to the marrow. It made us realize that, like the perpetually grazing sheep [in Norway], centuries of human habitation have nibbled away not only at the earth but at our perception of what constitutes nature. When we do not miss what is absent because we have never known it to be there, we will have lost our baseline for recognizing what is truly wild. (p. 217)

In future posts, I'll speak about how we can address the problem of Environmental Generational Amnesia. But I think an early step is recognizing that it's happened to us, and it's happening now.


Audubon, J. (2008). American Museum of Natural History, Passenger Pigeons. Retrieved on October 1, 2008 from….

Fredston, J. A. (2001). Rowing to latitude: Journeys along the Arctic's edge. New York: North Point Press.

Lewis, M., & Clark, W. (1953). The Journals of Lewis and Clark (B. DeVoto, Ed.). New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Meloy, E. (1997). Waiting its occasions. Northern Lights, 13(1), 4-6.

Muir, J. (1976). The Wilderness World of John Muir (E. W. Teale, Ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Pyle, R. M. (2002). Eden in a vacant lot: Special places, species, and kids in the neighborhood of life. In P. H. Kahn, Jr. & S. R. Kellert (Eds.), Children and nature: Psychological, sociocultural, and evolutionary investigations (pp. 305-327). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

The First Issue. (1993). The Wilderness Society, 56(200), p. 6.

About the Author
Peter H. Kahn, Jr.

Peter H. Kahn, Jr. is Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington and the author of Technological Nature: Adaptation and the Future of Human Life.

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