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Tuesday, 8 September 2009

The Wilderness of Childhood

Many of the portraits in the Photo Festival of Savignano look at the interaction between people and technology, including in some ways the imaginary, physical and visual worlds inhabited by Isabel in my very own Sofa Portraits. In my subsequent work (including this one from August in Canada), I've extended the theme to look at how Isabel is in different environments.

The themes I'm touching on in Flora, Life on Mars, the water portraits are those of how imagination ties in with landscape and nature, earth, wind and water - it's all supposed to tie together some time soon and make a masterful and coherent series called The Seven Stages of an Idealised Childhood - title, mmm?

There is a connection between these themes and the writing of Sex-God (follow the link ) Michael Chabon in The Wilderness of Childhood - this looks at how imagination has been stifled by the closure of free and open public space, how leisure has been commodified and a disproportionate and dishonest vision of safety and security has cost us the freedom, liberty and independence of our children and put us at the mercy of money-grubbing corporations who resell us natural experiences in corrupted form as a substitute for something that was free, beautiful and all around us.

The thing that strikes me now when I think about the Wilderness of Childhood is the incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there. A very grave, very significant shift in our idea of childhood has occurred since then. The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past. The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by the neighbors.


There are reasons for all of this. The helmeting and monitoring, the corralling of children into certified zones of safety, is in part the product of the Consumer Reports mentality, the generally increased consciousness, in America, of safety and danger. To this one might add the growing demands of insurance actuarials and the national pastime of torts. But the primary reason for this curtailing of adventure, this closing off of Wilderness, is the increased anxiety we all feel over the abduction of children by strangers; we fear the wolves in the Wilderness. This is not a rational fear; in 1999, for example, according to the Justice Department, the number of abductions by strangers in the United States was 115. Such crimes have always occurred at about the same rate; being a child is exactly no more and no less dangerous than it ever was. What has changed is that the horror is so much better known. At times it seems as if parents are being deliberately encouraged to fear for their children's lives, though only a cynic would suggest there was money to be made in doing so.

The endangerment of children—that persistent theme of our lives, arts, and literature over the past twenty years—resonates so strongly because, as parents, as members of preceding generations, we look at the poisoned legacy of modern industrial society and its ills, at the world of strife and radioactivity, climatological disaster, overpopulation, and commodification, and feel guilty. As the national feeling of guilt over the extermination of the Indians led to the creation of a kind of cult of the Indian, so our children have become cult objects to us, too precious to be risked. At the same time they have become fetishes, the objects of an unhealthy and diseased fixation. And once something is fetishized, capitalism steps in and finds a way to sell it.

What is the impact of the closing down of the Wilderness on the development of children's imaginations? This is what I worry about the most. I grew up with a freedom, a liberty that now seems breathtaking and almost impossible. Recently, my younger daughter, after the usual struggle and exhilaration, learned to ride her bicycle. Her joy at her achievement was rapidly followed by a creeping sense of puzzlement and disappointment as it became clear to both of us that there was nowhere for her to ride it—nowhere that I was willing to let her go. Should I send my children out to play?

The theme was written about at greater length in Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, a book that has vital things to say (all blindingly obvious - all the vital things in life are blindingly obvious). Unfortunately, I don't think Louv says them that well and instead serves up a mish-mash of anecdotes and random quotes of how great the woods are and how crap TV and computers are. Well, Aye, but I need a bit more than that for my $25 (Canadian).


Suzanne Révy said...

Great picture, and thank you for that link.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Suzanne - it's all fascinating stuff. Obvious but vital and will become more so as the years go by.