The tide is out, revealing a great seaweed-matted mud flat. Gulls are scattered on it like huge, mobile, white-feathered clamshells. They strut at the water’s edge, looking for stragglers and snacks the receding tide has left behind. A few come too close to a great blue heron, which flaps its wings, driving them off as if sweeping dust from the front porch.
It’s a weekday on Puget Sound. Most people are at work, but here moms and their pre-school kids are taking advantage of the best kind of daycare you can get. Out there with the seagulls are toddlers wielding plastic shovels, digging for the pure pleasure of making holes that fill with water and ooze.
We’re lucky our kids can still do this. Puget Sound is suffering from air and water pollution, and it sometimes fools us with its image of rosy health. But for all its problems, we can count our blessings and enjoy an abundance of nature still without the tragic consequences they’re experiencing along the Gulf of Mexico. At least we can for now.
On this day, the kids are happy, running in small packs, wading in the chilly waters without complaint. Supervision is remote, parked up near the driftwood at the high-tide line. Moms are sitting on logs and chatting, their kids on invisible leashes. While the grownups relax, the little ones explore the world, barefoot and free.
Some, including me, have lamented “nature deficit disorder,” a social malady identified as today’s kids not getting enough “Tom Sawyer” time. It’s a worry. Most Americans live in urban areas now, traditional summer camps have struggled, the demographics of backpackers have been graying. Xboxes and fat camps have replaced building homemade rafts and exploring vacant lots. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, a book that documents the trend, writes, “For a new generation, nature is more abstraction than reality.”
The Obama administration is responding to the trend with its America’s Great Outdoors initiative, launched earlier this year to “reconnect Americans, especially children, to America’s rivers and waterways, landscapes of national significance, ranches, farms and forests, great parks, and coasts and beaches.” The president recognizes that such connections are critical to cultivating a conservation ethic that will preserve our natural heritage.
The cure is simpler in Seattle than in some cities. Here you can see two mountain ranges, an inland sea, an archipelago of islands, and three national parks from the top of the Space Needle. Getting out can be as simple as a short trip to a city, county or state park. You can take a Metro bus — inside the city limits — and hop out within walking distance of old-growth forest.
America might be losing its connection to the woods and overprotecting its once free-range kids. But, I look at the little ones on the shore. It’s good to see the sights and smells of nature being passed on, how the Salish Sea is soaking into their blood, how the scents of salt and seaweed are being internalized. That will shape their sense of place. These kids might grow up taking it as a given that eagles should soar overhead, that low tide reveals fascinating critters and new worlds.
Longtime local journalist Frank Wetzel wrote a memoir a couple of years ago about his family’s multigenerational connection to the Sound, and Wetzel’s own special connection to Dabob Bay on Hood Canal. In Celebrating Puget Sound, Wetzel says his family has a ritual of dipping their new members into the surf as a kind of baptism. “We start them early at about one year,” he writes of the dip in the water, “and give them a nodding introduction to oysters, which, by the time they are 4 or 5, they happily devour.”
I love that idea. New generations anointed in the sea, taking communion from oyster shells, brined for life in the Pacific Northwest.
We’ll need those generations to keep us safe, to protect us from oil spills lapping at our feet, to fend off a world in which people are ignorant of or uncaring about our natural heritage. We’ll need a new generation that knows what this place means deep in their bones.
I look at those toddlers on the beach and I feel hope.
This article originally appeared in the September issue of Seattle Magazine.