All is quiet on the far western front in this early Anthropocene era, and Erich Maria Remarque’s savage World War I novel continues to win replays as a famous old-time movie and now a 2022 Netflix remake (4.1.1.).
Originally published in 1929 as “Im Westen nichts Neues,” Remarque’s graphic prose depicts the horrors of trench warfare for German foot soldiers from 1916 to 1918.
As lovers of the Earth herself, readers and viewers today watch in horror while huge gobs of land are hammered with endless artillery carnage among the hapless World War I soldiers as they die in the hundreds of thousands.
One now has to think of today’s relentless artillery war raging in Ukraine, and the horror and stupidity causing Ukrainian and Russian men to die during a freezing winter in the Donbas.
Most human warfare occurs out of doors, and almost all the time we observe toxic male anger in action as warrior-humans attack and attempt to kill other men. These cyclical wars bother all of us, and especially children.
After teaching early adolescents for more than 40 years, I came to see how desperately children need idealism and optimistic feelings of sturdy self-worth.
In my youth during the late 1950s and 1960s, my parents obliged me to attend Methodist Church services on Sundays.
I tried out the Cub Scouts (too many badges, but they do get children outdoors!), and I quite enjoyed a huge boost during YMCA camping trips to the High Sierra at places like Big Pine and Camp Whitsett.
Today’s young humans endure an avalanche of negative news and pessimistic information cascading all over them. Augmenting this negativity are the manifold ways that horrible social media distort reality, and how utterly dominant these social platforms have become.
This point about sadness and pessimism pervading the young is not really challenged today. Our kids live in a society of distraction/alone together/living-on-your-phone/huddling indoors/worrying about our planet’s sick atmosphere.
However you choose to describe postmodern urban society, most of us would agree that excessive screen time and the mounting social media frenzy disturb many of our children today.
Add to that the decline of organized religion, rising fear of the outdoors, constant harping about “stranger danger” by overwrought moms and dads, COVID-19, plus the significant lack of mental health therapists available to frightened young adolescents.
I haven’t even mentioned drugs yet.
The children see almost everything, and adults who imagine kids are not alert to the nastiness on the internet and in the news are kidding themselves, pun intended.
Our children hear about the violent Russian War on Ukraine, they endure the menacing climate warming claims of concerned scientists (and Greta Thunberg), they experience global pollution every day, and they observe worldwide economic challenges ad nauseum.
Yes, ad nauseum because our young also face a steady barrage of warnings about COVID-19 and its more transmissible variants. Many children secretly worry about their parents’ health against the tripledemic (COVID-19, RSV and the common flu: all respiratory viruses).
Hiking around in the stunning local backcountry obviously will not solve the immense psychological challenges confronting young humans in the looming Anthropocene.
I do contend that roaming around our local natural areas elevates positive energy in children, and certainly it helps adults, too. Pushing hard on some of the outdoor activities — e.g., longer day hikes — improves health, but also enhances the child’s sense of self-worth and augments their optimism.
Perhaps we all simply need a lot more vitamin N, as Richard Louv claims.
Another way to study this issue is to realize how extremely sedentary we’ve become in the West. Unless you are among the under-10% who live on farms or ranches today, you most likely have joined homo sedentist, homeland of the couch potatoes.
Population statistics reveal this indoor determinism is mandated by late-model capitalism among the quirky human species.
However, we have evolved during the past 70,000 years largely outside. While obvious in one sense, there is evidence that at neolithic sites like Mount Carmel (Israel) and in the famous French caves (e.g., Chauvet), the human groups congregated and lived at the large cave “entrance,” so to speak.
Rites and ceremonies would take place farther in, but humans not only needed the light, they wanted to live beneath their solar father and have their fires there.
Local rock shelters in Southern California are generally shallow and in a major sense not like the deep limestone caves at all (e.g., deep caves at Lascaux and Altamira).
Indigenous humans in our area made their own willow dwellings, and while they gathered for ceremonies near hallowed rock shelters, these were not village sites (though there are some exceptions).
Sometimes they would gather for ritual grinding up of special acorns whilst chewing quids of datura (witness the many bedrock mortars near cave sites locally, e.g., Pinwheel Cave).
Dramatically increasing the sheer amount of direct sunlight, adding exposure to wind and pollens, and enhancing their connectedness to other life forms combine to nurture a child’s sense of adventurous play and nascent optimism.
Life in the true wildeor must have been terribly exciting and ever-changing, and chock-full of outdoor stimulation.
During my almost four decades teaching at a local K-8 independent school — very outdoor-oriented when I joined the faculty — children spent at least half their time out-of-doors and playing in the coastal sunshine.
From the outset in 1928, a clear set of educational principles informed the school’s direction, and both hands-on (sloyd) and outdoor activities were at the top along with group singing.
Children desperately need and even require out-of-the-building time, and some intense physical exercise is indeed part of the recipe. I know well that economics play an enormous role in education, and as a longtime supporter of public education, it’s clear we have been starving the public schools in funding and in other ways.
One’s life choices often collide with the bigger social reality around her/him/them. Often the particular (individual human) blends effortlessly with the outside reality, as it happened for me in this outdoor/hiking/exercise-mania lifestyle.
I fell into teaching at a local prep school and found out that camping and backpacking had always been an integral part of the curriculum. The four 1920s founders already knew that drawing kids into the wilderness (and the ocean) reinforced children’s mental health as well as strengthened their bodies.
All is quiet on the far western “front” of Euro-North American civilization, here on this southern littoral facing the islands. Most of our attention should focus on uplifting education and inculcating moral optimism in the young.
This challenges some American adults who honestly suffer grief and guilt themselves: grieving in their concealed way for this messed-up and polluted planet they’re bequeathing their offspring.
This omnipresent grief and resultant sadness seeps down into our children, too, even as they’re besotted by their seductive screens.
Cormac McCarthy is writing to these sorrowing adults with his line, “The world is full of people who should have been more willing to weep” (“The Passenger”).
Have we become a weakened and decadent civilization full of sad and grieving adults and kids?
In the Anthropocene, can we solve the planet’s manifest woes while acknowledging that we humans have created them? Are we the sick ghost in nature’s admirable machine? How can we give hope to our children that the climate crisis can be resolved?
Until we can convincingly attack and begin to solve Mother Gaia’s planetary illnesses, sensitive and caring children (and young adults) around us will continue to slump into pervasive sadness, listlessness and, yes, even forms of serious depression.
I am asserting that simply bringing the kids out-of-doors for a couple of hours a day is a meaningful partial solution to this issue of children’s sadness.
Hiking up Rattlesnake Canyon or easy walking along Manzana Creek can address the darkness, and as parents we need to give the young have these opportunities every day.
Erich Maria Remarque’s original novel is in German, 1929. The epic 1930 Hollywood movie “All Quiet on the Western Front,” directed by Lewis Milestone, won the first Best Picture Award based on a novel; Netflix version: https://www.netflix.com/title/81260280?source=35. Cormac McCarthy, “The Passenger,” p. 309, and passim. Richard Louv, “The Nature Principle” (2011). I taught at Crane Country Day School from 1980 to 2016, and in Germany and other places before that.
— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity and has written extensively about the local backcountry. His latest book, Autobiography in the Anthropocene, is available at Lulu.com. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.