The world has changed since I was a kid. Well, duh, you might reasonably respond. But bear with me.

I’m not talking just about the landscape, about how the Nut Tree was the only thing on the highway between the Bay Area and Sacramento, nor how there was no freeway through Sacramento and one had to follow surface streets.

Nor was there an I-5 for my family to take in our drive from our home in the Bay Area to visit and vacation with our relatives in Bellevue on the shores of Lake Washington. Bellevue/Redmond back then was a general store and a post office. Microsoft has changed that.

Our real destination, though, for ourselves and our relatives was farther north, at the end of a long ride on a ferry, Roche Harbor on San Juan Island, where small cabins leftover from the workers at the nearby defunct lime works were available for $30 a month. While our parents mostly sat around and gabbed, they got me and my cousin out from under their feet by renting us a small boat with an outboard engine. We weren’t allowed to go too far, but we did occasionally motor on over to one of the two small islands just outside the harbor, and spent the day fishing and the night pretending we were Tom Sawyer.

The point of relating my journey is not to relive a time past, it’s rather to explain that the infrastructure of our lives has grown dense as population increased, and as a corollary, something that was common and available for kids back then is closer to nonexistent today. Outdoor, mostly unsupervised play in a natural environment has largely disappeared.

Why is this important? A friend sent me a book to read: “Last Child in the Woods.” It’s a 350-page deep dive into the effective loss of kids having the opportunity to go out and play in the forest, hunt for bugs down by the creek, trap lizards in a jar, smell the flowers and learn the names of birds and their seasons, and come home dirty but infused with a sense of creativity, imagination and adventure.

I don’t feel comfortable generalizing my own experience into a massive cultural trend, but I know that for me, the adventures I had on San Juan Island, and similar freedom to explore creeks and fields even while not on vacation, was where my love of nature was born. It was a first step through a door that would eventfully lead to wanting to protect it, to gladly taking on the label of “environmentalist.”

My friend was embroiled in a dispute with some neighbors. His family constructed a treehouse for the kids during the pandemic. It’s not your basic backyard treehouse. It’s pretty substantial. It faces an agricultural field, with no homes nearby. It’s in what I would consider to be a small forest, the kind where kids imaginations and play could freely roam. The neighbors want it taken down. I don’t know their issues or concerns, but at least from a distance, it seems like such a shame to remove something I would have loved as a kid.

There are many doors that provide access to an appreciation of nature. It can be a small garden in the backyard, a visit to a farm, a rafting trip, hiking in the mountains, learning to photograph or draw plants and animals, learning to fish or hunt.

Over the last several years, there has been an increasing awareness that the climate crisis and the environmental crisis are inextricably linked; joined at the hip. Scientists and environmentalists have united behind a “Campaign for Nature” “to protect 30 percent of the Earth’s total surface (land and sea) from human exploitation by the year 2030.

A recent article from World Politics Review sums it up: “Over the past two years, an extraordinary global campaign has emerged to protect 30 percent of the Earth’s total surface from human exploitation by 2030. The members of the so-called 30×30 coalition, which now includes scores of governments, understand that climate change is only one-half of the planet’s environmental crisis. The Paris Agreement, while imperative to curb greenhouse gas emissions, will do little by itself to save the planet’s collapsing biodiversity or preserve the massive ecosystems upon which humanity depends — and which we are fast degrading.”

30×30 is a catchy slogan and has gained people’s attention, but there are at least two huge challenges to turn the slogan into reality. One is the policy level, garnering public and political support from nations to acknowledge the crisis and agree on objectives. This is a tough mountain to climb but a mere hill compared to the Mt. Everest of getting agreement on which lands, whose waters, what ecosystems to protect and who compensates who and how much for losses of farmland or ocean resources.

This is where “The Last Child in the Woods” comes in. The next and future generations are going to have to answer these and other questions, and we can only hope that they approach that task with not only knowledge of but also experience with nature and wildness.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears the first and third Wednesday of each month. Please send comments to

Published online on May 5, 2021 | Printed in the May 5, 2021 edition on page B6.