09/04/2012 10:27 am ET Updated Nov 04, 2012

Character and Cognition on Cornfield Creek

When you look down on Maryland's Magothy River from a satellite, its shape resembles a dead shrub, stripped of all its foliage. All that remain are the thick, silhouetted trunk and lots of spiky, jagged branches. Cornfield Creek, where my wife and I live, is one jagged branch on that ill-fated shrub. It's one of the many creeks and tidal coves that give shape to the Pasadena Peninsula, affectionately known here as "The Dena."

The names of these inlets speak to the river's rich colonial history. Beginning in the 1600s, English explorers sought refuge in these small, protected harbors, and named them Cockey Creek, Blackhole Creek, Dobbins Pond, Redhouse Cove. Tarcoal Cove, now shortened to Tar Cove, is where those seamen came to extract pitch from the nearby pits, valuable for patching chinks in the hulls of their weary vessels.

The lucky ones claimed land and built homes and plantations here. Indeed, for most of its modern history, the Peninsula was farm land, a rich source of tobacco, then corn, berries, and lumber, shipped to Baltimore and Europe. Because it is a peninsula, and was not easily accessible by road, development happened slowly. The Dena still has a rural feel to it in parts, though most of the farms are now gone, replaced by driving ranges and high schools and gated communities.

The Peninsula was also a hotbed of moral instruction, according to what I'm finding in Marianne Taylor's lyrical regional history, My River Speaks. Beginning in the early years of the 20th century, church leaders in Baltimore started sending their teenage boys to summer camps along the north shore, to build their integrity and character and keep them from drifting into urban temptations. One of these camps was built by the Grace Methodist Church, in 1914 on Cockey Creek. Kids would hop on the train from Baltimore to Jones Station, and then paddle in a flotilla of canoes across to the plain cabins of Grachur Club. There they spent their summers roughing it, doing calisthenics and high-diving and swimming and boating, and of course listening to frequent sermons, delivered from a stone pulpit in the waterside chapel.

Another such camp, Camp Milburn, was built right here on Cornfield Creek in the 1920s, a project of the Brantley Baptist Church. When I sit on our dock, I try to picture those young men doing their military drills along the water, bugles blaring. Grace Methodist later added a second camp for underprivileged Baltimore kids, near Cockey Creek, called Whippoorwill Hills. A modernized version of camp Whippoorwill is still in operation, now used by the Girl Scouts.

All of these wilderness camps shared a belief that nature had restorative powers. Physical discipline was essential to moral development, and being outdoors added a spiritual dimension that was lacking in the city. I feel this myself, quite a lot, and we also have evidence that it's true -- though not necessarily with all the Christian trappings. Studies have documented the mind's deep, powerful, evolved attachment to nature, and shown convincingly that even brief exposure to nature can refuel us mentally -- focusing our attention and replenishing the cognitive resources needed for everyday challenges. It doesn't have to be untamed wilderness -- even urban parkland can give some of this benefit. Walking around city streets, by contrast, places demands on those executive powers, running them down.

Don't get me wrong -- I love the city, especially my hometown Washington, D.C. But I do feel that living on a creek is supplying something that has been missing. Peter Kahn, a behavioral scientist at the University of Washington, has verified this in the lab, exposing some people to natural scenery and others to artificial versions of nature -- videos and plasma windows depicting the outdoors. The artificial versions don't work. Actual vistas have a calming effect, even when Kahn deliberately stresses people out. But the artificial scenes don't have that same effect on thinking and emotion. Apparently, we need the smell of pine needles and crunch of twigs and acorns under our feet. We need to jump into creeks on occasion.

I worry with Kahn and other environmental psychologists that our modern detachment from the natural world may be taking a toll, cognitively and emotionally. Kahn has been interviewing young kids around the world, and he has the impression that, with every generation, our kids are losing a bit more of the direct experiential knowledge of the natural world. Our kids may also be losing their expectations for what is a normal interaction with nature, creating a kind of generational amnesia. We as a species may be adapting to this un-natural world, but in the process we may be losing some measure of human flourishing. This loss could emerge as one of the most compelling psychological issues of the not-so-distant future.

I like that we live where youngsters once came for right thinking and moral compass. It may be that the Baltimore churchmen had at least some of it right. They seemed to know intuitively that roughing it on the jagged branches of the Magothy was a source of mental and emotional and spiritual replenishment.

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