The Northwest Hawaiian Islands Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument was proclaimed by a landmark presidential decree on June 15, 2006. Superindendent ‘Aulani Wilhelm spoke with me almost a year later (during her maternity leave) about what she’s reading and why preserving nature is important. I’ve included the full interview below, not previously published.

What I’m Reading | ‘Aulani Wilhelm
NOAA Superintendent, Northwest Hawaiian Islands Monument

Q&A with Christine Thomas
May 2007

-What are you reading?

I don’t know if this is weird but I’m reading three different books at once. I’m a nonfiction reader typically, and I guess because of my work I usually read conservation-related books. But now that I’m on maternity mom time I find myself moving toward that. One book I’m reading is “Raising Cain” by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, and it’s about protecting the emotional life of boys. I have two boys now, and I find myself, especially watching my toddler grow up, I really need to understand boys and what it takes to raise them and what are they facing now as little boys in our society. This book was recommended by a colleague of mine in California who is also raising a boy, and is by two PhD psychologists. It basically talks about how in our society and lots of societies boys are raised to be stoic and think they’re not supposed to feel. It’s not a how-to book on how to raise your boys, but how to understand. I think boys have the added pressure of having this tough guy image. I want my boys to grow up to be sensitive toward other boys and other girls—to be empathetic.

The other book that I’m reading is called “The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter” by Katherine Ellison. Two things turned me on to this book. She’s a co-author of a book I loved called “The New Economy of Nature: The Quest To Make Conservation Profitable” that she co wrote with Gretchen Daily. It’s about how nature can drive the economy and ways you can protect nature while still having a successful economy … She was a foreign correspondent who was also a mom. She used to hear all these comments that you become a mom and lose your mind, so she was afraid of what motherhood was going to mean because she prided herself on her career and didn’t want to be come a brainless mom. What she found in her research is that motherhood actually makes you smarter and more focused. … so she’s found that actually you become more efficient, and you use your brain differently and become even more decisive than ever before. … It helps to read something and focus on something that’s my own—not just a nighttime children’s story.

But I couldn’t stay away from my conservation background so I’m reading an almost scary book called “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” by Richard Louv. I never heard about this guy before. He was also a journalist who ended up writing seven books. His conclusion is basically that he links the absence of nature in the way that children are growing up today—what he calls the wired generation, you know Nintendo and iPod—he links the absence of nature to disturbing trends like the rise in obesity, attention disorders and depression. He’s collected research from around different publications and scientific journals. His conclusion is that we need direct exposure to nature and that we’re becoming the last generations who are exposed to nature and that more and more kids are not exposed to nature. That’s creating those disorders because they don’t have those peaceful places they go to, and that’s important to their emotional and physical health. It feeds my hunger for research, conservation, but you can really apply it to your life.

… Some of why we’re not connected to nature has to do with development and how we’re paving nature, but at least in American society with homeowners associations, rules determine where kids play. Rules, both private and public, are making it more difficult for kids to find public places to play. And, it’s not as safe for kids to just go wandering and parents don’t have the time or desire to wander with them. It’s interesting if you’re into conservation, and if you have kids, and that’s where I am right now. It’s common sense but puts it into a book and presents it a way you can think about it.

-How did you discover Louv’s book?

A mentor of mine, Laura Thompson, got the book and gave it to me for Christmas. She read it and said this is a book that every parent should read. I’m really grateful and she’s right. It’s really eye-opening. And she’s from a generation that grew up in nature, and she’s seen now three generations after her of transition from that. On an island where we live, although we have the ocean, still a lot of our ocean and mountain access is cut off. Space and wilderness is at a premium. On an island we definitely have to think about it. How do we protect these wild places that we love? And if nature has a chance of being preserved kids need to have contact and access to it or it’s going to become a story they see on TV or Nintendo.

-Does this book reinvigorate your long-term work to promote conservation?

Yeah I think that and “The Mommy Brain” both do that. For one thing, the Northwest Hawaiian Islands was such a long, draining fight. And you get to the end of that and you need a recharge. You need something that reminds you that it was all worth it and to re-inspire you to continue on. And having another child makes me think, should I be working this hard? Am I gypping my kids in the interest of conservation? This book really helps me think about it in two ways, that part of protecting my kids is working to protect nature and instilling in them those values. These books help to give me new perspective and other people’s perspective, not just the writers but the researchers and scientists they share quotes from. I’ve been really single-focused working on the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, so it’s good to have something fresh. So it is stimulating actually.