My January Nature Challenge (It Could Be Yours, too)

Published on: December 30, 2013

Our annual forced march up MonadnockMy family of origin wasn’t what you’d call “outdoorsy.” We didn’t hike, except for a forced march annually up a small mountain in southern New Hampshire (my aunt’s fluffer-nutter sandwiches were the carrot pulling me to the top). We didn’t rock climb, or backpack, or learn species of birds (unlike this writer) or trees or rocks or plants. My activity of choice was reading obsessively, followed closely by watching television, lots of it.

But still, my two sisters and I spent a fair amount of time outside, and decades later, those small, everyday memories of outdoor experiences have an unusual clarity and power: Digging for arrowheads in the hills outside of Tulsa, Okla., where I lived until I was 6. Poking sticks at the ice that formed along the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago, our home after Tulsa. Finding a felled tree in a square of woods near another new home (Hingham, Mass., age 12, this time), which swung when I sat on it – which I did, for long stretches of time.

A whole constellation of memories around the woods and pond by my grandparents’ house in Marshfield, Mass.: rustling down paths, swimming, skating, getting lost.

Many other memories of childhood have faded. These still crackle.

Elisa swimmingWe moved five times from the time I was 6 until age 12. Looking back, I’m convinced that nature was one of the threads that carried me through these transitions and other volatile kid terrain. Richard Louv documents nature’s calming effect on kids: I can physically remember it.

As a young adult, I began to recognize this effect, or connection, or whatever you want to call it, and more deliberately carve out time for being outside — hiking, camping, cycling, running and just walking — especially after moving to Seattle in my twenties, where I first learned the term "urban nature."

So when I had my one (and only) child four years ago, prioritizing outdoor time was a given. There were many decisions I had to make (and still am making) about what kind of a parent I wanted to be. This wasn’t one of them. We’d be outside every day in our green city, if possible, puddle jumping, throwing stones in the creek down the street from us, learning the names of the birds in our yard, biking.

Edmonds beach

Cut to late fall of 2013, when days (even weeks) go by without much more time outside than a trip to the car.

Excuses are easy. It’s the season of dark, damp and cold. My son gets plenty of outdoor playtime at his preschool. My husband — bless his heart — did not participate in my outside-every-day pledge and is more of a fair-weather kind of a guy for getting outdoors (but the weather can't be too sunny). In fact, my son is a bit like that, too. (“I’m coooooooold, Mom!”)

My inner voice tells me to get over it. In the summer, we’re out all the time — isn’t that enough? Does it really matter?

But it does. It’s been an unusually busy, challenging fall for our little family — family illness, a house to clean out, both of us working full time — and the times we do get out, even for a few minutes, even just me, always make a difference.

A highlight was a ramble with friends through Carkeek Park at its greenest and dampest to see the salmon run and do a loop hike, with five kids running and playing games the entire way.

Carkeek Park

Almost as satisfying was an hour or two of yard work with a friend who brought her 3-year-old over. While we battled blackberry, the boys moved seamlessly (and loudly) from one imaginative game to another: leaf-and-dirt soup, bad guys and so on.

Also priceless were those few minutes a day of seeing a new bird at our feeders, or watching a squirrel going to hilarious lengths to get at a half-rotten apple on one of our trees.

So in January, the month of dark days and new beginnings, I’m going to aim to get back to my original outside-every-day pledge, focusing on small, everyday moments rather than big adventures.

Here are the few goals I’ve set out for myself

— A few minutes every day counts (little tasks like feeding the bird feeder work well), but it has to be more, ahem, than a walk to the car. More on the weekends.

— With my son and hub when possible, but by myself is just fine, even preferred sometimes (mom sanity alert).

— Limit forced marches! (I’m keeping in mind Lynn Schnaiberg’s advice of strategic use of gummy bears for new activities), and Jennifer Johnson's tips for exploring nearby nature.

For extra credit (and fun)

— Rejigger the yard in at least one new way to encourage outdoor play (I’ve got my eye on either a tire swing, or this fun idea around exploring the physics of rain).

— Try at least one new walk/hike (high on my list are Brightwater Center and Tacoma Nature Center).

— One snow adventure. I really, really want to go here.

There, I’ve gone public. To my mind, this January resolution/challenge/intention is the best kind, because it feels doable and will make everyone in my family a little happier (at least once I kick, er get, them out the door).

What's your nature challenge? We'd love to hear your thoughts, tips, caveats and rants in comments or on Facebook, where we'll be sharing tips and ideas all month.

 Washington Park

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