When I was a kid my family used to downhill ski pretty often. We would be on the mountain for most of the day, shivering on the way up, speeding down, slurping cocoa for lunch, and generally having a ball. It was great exercise and great fun. But despite all that time outdoors, I don’t think skiing did much to instill a love of nature in me. I loved skiing. But if you’d asked me whether to build a new lift, or if we should light a trail at night, I would have said “Yes!” without hesitation. Lawsuits about illegal trails made little sense to me. It’s a ski mountain for crying out loud. Build the trails! More fun for everyone!
I saw nature as a means to an end, as a canvas for skiing. I wasn’t aware of, and didn’t care about, the fact that animals also lived on the mountain or that skiing might not be compatible with a healthy ecosystem. More trails -- good. More snow-making -- good. Faster lifts -- good. More parking -- good.
How much does downhill skiing encourage stewardship of the environment? Image source: FreeRange
And that makes me wonder… If it’s not simply time in the outdoors that builds a love of and respect for nature, then what is it? Does the activity have to be slow? Immersive? Contemplative? Indigenous children have a great respect for nature and learn to nurture it from a young age because their lives traditionally depend on it in numerous evident ways. They get their food, clothing, shelter, and medicine directly from the plants and animals around them, so they want those plants and animals to thrive. They need them to thrive. It is imbued in their culture to care for the environment just as they care for themselves.
But that is not how most of us live today. The animals and plants living in our foothills, forests, and preserves seem superfluous to our existence. That makes it harder for us to instill that same sense of stewardship in the next generation. So how should we do it? I think that summer camps in the woods, or backpacking and camping in the wilderness, can foster a love of nature. When you go for a cool swim in a lake and then lie on a sun-warmed rock, looking up at the trees and the birds, listening to the wind, smelling the pine, and you do that for days on end, it takes root in your soul. You want to protect that place where you spent such quality time.
I also think that hunting and fishing, somewhat ironically, can encourage an understanding of and responsibility for nature. Those activities depend on healthy ecosystems. Skilled hunters and anglers will have a good intuition for the places where they recreate because they spend so much time observing. They may be the first to know when something is amiss with the local fauna and be motivated to fix it. A kid who is taught well to hunt or to fish will learn about ecology and habitat and responsible stewardship.
In our area, organizations like Grassroots Ecology find many ways to encourage a love of nature in kids. Planting and maintenance and watering activities, where kids actively improve the environment, build respect and a sense of ownership. Observational skills are taught through drawing and writing exercises. Kids develop a sense of leadership and stewardship by taking on longer-term projects and giving presentations on topics of particular interest. When a child understands a little more about what they are seeing, when they have contributed to making an ecosystem a little healthier, concern for the environment becomes part of their identity.
I’ve been thinking about all of this because a few days ago I was listening to a board meeting of the Midpeninsula Open Space District (Midpen). Staff was explaining how they go about planning trails, and dozens of mountain bike enthusiasts attended to ask for more and better bike trails in the nature preserves. About two-thirds of Midpen trails are open for cycling, but the speakers -- many of them young racers and their coaches and parents -- said too many of those miles are on gravel roads. They would like to see more single-track open to cyclists. They said roads are less interesting to ride on than narrow and winding trails, they are often less shaded, and they are even less safe, in part because riders go faster on them to keep things interesting. The single-track the speakers have found in Santa Cruz and Truckee is more enjoyable to ride and they’d like to see more of that in our local nature preserves.
A cyclist enjoys a quiet Saturday afternoon ride on the Seven Springs Loop Trail in Midpen’s Fremont Older Open Space Preserve.
One argument that several of the speakers -- both adults and students -- made, and that was echoed by some Midpen board members, is that providing more single-track cycling trails will encourage young riders to care more about the environment. I was wondering about that given my experience with skiing. Will it foster a love of nature and a responsibility for it, or will the kids see our open space more as a canvas for their sport, as was my experience? Are there programs Midpen could offer that would more effectively nurture a lifelong sense of stewardship for the environment? Does trail building, which many riders expressed interest in, fit the bill, or is it too focused on modifying the environment for our own purposes? What about planting trees along trails to provide both shade and habitat, or converting roads to single-track? What if the kids were to help evaluate placement of a new trail by looking for nests and rare plants and counting birds and other animals? What activities would reinforce the mission of these nature preserves and teach the teens about the critical role of biodiversity and the importance of protecting and restoring undisturbed habitat in our preserves?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas. I’d also be interested in learning what childhood experiences you had that deepened your love and sense of responsibility for the outdoors. I think for my daughter it was backpacking trips as well as time puttering around in the woods making art sculptures and naming the trees and creeks we saw. For me it was backpacking in the Sierras. What about you?
Current Climate Data
Global impacts (September 2023), US impacts (September 2023), CO2 metric, Climate dashboard
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