One of my earliest memories is of sitting at the base of the large maple tree in the front yard of my childhood home in Auburn, playing make-believe with my younger sister. The tree had a small recess that my back fit neatly into, almost like a hug, and to me, that tree reached clear up to the sky and beyond. I spent the remainder of my childhood climbing trees, playing at nearby parks and playgrounds, exploring in the woods and generally spending as much time outdoors as possible.
As an adult with a baby of my own, my toddler daughter and I enjoyed countless walks along the Rivergreenway where we listened closely to the whispering trees as wind blew through the leaves. We imagined the secrets and stories they told of years gone by – of settlement, storms, development and all the creatures who lived among and enjoyed the shade of the trees, ourselves included.
While I have always felt an intrinsic connection to nature, I know that not all have, or maybe you once did but no longer do. It's all too easy as adults to lose that; we're busy working, raising families and taking care of loved ones. Regardless of how you see (or don't see) your connection to nature, it's there. You're a living, breathing creature, part of the natural world rather than separate from it.
The Nature of Americans was a 2015-16 collaborative study of nearly 12,000 adults and children across the Unites States, led by DJ Case and Associates, and with partners such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Disney Conservation Fund (to name a few). The study determined that while our connection to nature is waning, there is growing evidence that our health and well-being depend on contact with nature. (More about the report can be found at www.natureofamericans.org.)
A few of the eight major findings aren't much of a surprise. The health and emotional benefits of spending time in nature are apparent. Americans value nature in a variety of ways, and our relationship with nature is complex. Some of us value the restorative benefits of spending time outdoors. Others value nature for the educational benefits it provides. Some of us grew up in the country and others' exposure to nature as kids was in a city park or even their own yard. But my own seeming preference for solitary time in nature led one finding in particular to catch my eye: “Experiences in nature are deeply social.”
The study shows that when people recall their most treasured memory of spending time in nature, it often involves the company of a friend or family member. We're more inclined to make time for outdoor activities that involve others, and heartfelt moments in nature happen and are remembered because they connect people to one another, and to a place. I've spent endless hours outside alone, but my most special memories include my sister and daughter.
Northeast Indiana is fortunate to have countless opportunities for spending time outdoors. Invite a group of friends to check out a nature preserve; explore a nearby park with a child – you'll experience nature from a whole new (and exciting!) perspective; or hop on a bicycle and head out with a neighbor to tour the many miles of paved pathways across the region. You'll find old memories about nature creeping to the surface and you'll make new memories at the same time.
Reconnect to nature, or make that connection for the first time. Be sure to check out your local land trusts (ACRES and the Little River Wetlands Project, for example); city, county and state parks; trails groups and lake communities for more opportunities to reclaim your place within the natural world. And please consider the role nature plays in creating healthy, vibrant communities and encourage community leaders to invest in creating opportunities for everyone to enjoy spending time in natural places.
Heather Barth is director of fund development for ACRES Land Trust.