Resolution 2018: Connect to Nature
By Gary Swick
It’s in the middle of the Friends of the Fox River’s mission statement;
Connecting people to nature is what we do. It initiates a natural wonder within people that brings a sense of joy and a desire to care for what we love. We want people to love their Fox River. When folks finish a canoe trip with us, they are always appreciative of the opportunity to have made a direct connection to the river and all its offerings, like the scenery and bird activity. Even when the weather is foul, the trip provides joy.
As an environmental educator, the experience of connection is fundamental to my teaching philosophy and methods. Awareness leads to a deeper understanding that develops an appreciation which naturally drives action for protection. Or in reverse; “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” (Baba Dioum, 1968.)
Nurturing our “Native Spirit”
We are a species that has lived many centuries in harmony with their natural surroundings. The things that distract us from the natural world are often considered “comforts”. However, often when we step away from electronic screens into the fresh air, we feel rejuvenated and actually feel more comfortable. Why do so many people like canoeing and camping? They renew our connection with the natural world.
Much research has confirmed that a connection with nature benefits for our mental health, physical health, and educational effectiveness. The title of my favorite assignment for my university students is: “Sense of Place”. It requires sitting in the same spot for 15 minutes, four times, with each session two weeks apart. The activity requires them to make a significant number of observations about the natural conditions, it makes them take the time to develop some of their observations in detail, and it makes them question why some things happen, like geese flying in a V formation. The first attempt is usually an uncomfortable and superficial effort. As the student continues, familiarity brings confidence and they begin to look forward to returning for comparisons and surprises. In their assignment evaluation, they express the comfort and peace they felt being connected to nature. For many, it is their only time feeling grounded and calm during their intense schedules. To me, this is a demonstration that, like an essential nutrient, we really need the opportunity to rejuvenate ourselves in the warm womb of Mother Nature.
Wear Your Galoshes!
Being cold is a distraction that is annoying and can be dangerous. I learned this lesson one News Year’s Day on the river. I stood up in my kayak to urinate by bracing on a tree branch. I had a dry suit on, but it was unzipped to accommodate my activity. The branch broke, and I took a swim. The dry suit did not keep me dry. Consider the wisdom of my mountaineer father-in-law who took his children winter camping in the Wyoming wilderness, and had an interesting email signature: “There are no poor weather conditions, only inappropriate clothing choices.” To enjoy being outside in northern Illinois does not require expensive or highly specialized gear. Much of my best winter wear is actually from the thrift store. Although my dog wears the same thing summer or winter, we need insulation on our extremities. Bundle up and venture out!
Trading My Paddle for Ski Poles
A key to enjoying the outdoors is within the activities that we select. As an extended season paddler and a cyclist, I have the appropriate clothing. But I opt for alternatives when ice coats the river and trail. I’m always praying for enough snow to be able to cross country ski, enough cold and wind to clear detention basins for ice-skating, and with children, enough snow for sledding. I also enjoy running year round. For that, the only special gear I use are inexpensive slip-on shoe cleats for icy conditions.
I Can See Clearly Now
Because many trees are leafless, winter provides better conditions for wildlife watching. We have our share of winter wildlife including all-stars like the Bald eagles up and down the Fox River. The river serves as an important migratory stop for many kinds of birds on both ends of the winter season. The snow-covered ground sometimes acts as a blank canvas where birds and mammals leave their footprints to tell us the stories of their lives. Snow and ice also provides temporary and beautiful “art”. Snow sticking to tree branches, geometric snowflake patterns, fractures in ice sheets, the crunch of frozen ground under your feet, and the windblown riffles in snowy fields, are winter delights. For me, these types of gifts make a simple stroll especially exciting.
Natural Places are Abundant
Two things that make the Fox River Watershed especially unique are the diversity of habitats, and the extraordinary number of public lands available for our use. Our Conservation and Forest Preserve Districts provide access to many thousands of miles of wonderful of trails within the watershed. Short drives to these access areas with good amenities make going out easy. I recently went to Dundee Township’s Jelke Creek Bird Sanctuary a mere three miles from my house. My one-hour hike featured beautiful vistas, a diversity of plant textures and colors (50 shades of brown!), and birds doing their business over my head. It was a winter day in the high 20s, completely clouded over, with the wind blowing about fifteen miles per hour. For some, that might be something to avoid. But the parking lot was more than half-full, and the people and dogs were loving it. One woman I greeted said, “What a gorgeous day!” To me, she was right on. It was indeed a great winter day to connect with nature.
As we enter the New Year, many folks vow to enrich their lives with better habits. Please consider the mission of the Friends of the Fox River, and consider pledging to connect to nature regularly throughout the winter. The Fox River Watershed is rich with winter wonderland adventures.
We need more people in love with our natural community if we are going to generate enough energy to protect it. As an organization, Friends of the Fox River is significantly increasing opportunities for our members in the coming year. The process begins with your direct connection to nature. I hope that your winter experiences will nurture a desire to further your support of the Friends of the Fox River as a regular participant in events, as a volunteer, to step up as a member, or contribute in other ways to help us grow a culture of a “Watershed of Caretakers”.
The river offers us so much; get connected to nature, and nurture your appreciation. Resolve for 2018 to also help us fulfill the rest of our mission: “to preserve, restore, and protect the Fox River Watershed’s resources.
Begin with a stroll on the trail along the Fox River, and return home with a renewed commitment to protect what you love. Start, or renew, your membership with Friends of the Fox River on our website. The Fox River offers us much in services and beauty. Let’s resolve to show our appreciation and work together on its behalf. I hope to see you along, on, and in the Fox River in the coming year.