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Outdoors North

Nature has renewing influence

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal columnist

“My get up and go must have got up and went.” — Steven Tyler/Tom Hamilton

Probably since my early childhood days, I’ve been aware on some level that spending time outdoors in nature can be a very cleansing experience for mind, body and soul.

How that all works is still magical to me. I don’t understand all the levers being pulled to create the effects, but it doesn’t matter. In this world, there are few things more satisfying, true and reliable.

There have been times when I’ve found myself, lonely, confused, hurt, angry, misunderstood, maligned, lost or depressed. In those hours of sorrow and desperation, getting outside, even for a short while, can make fantastic improvements to my mindset or disposition.

It’s like getting outside to breathe fresh air reboots my internal operating system.

Sometimes, even if I know I will feel better if I get “out there,” it’s hard to convince myself to go. I sometimes need to all but force myself to move. But if do, I am almost always thankful later that I did.

One of the things that helps me feel better being outside is perspective.

Standing in silent forests of mighty old-growth trees, hearing the roar of crashing waves along an ancient shoreline or sitting on the rim of a spectacular canyon or looking up at the night sky all give me a pronounced feeling of understanding there is something much larger to life found in nature.

And that something is good.

I also gain a sense of belonging. It’s hard to explain, but sometimes I feel more at home among the woods and the waters than I do at home in a house or driving a car.

Humans have invented and built all kinds of machines to make our lives easier and simpler, but there are many negative consequences involved in cutting strong ties with the natural world in favor of technology and our seemingly unquenchable thirst for more, bigger, better, faster, farther, higher, deeper, best.

Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want to give up my horseless carriage, color television set or fancy, modern music machines, but it alarms me to think about how much we’ve come to rely on computers and digital technology to manage and control our lives.

I don’t need to look any further than my own household to see two teenage girls so consumed by cellphones and laptops and the social media of text messages, Tik Tok, Instagram and Snapchat that convincing them to get outside to do things is difficult.

A few days ago, I was determined.

I asked one of the girls — the one we call “Tater” — if she wanted to go for a walk outside after she was done with her homework and I was done with work. Her sister was sequestered in her bedroom having come in contact at school with someone testing positive for the coronavirus.

She said her going with me would depend on when I wanted to go exactly and how long I planned to be gone exactly. I told her we could leave in an hour or so and be gone for maybe a half hour.

An hour later, I said, “Let’s go for a walk.” I got the high school girl eye roll, which translated means “Really?”

“C’mon, let’s go. It will be good for you.”

She dressed in a hoodie sweatshirt and tennis shoes. I told her she should grab a warmer jacket and to put some boots on her feet because there was still snow out there.

A couple of minutes later, she headed toward the place where I stood by the door. Still wearing the hoodie, she grabbed her cellphone off the countertop. I told her she wouldn’t be needing to bring that for any reason I could think of.

She answered with another eyeroll, shrugged shoulders and a dropped head. She took the phone out of her pocket and put it on the counter.

A few minutes later, we were walking along an old logging road that cuts through the hills, where a very high and rocky bluff rises above the tops of the trees.

I wanted her to see a beautiful and quiet forest of hardwoods I knew about. I asked her if she was a hermit now, staying in the house all the time. She said she just didn’t like being cold.

As we walked the road, I pointed out mud scrapes in the dirt off the side of the trail. I asked her if she knew what that was from? She didn’t.

I picked up a muddy acorn top and a few cracked acorns to show her. You know what these are don’t you? She snatched the acorn top from my hand and put it to her lips to whistle through it.

“Acorns,” she said. I told her these marks in the mud were from deer digging acorns to eat. We also saw a squirrel nest high up in a tree. Then another. I told her I wondered why squirrels would want to build their nests so high up off the ground.

It seems like a lot farther to climb that is necessary for such a small animal, and a nest built there would likely be more susceptible to being blown down.

We walked up a little draw and found more places where the deer had dug for acorns.

She stood shivering. “I’m cold,” she said.

I reminded her that I had asked her if she was sure she was going to be warm enough before we left home and she said she would be. I think she jotted that down as a mental note.

I told her the pink in her cheeks was good for her.

“It lets you know you’re still alive.”

Then I pointed out a small vernal pond at the base of a tree, a place where frogs would lay eggs before the water would dry up later in the year.

No frogs or eggs today. The pool had a thin covering of ice. I watched Tater turn to pick up a stick. She poked the end of it through the ice to make a hole. Then another and another and another.

We got to the forest. She agreed it was a pretty place. I asked her to listen to the stillness. We circled around at a place where an old cabin of sorts half-stood, crumbled and caved in. We walked across the high bluff line on the way back.

We paused at several places to see where squirrels or other small animals had also stopped to chomp on acorn meat, leaving pieces of shell in little piles. We found another ice-covered pond and the Tater got another stick.

We could see a good distance from the high point of the bluff. We could also see the snow-covered two-track we had walked up earlier. I asked her if we should just jump down there.

“No way,” she said.

I asked her if she was going to miss these woods when she moves away to the city someday to go to college or to live, or will she be glad to be far away from this place?

She said she couldn’t say she’d miss it, but she also didn’t think she’d be glad to be away from it either. She did think she’d likely live in a faraway city.

We kept walking, stopping to check out some greenish colored rock outcroppings. I told her they might be schist. We also stopped at another ice-covered pool between the rocks.

Tater had avoided walking atop the ice on all the others because she said she didn’t want to get her rubber boots wet, but on this one she inched her way out across the surface. The water beneath was about 2 inches deep.

As she stepped the ice cracked beneath her feet slowly, then all at once. She dropped into the water with a shriek, pulling her feet out as quickly as she could.

“Are you OK,” I asked jokingly?

She smiled. It was nice to see her playing in the water like a much younger girl. She seemed simply happy. On the way home she agreed our walk had been fun.

I hope she will remember these simple times I’ve tried to show her when she leaves for the city. Maybe like me, she will someday come to see the power of nature to sustain her through life’s troubled times.

Editor’s note: Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.

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