Outdoors North

Happiness is having many friends

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

I walk in newly greening grasses, looking into a warm, early-morning sky, where the spread of a budding maple tree casts a grand image against the blue background.

But it will still be a couple of weeks, at least in these woods, before the greening of springtime will truly be revealed.

In the meantime, as this transition grinds along slowly, the forest floor remains covered with brown and gray, dead and downed leaves from last autumn’s fall.

These leaves have long ago lost their crunch and seemingly enthusiastic ability and desire to help small children laugh and jump, play and run around with joyous delight.

Gone too are the leaf collectors looking to find prime samples of autumn’s glowing colors to press in a book someplace. No kids here lifting these wet, deteriorating leaves from the in many cases muddy ground to make leaf identification collections.

No. Those collections I made myself in my childhood days are usually created once the leaves have all unrolled in bright greens and yellows.

I don’t know why exactly, but making a collection like that back in elementary school remains one of my best memories of fun things I did as a kid.

I was also deeply in love with rock collecting. My folks got me a rock-polishing kit that I had fun with. I made a tie-clasp for my dad and earrings for my mom.

Like I loved making my leaf collections, I enjoyed collecting specimens and then researching through books I had trying to determine the type of leaf, mineral or rock I was looking at and holding in my hand.

I think having something that you could hold in your hand was an important aspect of why I loved these things. There was a connection being made, at the dirt and granular level, between me and the earth and nature.

In a similar sense, I think this is why I gravitated toward finding, watching and identifying birds. They were all around me and finding out their names connected me with their magic and their natural beauty.

We had now been introduced and I knew their names. All of us — the leaves, the rocks and the minerals and the birds and others — were friends and we have remained so over these many decades.

Meanwhile, so many others have joined us, including wildflowers, insects, constellations, berries, bushes and rivers. We are all together, still aware of each other somehow, bonded forever.

Having the individualized experience of following, learning about or doing all these things, oftentimes alone, also helped make unseen but real connections for me with nature.

Fishing would fit into this narrative too.

I loved the incredible fun of first finding out from my dad how to catch worms to use for bait, then learning how to tie a fishhook to a line, work a reel to cast and retrieve that line and finally, to catch a beautifully painted trout. It was something so original and exciting that I wanted to repeat it over again and again.

There was also again the joy of being able to hold this fish in my hands and then I get to take the fish home where my mom would cook it and I would eat it, in all its heady deliciousness, became an experience I wanted to repeat over again.

Later, I learned how to cook fish myself. Later in life, I taught my kids all of these same skills, from learning to fish to how to cook them.

This brings me to a joy of learning, which also set in with me at a very early age and continues today. I think it became instilled in me back then because as a child I didn’t have preconceived notions about how things would or wouldn’t be based on empirical experience because I was only acquiring it back then.

I also had no concept of the billions of things there were to experience and learn about and enjoy in the world. I was open like a clam shell wanting to filter all the knowledge I could through me to find the pearls.

Comparing these experiences with other things I’ve enjoyed over the years I think the collecting aspect of some of these activities is a big reason I appreciate them.

At one time or another, and to greater of lesser extent, I have collected stamps, coins, record albums, books, fishing lures, movie posters and more.

Certainly, I love to collect things, but these material things hold far less importance for me than the things I have discovered in nature, with the exception of music.

It is another spectacular component of the universe that I attribute at its source to the natural world as evidenced in the rudimentary music of birdsongs and insect buzzing.

I think I also love to collect experiences in nature that I keep and treasure in my heart, mind and soul. These reminiscences are cherished and wonderful to relive if only in my mind or between the black-and-white lines of these columns I write.

Meanwhile, back here in this changing forest, a watcher in the woods can still see a good distance through the leafless trees to see the outlines of remnants from past seasons great and small.

Nature can overcome so much. Its forests can reclaim places where once concrete and steel were used to forge structures of varying types and uses.

There are places I’ve visited in these northern woods where the growth of trees and other vegetation have covered over places where humans once flourished. You might not ever know it today if you move past too quickly.

In some spots, trees grow up out of stairways, shade concrete foundations and have crumbled and undermined a range of features as developing tree root systems extend and new trees spring up.

Trees have also concealed many things, like a rusting narrow gauge railroad engine rusting away out there in a forgotten forest, along with abandoned mine shafts, logging camps and even complexes housing prisoners of war.

Rivers are another force nature uses to reshape the topography we may have come to know and care about. There are many places where rivers have permanently washed-out roads, stranded bridges to nowhere and cutoff or inundated whole towns.

There is so much of this kind of history out there to learn about within the realm of nature’s wilds.

Then today, as if the writers of Axios Finish Line knew I was writing about this today, they issued a daily briefing discussing “a steady, troubling trend that’s changing the way America’s kids live.”

The report said kids are “spending increasingly more time indoors and inactive,” while “time spent playing outside comes with a host of physical and mental health benefits that today’s kids need.”

Some statistics about kids quoted in the Axios piece from various sources included:

≤ Today, kids spend an average of just 4 to 7 minutes playing outside, while playing outside is the most effective way for kids to get exercise.

≤ One in 10 kids walk or bike to school, compared to 4 in 10 in 1969.

≤ The average teen walks 5 fewer miles per week than in the 1990s.

≤ Twenty-seven million U.S. kids lack access to a quality park near home.

≤ While screen time — and the anxiety that comes with it — is on the rise, outdoor time for children and teens is typically screen-free time.

The big picture takeaway for the writers of the report stated that “time outside comes with essential perks for kids.”

I would add that the same is true for adults, and while having a quality park near home is great, it’s likely to be more essential in urban settings.

My experiences, which fostered my love of nature and being outdoors, were most often taking place out in the woods with my family, places we could ride our bikes to or simply in our own backyard.

We cooked out, camped in makeshift tents, built our sandbox mines with toy cars and trucks, built forts, climbed trees, played games, gardened, worked and learned about nature and more out there in that green space smaller than a high school gymnasium.

Our area was also fortunate enough to have several parks and recreation areas that were accessible to us. Looking back, I was fortunate in that regard.

A bank of rolling clouds moves in over me, blocking the sun from reaching me here where I’m standing in these woods. The April weather has been very fickle this year, with pronounced bouts of warm and cold, ups and downs.

I walk ahead and notice that a lot of old and rotted trees that were standing tall last autumn have now fallen against their compatriots or crashed to the ground over the winter.

It may have been milder than typical, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lack of wild winds that in some cases snapped even young trees several feet above the ground.

The cycle continues, a lot of fresh and new and green and a lot of dead and dying. The luckiest are those in the middle somewhere.

I look up to see the clouds above shifting east across the sky, revealing the once again blue sky and sunshine I started my day with more blessings to count and measure.

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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