As a child, when not doing adult mandated things such as school or chores, I was outside. Most of this free time was spent just playing. No organization. No structure to speak of. Just long-range chase or hide-&-seek games with in-the-moment rules, floating spring-fed creeks in truck tire innertubes, bicycle safaris with no predetermined destinations and no ETAs, pickup baseball with weird baselines and outfield boundaries, and fort and contraption building with any handy free material thrown to the curb or growing in the woods.
Benefiting from ‘just playing’, I’ve come to understand, is a concept hard to grasp by some persons in the generations that have followed us Boomers, and many Boomers as well. Too much unproductive time it seems. I think my time ‘just playing’ in the outdoors was anything but unproductive. Far from it. It kick started me down the path to amateur naturalist, ardent, but also amateur, conservation photographer, and now erstwhile blogger.
Playing outside was time spent productively developing skills to deal with the dreaded childhood condition self-diagnosed as boredom and expressed in the symptomatic whine: “I’m bored”. I was motivated early to develop boredom antidote skills because this whine, with certainty in our household, would elicit the unwanted parental response of: “Well, I can keep you busy” – aka extra chores. Learning to play quickly became a chore avoidance strategy. Playing effectively averted boredom by blending together an imaginary world of made up thrills with the real outdoors world. To avert boredom, but not replace it with bad unintended consequences, this blending of imaginary and natural worlds required learning about the natural world. Action, not mandated by an adult, but self-motivated because of the necessity to avoid less than desirable realities entering the imaginary world. For examples, at least in a Florida childhood: You don’t want your hiding place in a once-upon-a-time Seminole secret hunting ground to be waist deep in poison ivy. You learn “Leaves of three, let it be”. You learn that cottonmouth moccasins love to sun themselves on tree limbs overhanging spring-fed creeks. Jiggle the limbs and you are joined on your tube by the snake. Young boys, on the other hand, don’t love sunning themselves on blacktop country roads. Sunburn hurts, really, really hurts. Sandspurs and playing barefoot outfield don’t mix. Fire ants can make a napping on-duty fort sentry miserable. The meta-learning being that the natural world is thrilling, both good and bad thrills. Making the natural world a natural boredom antidote (and not just for children). Indeed, attending non-mandated naturalist school was fun. It had the added advantage of keeping care-free days care-free. Who knew that experiential learning 1950s and 60s style, as unguided as it was, was an effective weapon against boredom and its symptom of parent-intolerable whining . Actually, my Mom knew. That is why she made attendance – staying out of the house – compulsory. So even though my free time was actually mandated, it was a very acceptable mandate with the mutual benefits of me never being bored and my Mom’s always clean house staying clean.
There was another free-time period in my compulsory outdoors life. It was time spent tagging along with my Dad while he did the things he did outdoors. Fishing being the top of the list, followed by small game hunting, followed by growing anything that grows. I’m going to pause here for a small bit of explaining. I’m doing it to clear the air and to lead into why at a young age my experiential learning was influenced and expanded by many excellent self-taught naturalists and conservationists.
I know that for some of you hunting might be a harder concept to deal with than random acts of play. How can someone love nature and be a non-catch-&-release fisher and hunter? In my Dad’s case, and in the legacy he passed to me and my siblings, there is no contradiction in being a nature and animal lover and a non-catch-&-release fisher and a harvesting hunter. He grew up fishing and hunting to provide protein for his family. He was very clear in his point-of-view: “If you catch it or shoot it, you eat it”. You celebrate and respect the creature. You do not kill for the thrill. You harvest only what you need for sustenance.
He would have admitted, as I do now, that not every fisher or hunter followed or follows this harvest to eat ethos. There are sport fishers and hunters. Within this category, however, there is a distinct divide. Most sport fishers and hunters take their pleasure from the acts of fishing and hunting. Not the killing. They relish the ‘soft’ experiences of being on the water or in the fields and woods. It is emotional fulfillment of being part of the wild. Like their fishing\hunting-for-sustenance brethren, they take pleasure in finding out about the natural histories of their prey as a building block in their outdoors skillset. With more knowledge comes more respect. And, even though they don’t need to subsidize their protein intake, many enjoy wild game meals. More so even than factory produced meat stuff. Many donate their harvest to specialty food banks.
There is, however, a dark side to sports fishing\hunting. One that tarnishes the rest of the community. Within the sports community there are the thrill-seekers. They are not fishers or hunters. They are killers. Few, if any, are even remotely competent outdoors persons. They rely on a class of guides (wildlife pimps) for naturalist knowledge and skills. The very skills that true fishers and hunters deem the rightful enjoyment cornerstone to the fishing\hunting experience. They think the Instagram photo of them and their ‘trophy’ is what it’s all about. It a great application of irony, these photo opps are proof of how easy getting the kill can be and how, from a wilderness immersion perspective, thrill-less the whole experience really is.
Explanation and rant over.
In my childhood I did not connect the dots between being a competent fisher or hunter and being a competent naturalist. It’s took me a while to understand that you will not be successful if you are not totally aware of the natural history of the pursued. Or, have a deep comprehension of all the intricate and interrelated patterns and cycles in the eco-systems in which the pursued exist. In another stroke of clear hindsight, I now realize that building this canon of knowledge came naturally to my Dad, and his cousins and buddies he deemed worthy to fish with. Fishing and hunting for food was not a tiresome act of labor for him. It food and it satisfied his appetite for learning. He was naturally curious and loved learning. He took satisfaction in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out as Richard Feynman titled his book. Applying his learnings (sans Latin names) had an additional outcome. Fishing and hunting is inherently objective. You can count, measure, and weigh success, or failure. You can compare results with other devotees. You can claim bragging rights. Addressing a need to compete, if someone has such a need. My father did.
Fishing and hunting’s objective measurements of comparative success, or failure, across time or drinking events with buddies, directly impacted the early conservation movement. Fishers and hunters were among the first observers to notice collapsing fish and game populations. Their recorded (if slightly exaggerated) success rates – their bragging rights – worsened year to year in a very important sense. This year’s bragging days equaling the worst days of seasons just past was the proverbial ‘throwing cold water’ on who’s-is-the-biggest envy. Plus, they had personal and unpleasant direct lines of sight and encounters with many of the causes of the collapse. Loss of habitat to posted agriculture and development was their loss of pristine and productive hunting grounds. Point-source pollution not only led to fish kills decimating fish populations, they made it impossible to simply be near, on, or in the water. In too many waterways, if you did manage to catch a fish, you damn well didn’t want to eat it. There was also an honest assessment among concerned devotees that over harvesting, both sport and commercial, was directly contributing to the collapse of many wild species populations. We’re now all too familiar with the whole list of losses, but in the early years of the last century it was not obvious that nature was finite. Not obvious unless you were relying on it for sustenance or for much of your life’s enjoyment. Nature’s degradations weren’t starkly clear to the populations not in contact with the natural world because their encounters were less frequent, especially with wilderness, because of a number of societal trends pulling them more and more inside.
Significant numbers of fishers and hunters joined the conservation movement even though, frankly, they thought many of its early proponents, with the exception of Teddy Roosevelt, to be pretty weird. Weird as in being equivalent to my generation’s hippies. Thankfully, they overlooked their differences and joined forces. The fishers and hunters bringing substantial political clout and finances. They were organizers too. Forming the Unlimiteds – Ducks, Trout, Whitetails, Quail, Walleyes. Species started having their on federations, societies, trusts and foundations – Turkey, Elk, Pheasants, Ruffed Grouse, Wild Sheep, American Woodcock, Bonefish & Tarpon, to name a few. These organizations in turn by partnering with the major state and national conservancies expanded efforts focused on land acquisition and habitat restoration and protection. Importantly, they brought money. Not only in the form of personal contributions, but also pushed, or at least acquiesced, to tax themselves in the form of the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, the Pittman-Robertson Act, and the Federal Aid in Sports Fish Restoration Act, the Dingell-Johnson Act. These acts raise federal funding as excise taxes on hunting and fishing gear sales. The taxes are then redistributed to the states based on state-specific funding formulas. According to a U.S. Fish & Wildlife April 2019 news release, the service has distributed more than $21 billion in apportionments for state conservation and recreation projects. And, there is the very important awareness building and financially beneficial Federal Duck Stamp. Duck hunters are required to purchase the famously artistic stamps, but anyone that appreciates wildlife art or stamp collecting can purchase them as well. Another reason non-hunters should buy them is the program’s financial efficiency. 98 cents of every dollar makes its way to wetland acquisition or leasing for the National Wildlife Refuge System . That’s $800M+ since 1934. Plus, you can use them for entry into national wildlife refuges that have entry fees.
If you haven’t made it a practice I encourage you to buy Duck Stamps: https://www.fws.gov/birds/get-involved/duck-stamp.php
I hope that I have made the point that my childhood curiosity about and love for the natural environment was nurtured by exceptional self-made naturalists. Our mutual motivation, in some large part, might have been skewed toward sinful moments of prideful one-upmanship, but I’m happy to say the lasting value is a deeper, life-long appreciation of the gifts of nature. Their other legacy being that if you want to continue to love it you need to protect and nurture it.
I’m embarrassed to write that I lost sight of this basic principle for a while.
A justifiable reason, in my mind, was being busy with a business career and young family needs. The former requiring large amounts of time in downtown offices and airplanes. The latter being time spent on sidelines or in band concert venues. Both were time I wouldn’t have spent any other way, but a consequence was neither was time spent just being outdoors. Fortunately, this didn’t last too long. We began going back into the outdoors through Scouting and sharing a lake cabin in the mountains (Appalachian foothills) of NE Georgia with friends. We started family camping. I picked up the fly rod again, even making my own.
Important to this post, along with the fishing gear, l upgraded my camera kit (which it turns out is perpetual motion). I had always enjoyed photography, but with everything else going on it was not a high priority. It was a family documentary tool. When we returned to more active outdoors activities I expanded my use of images to document these experiences. This was especially true for fishing where it was extremely useful for capturing one-upmanship moments as I switched over to 90+% catch and release. Sharing ‘grip & grin’ photos became (is) a continuation of a less than flattering competitive streak. A good thing, tough, was having a camera along on trout fishing trips and taking pictures of the habitat. This reinforced my long held belief that trout live in the most beautiful places. It was a photographic equivalent of ‘stopping to smell the roses’. Photography combined with birding (not bird watching, but actively hunting birds to add to my Life List) replaced the little remaining hunting I was doing. All the thrill of ‘getting the shot’ was still there when I pressed the shutter versus pulling the trigger. Plus, I could get even more thrills by chasing and ‘shooting’ 1000s of non-game species, some extremely difficult even to see much less get a meaningful image capture. The desire to successfully get The Shot had the added bonus of the satisfying pleasure of ‘finding things out’ about these new targets. I was once again enjoying a natural feedback loop.
There was, however, a throttle on this exuberance. Now that I had an expanded methodology for measuring success – ‘keeper photos’ – out jumped the reality that the natural world was not in the same shape as it was in my childhood. A punch-in-the-gut realization that could not be overlooked. It was the simple, but profoundly troubling, truth that while my list of target possibilities had grown, the number of opportunities to cast a fly to or put a lens on them had fallen dramatically. It was the punch-in-the-gut realization that the outdoors of my childhood was disappearing, rapidly.
To make it worse, there was the self-disappointing realization that I had overlooked this disappearance even though it was well underway in my childhood years. To clarify, I need to point out that this outdoors reentry was in the late 1980s, early 1990s placing my recallable outdoors childhood years in the late 1950’s through the 1960s. I will cut myself some slack by calling on the Boomer mantra that we were (we thought) growing up in the ‘good old days’. Missed was the fact that for many iconic species these were not very good days at all. Many species’ existence was already threatened, some closer to the very brink of extinction. The freshman class of the federal Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 (now Endangered Species Act) included notables such as American bald eagle, grizzly bear, Florida manatee, American alligator, California condor, Florida panther, red and timber wolves, whooping crane.
So my realization was about the pace of disappearance. Regardless, it triggered my interest and commitment to the conservation movement that my Dad and his buddies had introduced me to. Our first step was to join and support NGOs with conservation and preservation missions. One of the early lessons from these associations was appreciation for their problem of communicating what was being lost and the pace of the loss. One of the ways this appreciation took shape for me was how fellow participants on nature trips, such as bird walks or kayaking trips, were having their first up close experiences with wildness. They had no baseline experiences from which to draw Then-and-Now comparisons. As one result, they would often be overwhelmed by sightings that only a few short years ago would have been commonplace on one of my fishing trips. The bad news, I concluded, was that until that moment they had no basis for understanding that once commonplace nature encounters were becoming, or had already become, rare. They simply had no basis for comparison. They had not been fortunate to have a feral childhood. The good news was these eye-opening experiences exposed a picture in their mind of ‘what it used to be like’ and. as result, also imprinted in their mind the severity of the loss if that habitat continued to degrade. These images then fueling their commitment to stop the degradation.
But, there is a bit of bad news. As fun, educational, and inspirational as these trips are they don’t scale well across the broad population. To participate takes time and resources (money) that often don’t come along until latter in life, and then for a privileged few. Ever take a guess of the average age of birders you see in their Tilley hats and Columbia PFG shirts while touring a birding hotspot? It’s up there. And even more unfortunate, most are not people at the margins. I know that this is a broad generalization and there are young and diverse people enjoying the outdoors, especially adventure travel and sports, but the hard evidence is they are a minority in the field as much as they are in life in general.
A related problem with both ecotourism and adventure travel, I think, is they don’t engage a large number of us where we engage most with nature. They are, for the most part, and as they should be, about threatened special wild places and iconic species inhabitants. Helping people have ‘Aha’ moments in these places, either in person or through beautifully crafted magazine features or film documentaries, is good and necessary work. These focused causes have saved, and are saving, these special places and their wildlife. But, a disconnect seems to persist. For me it is best captured by the fact that in the 1980s through the early 2000s we made significant progress bringing back many of the birds on the inaugural ESA list, but in the meantime in the US and Canada we lost 3 BILLION birds across 529 breeding species. What really struck a nerve, 90%, some 2.6 BILLION, were in just 12 families – including sparrows, warblers, finches, swallows, thrushes, blackbirds, jays, orioles. If these names are familiar it’s because they are the so-called common birds that live around us in our yards and greenspaces. Everyday yard birds. Park birds. Ones that sing in the morning chorus as we walk to our cars to drive to work.
Another nerve was struck: I was surprised at how surprised people were at this exceptionally bad news, including devoted environmentalist friends and acquaintances. I wondered: “How can you be surprised? 3B birds missing in action leaves a pretty big hole in nature”. With just a little humbling self-reflection, it occurred to me that I was not entirely guilt free. Their surprise was akin to my surprise of the extent of loss of natural resources I noticed when I reentered a more outdoors life. Nor really that much different than my surprise when fellow nature trippers had ‘Aha’ moments when sighting a rarity that had only recently become a rarity. In my own variation of ‘Aha’, I recognized that these three surprise types were bound together by a common shared experience, or perhaps more precisely non-experience. I concluded that underlying each surprise was the unfortunate happenstance that each of us had not been engaged, had not been connecting, with the nature closest to us. Nature that we passed through each day and night. Nature that we cohabitated with many of the lost specimens. Nature that we – even the environmentally awakened We – took for granted and unwittingly did not think of as high a priority as the special places and iconic species. An error, if you will, of omission, not commission.
As I thought about this common experience across the three surprise types, a possible opportunity for recruiting more conservationists started to take shape. I started thinking that maybe intentionally invoking surprises in the large number of people disconnected from nearby, everyday nature just might address the scaling problem of trips to special places. I started asking myself would it be possible for encounters with everyday nature to become special for more people. To become ‘Aha’ moments leading to commitments to conserving our yards and nearby green spaces as habitats for the ‘common’ species we interact with daily. Common species, we have been surprised to learn, being lost by the billions.
An answer started to take shape too. For a few months I had been posting nature photos, mostly birds on my Facebook page and in a few FB Groups, and on our neighborhood association listserv. They were a way for me to share my outdoor experiences and nature encounters, including in our yard, on local walks, as well as trips with nature and conservation NGOs. Commentary provided a chance to share some of the naturalist learnings I brought along from my childhood and new ones recently learned. I could also comment on nature’s changes, losses and recoveries, that I was surprised to discover. I thought of this as my chance to pay forward what my Dad and the others that shared naturalist and conservation lessons with me.
The photos and commentary got a nice reception from Friends and a couple of the NGOs asked for permission to use some in their media. Some photos started being borrowed from a Flickr account or Shared on FaceBook and showing up on a variety of web-sites, including travel sites. Some with credit, some not. Somewhat arrogantly I suppose, I read into this that I was addressing the problem of lack of scale of in-person trips to special places. That I was creating opportunities for virtual ‘Aha’ moments for viewers that were not as connected to nature as I enjoyed being. I was very pleased with the “I didn’t know – fill in the species name for common migratory visitors – came to our yard or I didn’t know that about – fill in the species name for common residents” comments. Even better were the questions that came along about how to help attract more wildlife to their yard or where to go nearby to see more.
Then along came the pandemic.
As neighbors and friends began sheltering in place, taking long walks along our tree-lined streets and hikes in nearby greenspaces, as noise pollution plummeted, and singing spring residents and migrants began serenading potential mates, the number of nature surprises of awe went up – “wow, that is a cute little bird with a huge voice and beautiful song”. This quickly trended to an increase in national and local bird watching (documented by the increase in sales of feeders, seed, and binoculars) resulting in even more awe. Lots of these awestruck neighbors, friends, and a growing number of e-acquaintances, began connecting my photos to their sights and sounds experiences. One interesting connection stood out to me. My conservation comments (some would say preaching) became less abstract. A comment about the 30% decline in song sparrow populations over the last year 30 years became a personal concern about that “cute little bird with a huge voice and beautiful song that sings to me on my morning walk”. These new birders were taken aback that this abundance of nature they had discovered was a fragment of what I and others experienced just a short few years ago. They started down a journey similar to my own – awareness of the nature in which we are immersed everyday, awareness made possible by unstructured ‘free-time’ (in their case breaks from Zoom meetings) in the outdoors – learning from others about the natural history of our discoveries, including their decline, learning that makes unproductive time productive time well spent and satisfying – commitment to do what we can to reverse the loss of what we had been taking for granted. A much appreciated outcome of this Awakening has been how concerns shared by many of us about the existential threats to our environment, such as climate change, continue as concerns, while expanding to the local threats to our new wildlife friends. Threats that can be addressed by practical actions in our own yards and local greenspaces.
I like to think RushingOutdoors might become a virtual platform for sharing a feral childhood 2.0. One that pays forward the naturalist lessons and positive conservation influences of my Dad and his buddies, but updated to communicate a more real-time perspective of the environmental changes underway rather than the retrospective surprise I experienced. If it works, a broad spectrum of readers will have a trip guide helping to explore and find special their backyards and local nature preserves. The experience of being surprised at how awesome nature is and how it deserves our respect and protection will be scaled up.