Take a Hike America,
In case you hadn’t noticed, we are emerging from the winter of our discontent — at least meteorologically.
The signs are everywhere. American woodcocks have returned to our hay field here in East Haddam. The males began their high-flying courtship displays in late February. Every evening well into the spring, they soar out of sight, then flutter like falling leaves back to earth, where they perform a passable, if silly salsa. These plump, big-headed, stubby-legged, long-billed birds are amusing even when perfectly still. With a clear sky and a reasonably full moon, they will dance the night away.
Woodcocks are the embodiment of SAO: seasonally affected optimism.
If you are a typical American, you may have missed many of the signs of spring, such as skunk cabbage peaking up in nearby swamps or the return of those tail-bobbing phoebes. A study published more than a decade ago — before iPhones, Facebook, Twitter and all that jazz — found that we spend a mere 7 percent of our lives outside.
The rest of the time we are confirmed shut-ins, passing 87 percent of our days inside and another 6 percent driving our cars. Some of our quality outdoor time is spent walking to and from our cars.
Our children, too, are becoming ever more housebound, surveys show. They see the sun barely 30 minutes a day, half of what we did at their age—and, believe it or not, less than prisoners in our jails are allotted. A recent study found that kids 8 to 18 devote nearly 8 hours a day glued to the screens of various digital devices, our new hi-tech pacifiers.
In days of yore, parents dealt with nettlesome offspring by banishing them from the house. “Go outside and play” was their mantra. So we did. We biked. We hiked. We camped out overnight in our yards or further afield. We caught crabs and sold them for bait. We also collected returnable bottles along the roadsides to support our sugar habit: jelly doughnuts and cherry Cokes. My best friend Willie and I built our forts on other people’s property, a few of which went undetected for years.
When my family finally landed a TV set in the late 1950s — our grandmother bought it for us—my parents viewed it with suspicion. We were allowed to watch it for half an hour a day during the week (after we’d done our homework) and never during daylight. The great outdoors was our babysitter. One weekend, Willie and I biked and biked until we stopped and realized we had no idea where we were, or how to get home again. We somehow managed to make it back before dark, which was all that was required of us.
While the next generation is languishing indoors, tethered to ever-smarter gizmos, the world outside, which young people are increasingly disconnected from, is getting dumber and dumber. This is sad for many reasons. Getting outdoors is healthy and exhilarating. Nature can be as inspiring as any masterpiece created by human hands. It is far better for us than spending time with Angry Birds.
But the most compelling argument against environmental ennui and illiteracy is that spaceship earth is in trouble. If more of us don’t appreciate and understand it better, our planet will continue to decline at an alarming pace. We have long abused it to feather our own nests at the expense of other creatures we share the planet with.
But our day is coming—if not our children’s, then our grandchildren’s — when our species, too, will be squarely in the crosshairs of a failing global ecosystem. We Americans have taken a giant step in the wrong direction by electing a president who loves fossil fuels, hates wind power and pollution regulations, and whose idea of a natural habitat is a golf course.
The first step to valuing and supporting the world that sustains all life is to get to know it better: take a hike, greet the vernal equinox face to face, listen for the sound of spring peepers. Bring the children along.
One spring, long ago, my son and I were walking in an overgrown field when a female woodcock emerged from the underbrush. She began performing her “broken-wing” act to distract us from her nest, which must have been nearby. She flopped and fluttered about something terrific, right in front of us. Jackson, who was barely two, stopped sucking his thumb and stared wide-eyed at this natural drama queen.