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Outdoor Kids in an Inside World



Outdoor Kids in an Inside World PDF

Author: Steven Rinella

Publisher: Random Hous

Genres:

Publish Date: May 3, 2022

ISBN-10: 0593129660

Pages: 208

File Type: Epub

Language: English

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Book Preface

I found the answer I was seeking under a rock.

The question had been burning in my mind since 2010, when my oldest son, James, was just a few months old—brand-new enough to seem terrifyingly fragile but old enough to have exhausted my and my wife’s appetite for sitting on the sofa and staring at him.

How the hell are we ever going to get everyone out of the house?

For parents, it’s a question that never dies. It doesn’t matter which town or city you live in. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got four kids or one. It doesn’t matter how old they are. If you’re a parent or caregiver who’s drawn to the title of this book, you most likely live with the knowledge that nature is important to kids. Just as likely, you feel strained and anxious about how to create impactful experiences for them in the outdoors. Every day, it seems, there’s some new obstacle. At first it’s the annoyance of changing diapers and feeding a baby while away from the helpful tools of home. Then it’s working around nap times and coordinating the needs of children of different ages. The five-year-old is raring to go, but if her baby brother misses another nap, he’s going to be a nightmare for the rest of the day. The complications evolve over time, until you eventually land where my wife, Katie, and I find ourselves today as we raise three kids between the ages of seven and eleven: locked in a series of clashes with the kids over our insistence that outdoor time is more important than screen time.

No matter what phase we’re in, or how temporarily frustrated I get, I always return to that rock and the lessons it offered. The possibilities it revealed are always nearby, no matter where I am. But that first discovery took place on the coast of a remote island in southeast Alaska.


Years ago, I pitched in with my brothers Matt and Danny for a rundown cabin we’d chanced into on a piece of land a twenty-minute floatplane ride from the town of Ketchikan. We bought it sight unseen, each of us paying about what you’d pay for a decent used car. At the time, the three of us were unmarried. I had no immediate plans to have children, and certainly no long-term strategy about how I’d raise them if I did. All I wanted was a good place for fishing with my brothers that was out in the middle of nowhere, and my brothers felt the same way. We wanted a place that we could call our own, where we could trade our time in exchange for knowledge of the natural world. My life had always been based on the value of that transaction. Ever since I was a kid growing up in rural Michigan, I had taken strength and inspiration from my interactions with nature. The lessons I learned there had guided me toward success as a family member, a student, and a professional. I knew that going deeper toward nature would only bring more rewards.

The fact that the cabin was home to a population of mice and a lone female mink only made it more appealing. At least these animals weren’t coated in either mold or rust, which is more than you could say for any man-made objects inside the cabin. My wife, Katie, would later observe that it wasn’t really fair to describe the structure as a cabin at all. That was overselling it, she said.

Gradually it became known as the Fish Shack.

The main question we get from friends who visit the Fish Shack is, “How did you guys find out about this place?” My brother Danny has been a professional ecologist in Alaska for about twenty years. He’s based out of Anchorage. In a broad sense, as an ecologist, he studies the relationship of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. In particular, he focuses on salmon. Salmon are an anadromous fish, meaning that they live in the sea but migrate into rivers to spawn. While many people might regard salmon as a saltwater species, because that’s where they spend the bulk of their lives, Danny argues that it’s better to think of them as a freshwater fish. Their lives begin in freshwater and, since they die after spawning, their lives end in freshwater. Danny’s work with salmon is focused on their freshwater habitats. He studies the gravelly stream bottoms where they lay their eggs. He studies the little streamside brush piles and overhanging vegetation where the juvenile salmon go to find food and avoid predation as they migrate toward the sea. And he studies what happens when all of those dead salmon carcasses rot away on the banks of the rivers (or in the bellies of bears and eagles) and enrich the surrounding environments with the ocean-based nutrients that were transported inland inside of their bodies as fat, bone, muscle, and gut.

It was this type of research that led Danny to the general location of the Fish Shack. He was working on a project gathering baseline biodiversity data about populations of freshwater aquatic invertebrates—insects, molluscs, crustaceans—along randomly selected salmon stream segments in southeast Alaska. In ecology, “gathering baseline data” is an operational term for taking measurements in an environment at a fixed moment. You’re asking, “What lives here right now, at this moment in time?” You do this without making assumptions about how things used to look or what they are How the hell are we ever going to get everyone out of the house? to look like now. In doing that work, Danny became friends with a local man who’s a member of the Tsimshian tribe. One day, a couple of years later, that friend called to let him know about an old shack that was up for sale nearby. We bought the place, then chartered a floatplane so that we could fly out and have a look at what we now owned.

At first, we discovered that we now owned a lot of garbage. Of the two-acre parcel, about half was covered in decades’ worth of refuse: rusted-out oil drums, rotted lumber, head-high piles of wet fiberglass insulation, jumbles of twisted logging cable, junked-out outboard engines, paint and tar cans, irreparable boats, hundreds of yards of kinked polyethylene pipe, and all manner of other junk. The refuse was so overwhelming that you almost didn’t notice the astounding specimens of old-growth hemlock and cedar that towered over the land and shack. The building itself was set on pilings, with half of the shack jutting out to the tideline. The structure was maybe forty feet long and twelve feet deep. Not a straight line or right angle could be found on the place. It looked as wavy as the surrounding ocean. There was no electricity. Water was drawn from the creek and run through PVC pipes that were fastened to the inside walls with brackets and rusty screws. Heat came from a smoky stove powered by a dripline of fuel oil.

In short, it was perfect. I’m talking about love at first sight.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, the Fish Shack wasn’t just the best purchasing decision I had ever made. It was the best How the hell are we ever going to get everyone out of the house? decision I would ever make.

Like many parents, Katie and I have had to move our kids all around the country as we’ve pursued various work opportunities. At this point, our eleven-year-old, James, has lived in five different homes across three different states. It might sound strange, but that little shack stands in his mind as a point of security. He first visited the shack when he was five months old, and it remains the one physical location that he’s known for his entire life. Same for his nine-year-old sister, Rosemary, and his seven-year-old brother, Matthew. Collectively, they’ve shed a considerable amount of blood on the barnacle-covered rocks that are guaranteed to shred a kid’s hands and knees whenever they fall along the beach. In turn, the blood of that place runs through their veins.

The second time we brought James there, he found them: the treasure trove of rocks along the water’s edge. He waddled right over to one and flipped it over, and out crawled two crabs. He went wild with glee. Then he started flipping over more rocks in search of more secrets. And that was it. He was hooked.

Of all the activities that our kids participate in at the Fish Shack—stacking firewood, fishing for halibut, checking crab pots, cleaning shrimp—they are most passionate about the task of flipping over rocks along the water’s edge as they search for the crabs, snails, pile worms, and sculpins that can be found beneath. The kids seem to prefer human-head-sized rocks, probably because these rocks are small enough to be rolled over but big enough to support a vibrant amount of life underneath. Now and then they need to join forces in order to roll a particularly large boulder. For the really big rocks, they might enlist the help of a nearby grown-up or two, who might be encouraged to come running with a shovel or cedar post in order to pry it free.

With each flipped rock the routine is always the same. They hustle around to examine its former bed, squatting so close to the surface of the shallow water that their butts and sometimes the tips of their noses get wet. A lot of the life-forms that they find are scooped up gently by bare hands; others are caught using a small dip net. Most everything is released unharmed. Now and then, though, a small fish might get gutted, cooked over the fire, and eaten with bare hands. The whole process involves a lot of excited yelling and screaming. There’s usually a bit of crying, too, from fingers getting cut up by broken clamshells or smashed under falling rocks. But this form of play, which looks and feels more like work, goes on pretty much all day every day. No matter how hard they try, the kids can never explore all of the rocks near the Fish Shack. That’s because the beach doesn’t really stay in one place. It’s constantly moving with the tides, which are extreme. There’s a useful term in ecology, “littoral zone,” which describes the shoreline environments of a sea, lake, or river. An area’s littoral zone runs from the high-water mark down to areas that are permanently submerged, and at the Fish Shack, it’s enormous. A patch of dry ground at low tide could be under twenty feet of water at high tide. On a big high tide, the water has actually floated away boots that were standing next to the front door. At low tide, you might have to walk 150 yards to reach the water’s edge.

Watching them flip rocks, with all of the excitement and disappointment and pain, I can’t help but relate their work to my brother’s. Of course, my brother’s professional obligations require scientific rigor and emotional detachment. A scientist isn’t supposed to “hope” for a set of results when taking baseline data, as the goal is to avoid bias. My kids, on the other hand, act as cheerleaders and critics for the rocks they roll over. They celebrate the productive ones and curse those that disappoint. By flipping rocks, they are knocking at the door of the natural world to see who’s home. They hope, fiercely, to get an answer.

There’s a wonderful term for the instinct that drives this ritual: “biophilia.” The word was popularized by the American biologist E. O. Wilson. The biophilia hypothesis suggests that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and with other forms of life. Kids are especially prone to biophilia. Just take a kid down to a pond, or let her peek into a bird’s nest, or help him flip a big rock or a rotting log, and watch what happens. The connection to the life that they discover within or beneath is usually immediate and all-consuming. This is perhaps the most exciting discovery that I’ve made about my kids, and it’s the answer that was lurking beneath those rocks at the Fish Shack. The truth revealed by their abiding focus on rock flipping is their own innate biophilia—a built-in feature that can be harnessed as a way to make nature a normal, everyday part of our family life. No matter the circumstances, no matter the location, some version of rock flipping is available to us. It might be something as simple as looking up from the breakfast table to watch an American robin outside the window and comment on how it tips its head in an effort to hear earthworms beneath the soil’s surface before nabbing them. Or observing the way those worms will get flooded out of the ground by fierce rainstorms and driven up onto sidewalks and driveways, where their pale bodies greet us in the early morning as we head off to work and school. Each is a touchpoint with nature, a narrow opening through which we can pass in our search for deeper engagement. And these kinds of openings into the natural world are available to you, too.


I am, of course, aware that almost nobody has a Fish Shack in remote Alaska. Perhaps you live in a place where the closest thing to “nature” is miles away. Maybe everything around you feels man-made, or at least heavily manipulated by humans. Any attempt to discover nature is sure to be thwarted by the presence of people and buildings and the incessant hum and rumble of airplanes and cars. Maybe you don’t have access to reliable transportation of your own, or it’s prohibitively expensive to explore outside of your immediate surroundings.

Parents and caregivers create other obstacles to nature intentionally, often with good reason. In some households, schoolwork, organized sports, and church activities are given so much priority that there’s simply no time left in the day for anything else. You may have safety concerns that lead you to restrict your child’s access to your local woodlot or park to times when you or another adult can accompany them. There are strangers around, or you might have concerns about ticks and Lyme disease. There could be ponds or creeks, where drowning is a very real risk.

All of these obstacles are legitimate. There are dozens more that I haven’t mentioned, and probably hundreds more that I haven’t even thought of. My own family has faced more than a few, which is how I can say with such certainty that catering to our fears creates a sort of inertia that can be hard to overcome. Fear prevents engagement; lack of engagement builds into a habit of avoidance; and pretty soon it’s just your family stuck inside four walls, where perhaps the biggest obstacle of all—technology—abounds. Even if you recognize that it might not be good for them to be in their room on an iPad, it’s better than not knowing where they are. Technology might be the devil, but at least it’s the devil you know.

You wouldn’t believe the arguments we’ve had with our kids over access to Kindles and iPads. I’ll just come right out and say it: If my kids had unfettered access to their devices, days might go by before they stepped outside. But even in the face of such a shape-shifting adversary—its hardware and habits so woven into the fabric of our lives we have trouble remembering how we ever did without—it’s important not to panic.

This idea that the world is perpetually going to hell seems hard-wired into our psyche. There’s a thought, often misattributed to Socrates, that Garson O’Toole (aka the Quote Investigator) traced to the 1907 dissertation of an otherwise unknown Cambridge student named Kenneth John Friedman. It laments the intergenerational discord in ancient Greece, thousands of years ago, where elders saw the young becoming “tyrants,” marked by “luxury, bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect to elders, and a love for chatter in place of exercise.”

I’m not sure if the ancient Greeks were lamenting their children’s lack of engagement with nature. This particular concern might be more contemporary, though it has certainly become a pervasive thought today. In his 1993 memoir How the hell are we ever going to get everyone out of the house? ecologist Robert Pyle coined the term “extinction of experience,” and since then many researchers have jumped into the fray. There are bodies of work on the demonstrable decline of kids’ contact with nature, as well as the negative impacts of this trend—most alarmingly captured in Richard Louv’s 2005 How the hell are we ever going to get everyone out of the house? which warned of “nature deficit disorder.” In recent years, scholars have begun to try to capture this fading picture of human-nature interactions more precisely. In time, we’ll probably have concrete data on the physiological and psychological similarities and differences between watching a fishing video on YouTube and standing in the mud with a pole in your hand, but I’m not going to sit around and wait for it. I suggest you don’t, either. We already know, both instinctively and empirically, that when kids and adults interact with How the hell are we ever going to get everyone out of the house? nature, they get mental and physical health benefits. Two hours a week of time spent in nature, in whatever increments are available, has been shown to radically improve people’s outlook, with adult participants in a large-scale study in England self-reporting improvements in both physical health and emotional well-being. Other studies have shown immune-boosting effects, improved cognitive and motor skills development in young kids, and even reductions in crime rates across communities with improved access to green space. But, again, this is probably not news to you. We don’t need studies to tell us that we feel better when we step into nature.


Covid-19 complicated everything. Arriving just over a century after the 1918 influenza pandemic, the literal “100-year event” has caused a massive, global withdrawal from public spaces and activities. Every single facet of our own lives, as well as the lives of our kids, has been impacted. Offices were closed and workers sent home. Schools were shut down. Airline travel all but ceased. College campuses were shuttered. Family vacations were canceled. Visits to see Grandma and Grandpa were put on hold, indefinitely. Crosstown trips to the park became impractical or even illegal. Cooped up and constrained, we found our communal appreciation for outdoor time soaring while we simultaneously suffered a troubling increase in indoor time. Previously, we might have been guilty of measuring our own sense of worth by comparing our cars or homes to those of our peers, but suddenly we were measuring ourselves based on whether or not we had easy access to outdoor spaces where we could be alone and therefore safe from infection. Folks from the crowded and urbanized coasts looked longingly inward toward the middle, emptier portions of the nation, where people were able to carry on a somewhat normal existence in their spacious backyards or national forests.

Families without that luxury have seen the impacts on their kids. A friend of mine from New York described to me a “huge uptick in screen time, insanely, dramatically so.” The normal, habitual pieces of outdoor time that his kids experienced were suddenly gone. No playground recess. No bike rides with friends. No weekends at the beach. He was left trying to force new outdoor experiences on his kids, but those efforts felt strained and often ultimately unproductive. He’d urge his kids to go outside, but then had to remind them to stay close to each other and avoid their friends. The only alternative was yet another bike ride with Mom and Dad, along the same familiar close-to-home routes. Frustration abounded, both for the parents and for the kids. My friend and his wife felt as though they were failing as parents.

As the pandemic’s initial shelter-in-place orders were lifted, people escaped from home en masse and rushed to any place they could find that was outdoors and relatively free of people. In 2020, Americans bought over 13 percent more fishing licenses than they had the year before. Across the nation, enrollment in hunter safety courses skyrocketed. Michigan (my home state) saw a 67 percent increase in new hunting license buyers. Double and triple the normal number of visitors poured into parks, campgrounds, and forests. More than 10 million American households went camping for the first time. With the National Park Service and other land management agencies still reeling from pandemic-related shortages in staff and equipment, the influx of visitors overwhelmed all efforts to accommodate them. Hikers and campers left mounds of trash and improperly disposed-of human waste littering trailheads and campgrounds where garbage service was suspended and outhouses were locked up. Meanwhile, many inexperienced backcountry visitors got into more adventure than they bargained for. Search and rescue teams in the American West experienced the greatest volume of activity in their entire history. While we’re probably years away from understanding just how much the pandemic changed us, I think it’s safe to say this much so far: The pandemic has reinforced our love of nature, and it has revealed our need for the knowledge, skill set, and equipment necessary to experience it in a safe and sustainable way.

Another thing reinforced by the pandemic is that we place an enormous value on feeling connected. This was hardly a surprise. If humans were to be described in some field guide to mammals, it would say that we are highly social and gregarious. We want connections for ourselves, and we want our kids to feel connected. We generally feel safest when surrounded by loved ones. When times are bad, we tend to go toward others rather than away from them. We want the support and approval of our communities. We want to feel that we belong to something larger and more permanent than ourselves. During the height of the pandemic, many of us maintained our sense of connectedness in a way that truly blurred the lines between digital life and “real” life. We enrolled in online classrooms, dressed up for Zoom cocktail parties, and toasted loved ones during virtual wedding ceremonies. It made it even harder to set aside those glowing screens and get out of the house, but it’d be unfair and shortsighted to label all of the electronics as dangerous or bad for kids. At a time when craziness and unpredictability reigned, they blessed us with something close to familiar.

As Katie and I strived to create an atmosphere of familiarity for our kids, we would often find ourselves lying in bed at night and discussing how everything around us was inherently impermanent. The pandemic rubbed our noses in that reality by taking away so much that we’d taken for granted. Of course, impermanence has always been the norm. Friends move away. Family members die. Social media communities dissolve. We leave our hometowns for school or better jobs. As our communities repeatedly splinter, we’re forced to engage in a lifelong rebuilding process. I often find myself mentioning different categories of friends that I have: My friends from back home. My friends from college. My friends from Seattle. Unfortunately, but undeniably, the collections of friends that are left behind tend to fade in relevance as the years go by and we grow apart. Likewise with family. My father was once the most impactful person in my life. He’s now been dead for twenty years. I still struggle with how to fill that hole, if it needs to be filled at all.

Part of our job, then, as parents, is to teach our kids to deal with the impermanence of these connections. When Katie and I got our kids their first pet, a brilliantly purple betta fish, we viewed it as being a lesson in death and loss (bettas only live a few years) as much as a lesson in caretaking. We placed its small aquarium on the counter of their bathroom. They were ecstatic about this fish and professed their love for it. In my mind, I was already counting down the days until the fish died and imagining how the kids would respond and what they’d learn from the experience. I know it might sound weird, but in a not-so-roundabout way, we gave the kids the fish in order to begin teaching them about the inevitable loss of friends and family—and even, someday, of their own parents. Bad things will happen in life. That’s for sure. What’s not certain is how well we’ll cope with them.

Considering all this—our desire for connections, the impermanence of those connections, and our impulse to prepare our kids for an unpredictable and unwieldy life—it feels imperative that we foster strong bonds between our kids and nature. As creatures of the earth, we are inherently and intrinsically connected to the natural world. This world is dynamic and defined by change, but it How the hell are we ever going to get everyone out of the house? permanent. A relationship with nature fulfills, precisely, our yearning to belong to something bigger than ourselves.

Every time we turn over a rock and look closely at what we find, we get a glimpse of that bigger thing.


I should let you know that I once vowed to never write this book. Back during my early thirties, while Katie and I were flirting with the idea of having kids, I would get annoyed whenever my friends who had already become parents developed what I considered to be an unhealthy obsession with their offspring. Even worse, in my estimation, were writers who gave up on their usual subjects of inquiry and turned their attention to parenthood. That you quit your job in order to be a stay-at-home dad or struggled with your identity after having kids hardly seemed like things worth getting literary about. We’re all familiar with that old adage that kids are better seen than heard. I agreed—better seen than heard, better heard than discussed. Whatever happened to me as a parent, I wasn’t gonna let it rewire my brain.

I was wrong, obviously, and the depths of my miscalculation are evidenced by the fact that you’re sitting here reading this. What caused my change of mind will be obvious to anyone who’s ever watched their own child come gasping into the light of the world, slimy and naked and packing along with them a boundless payload of heartbreak and joy that they will give to you in mixed dosages for the rest of your life. Until the moment I became a father, I never felt truly and absolutely responsible for anyone. Becoming a parent is an epiphany: How the hell are we ever going to get everyone out of the house? As part of my responsibilities to my children, I knew that I was wholly responsible for teaching them everything I knew about being a human who feels at home in nature.

I’ll admit that it’s easy to feel the totality of the natural world in a place like the Fish Shack, where nature is omnipresent. It wraps around you and covers you like a sleeping bag. There are very few disturbances from the man-made world to distract your mind and body. But the Fish Shack could be gone from my life tomorrow. Due to matters of health, finance, or family, it’s perfectly possible that I might not ever get up there again. Regardless, I know for certain that the gift of nature can be given under pretty much any circumstance, pretty much anyplace. I know because I’ve seen it happen, everywhere from New York City to Seattle. Nature can teach us—and more importantly, our kids—to go through this existence with a sense of awe and purpose.

This book will show you how to learn.

CONTENTS

Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Epigraph

Author’s Note

Introduction: The Fish Shack

Chapter 1: Thinking Native

Chapter 2: Why We Sleep Under the Stars

Chapter 3: The Foraging Habit

Chapter 4: Tending the Soil

Chapter 5: Think Like a Fish

Chapter 6: Hunting: The Deep End of the Pool

Chapter 7: Home

Index

Dedication

Acknowledgments

By Steven Rinella

About the Author


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