Just a half mile from my house is a large, wooded, city park that encompasses a 150-acre lake. The lake and park were a big draw when we were house-hunting, and before moving I imagined us taking lazy, relaxing family walks in the park. You know, you finish dinner and instead of plopping down on the sofa, you head outside intent on enjoying the long daylight of the summer months. My husband and I would stroll, as I pictured it, hand-in-hand, exchanging loving glances as our offspring would merrily skip ahead, giggling.
Finally, we were settled in and a day came that was perfect to realize my vision. “Let’s go for a family walk!” I heartily suggested. A few minutes in and something was wrong. I heard…could it be??…grumbling. And whining. And the worst of the worst: bickering. There was no skipping. No giggling. I don’t remember any loving glances, and the hand-holding between Scott and me was more about “We can survive this walk if we just hold on tightly enough,” than “Isn’t it wonderful to be alive and loved and outside??”
Then: we discovered the Honeysuckle Trail.
A small dirt footpath headed off of the paved pedestrian, dog, and bike thoroughfare. At this point, the paved trail had diverged a bit from the water’s edge, but the footpath seemed to follow the shoreline. Perhaps an adventure would change the mood.
Stepping off the paved trail was like throwing a switch. The girls, once bemoaning their tired, aching legs and sounding more like middle-aged, out of shape couch potatoes than children, were off running. They stopped to watch as green frogs heard them coming and splashed into the water. They threw sticks in the edge of the lake. They discovered honeysuckle bushes and must have tasted the sweet nectar from a hundred of the small white and yellow flowers (thus they christened the footpath the Honeysuckle Trail).
We crossed a stream with an actual small waterfall – a surreal thing to find inside the boundaries of a large city, and just a few hundred yards from the roaring interstate. In the stream, lo and behold, were crayfish and salamanders.
My idyllic walk was realized! My kids were scampering, laughing, enjoying one another. They were the picture of childhood as it should be.
And then, as suddenly as it had begun, the Honeysuckle Trail ended. It had taken us around the southern shoreline of the lake, and ended just before the footbridge that would cut north and bring us back to the paved trail we had to take home. The girls’ feet hit the pavement, and the temperature of the evening changed. My sprightly wood nymphs became trolls again.
Richard Louv, in Last Child in the Woods, coined the idea of a “nature deficit disorder,” and how being disconnected from nature is unhealthy for children (and, as many have asserted, adults as well). But wait…isn’t a path around a lovely lake being in nature?
Being outside and being connected to nature are entirely different things. Organized soccer games every Saturday morning happen outside (and there is no shortage of these), but just being out of doors it not all it takes. Louv makes a real distinction between the kind of “outdoor activities” which are just stuff we do that happens to be outdoors, and real opportunities to connect with nature.
The paved path around the lake is the safe route. No getting your shoes muddy, no chance of getting lost, or wet, or scraped by briars, or itched by poison ivy. Also: no fun. It’s technically outside, but it’s sterile. There’s no adventure. And it makes us (or keeps us) grumpy.
Step out of the safe, the comfortable, and the prescribed, and boom…NOW you’re living. What was just good for your heart (as in your cardio-pulmonary system) is now good for your soul as well.
Embrace life. Play outside. Find a Honeysuckle Trail of your own, and see what it can do for you!