"Return To Nature" by Luke Foley
If your family is anything like my family, these past few weeks have been… interesting. In so many ways, our worlds have been turned upside down by COVID-19 and the resultant school closures, “shelter in place” orders, quarantines, and the early end of lift-served skiing. Many of us are struggling to find balance between working from home (if we’re lucky enough to have a job that allows us this luxury) with teaching our kids and managing our households. Nothing is the same as it was before, or so it seems, and that leaves us all in a state of limbo.
And yet, amidst all of this uncertainty, the sap is running here in Vermont. (If you don’t know what that means, then you probably eat Aunt Jemima on your pancakes!) Just like every other year over the past decade or so, my family is making our own maple syrup, boiled down for endless hours over an open fire and straight from sugar maple trees that my kids helped to tap. In New England, this earliest sign of spring signifies the beginning of the end of winter, when cold smoke powder days give way to sunshine you can actually feel and corn snow.
The point I’m making here, other than shaming you for putting corn syrup on your waffles, is that, even in a world that seems to be turned upside down, there’s actually quite a lot that we can depend upon. It’s just not in the places that we normally look! The fact is that, in all of our “connectedness”, we’ve lost our foundational connection to the natural world. Spring is coming - birdsong fills the morning soundscape, green emerges from melting snow, the sun grows warmer and stays out longer every day - yet how many of us are taking the time to enjoy or appreciate it?
Instead, we’re likely even more fixated on our screens than we were before. Between work obligations, online schoolwork with our kids, FaceTime with our relatives, Zoom “Happy Hours” with our friends, and daydreaming about adventure while checking out Instagram, we are forgetting the most primal of connections that makes us human in the first place. In a time when we crave normalcy, consistency, and dependability, we are searching everywhere but the natural world around us. And this is precisely the reason that it’s time for us to really prioritize our “Return to Nature”.
So, in an effort to help us all reconnect - with ourselves, our families, and the natural world - here are some ideas, suggestions, and inspirations for nature connection in the time of COVID-19. And while this article obviously has some focus on those of us that are parents, hopefully there’s something here for everyone. Lord knows we could all use a little bit more play and fun in our lives these days!
Tip #1 - Start Your Day With Movement in Nature
When has anybody ever regretted a “dawn patrol” mission? We all love that smug feeling that comes from getting up early, hitting the skintrack or lacing up our trail runners, and putting in work, while the rest of the world hits the snooze button. Starting our day off right is even more important now that our typical daily routines and obligations have shifted. But don’t think that this has to be a soul-crushing sufferfest. A mindful walk in nature or a quiet bike ride through early morning city streets can be meditation in movement.
One of my personal favorites, and a habit which I started in my days working as a wilderness guide, is to bookend my day with three yoga sun salutations. In the morning, I face East to greet the morning sun and set my intentions for the day. In the evening, I direct my gaze to the West and the setting sun, while reflecting upon my day. Now that warmer mornings are on the way, I can’t wait to bring this practice into my backyard instead of by my wood stove in the living room.
Tip #2 - Do Just Sit There!
In our family, we all have sit-spots. These are our own little secret places, where we can go to be quiet and reflective, observe the natural world, or take a little space. In fact, we all spend part of our day in these places, regardless of weather, busy-ness, or any of the other distractions that might steal our time. It may be hard to believe, but my 6- and 8-year old kids actually request having sit-spot time!
But don’t expect that this is something that will be easy. Whether you’re doing this with your kids or on your own, you might be amazed at how easily distracted we all get. With our kids (and maybe some adults), we start with just 1-2 minutes of sustained quiet sitting. We might spend a total of 10 minutes at our sit-spots, in which they might be exploring, digging, playing, building fairy houses, or any other activity for most of the time. We always finish with quiet sitting, and, over time, we are able to increase the duration of our quiet sit-spots. The key is consistency, though. A little bit every day adds up.
Tip #3 - Microadventures
Spring skiing is usually one of the highlights of our year in New England, as it is in just about all parts of North America. We love the sunshine, soft snow, live music, and tailgating that goes with warmer temps and the onset of spring. For many of us, there’s a good chance that some of our spring adventures were impacted by the current pandemic. Whether your heli-ski trip was cancelled, your reservations at that sweet backcountry hut got the kaibash, or you simply didn’t get to use the last free days on your Epic or Ikon pass, you’re probably really missing out on some of the adventures you had planned. That doesn’t mean that you can’t make your own adventure, though. I’m not advocating road trips, National park visits, or anything else that goes against current CDC recommendations for travel. How about a Microadventure?
Need some inspiration - check out Rickey Gates’ project to run “Every Single Street” in San Francisco (and now Santa Fe), or Dan Malloy’s film and book “Slow is Fast”. Both of these guys are well-traveled and known for adventure. In each of their projects, though, they looked to find a way to really connect with their home landscape or city street culture. So what can you do in your city, town… hell, your backyard? Adventure is as much a mindset as it is a location.
Tip #4 - Get Your Hands Dirty
Did you know that the secret to happiness is all around you? It is literally as simple as the ground that we stand upon, errr… more specifically, the soil we stand on. Numerous scientific studies have shown the positive impact on our physical, mental, and emotional states simply by having physical contact with the microbiotic life in soil. Feeling down - just dig into a garden bed… seriously!
And what better time to test your green thumb! You’re spending more time at home than you ever have before, most of your travel plans for the next few months are questionable at best, spring is on its way, and food scarcity (or at least toilet paper scarcity) is a real thing right now.
So, give it a shot! If you’ve never gardened, start small with raised beds or container gardens. If you have some experience, take on the next challenge. For our family, we’re choosing this year as our time to move beyond gardening to small-scale farming. And we’re taking the deep dive into livestock, specifically chickens, goats, and pigs.
Tip #5 - Engage Your Kids in Your Passions
For several years, my wife and kids have woken up almost every Sunday morning to me returning from an uphill skiing adventure with a few buddies. Sometimes we get out to explore. Most weeks, we take a quick lap up Sugarbush or Mad River before the rest of the world wakes up. Either way, we all try to carve out an early morning ski every Sunday.
My son, Tobin (6), has taken notice, and an interest in the idea of “backcountry skiing”. As normal life was replaced by quarantine life, Tobin really started talking about going backcountry skiing. He was really interested in hiking up the “Practice Slope” at Mad River Glen, so he could ski back down. Also, spurred by one too many #vanlife YouTube videos, he also really likes the idea of sleeping in cars.
So, just last week, (sadly before they closed down all uphill travel), Tobin and I had a great day at Mad River Glen. We hit the parking lot just before bedtime, folded down the seats in the Highlander, and made our bed in the back. We woke up early and had a quick granola bar for breakfast. Then we started hiking.
I skinned while also carrying his skis and boots on my back and he rocked his snowshoes. Once we hit the top of the hill, we transitioned, took a quick slug of hot cocoa, and then careened down hill. All told, it was a 3 minute ski after a 30 minute hike, but it’s something he won’t soon forget. When we returned to the car, I busted out the camp stove and we “tailgated” for breakfast. As a few other cars showed up to take their laps, Tobin couldn’t help but spray his excitement at sleeping in the car, “backcountry” skiing, and tailgating.
Tip #6 - Allow Your Values As A Family to Infiltrate Your School and Work Lives
We’ve now been “out of school” for the past three weeks. Our kids are on “distance learning” plans with their schools, and my wife and I (both teachers), are providing an online learning experience for our students. Needless to say, it’s been crazy! It’s really easy to get overwhelmed by all of the juggling that this new way of living requires. I’ve found myself checking my email religiously, feeling like my work day runs from my first coffee in the morning until my nightcap before bed.
It’s also just as easy to lose sight of the core values that usually guide us as individuals, couples, and families. In just trying to check all of the boxes that each day requires, and hopefully not killing one another in the process, we sometimes forget to do the little things that make the biggest differences. In this time of massive upheaval in our personal lives, you can’t place enough value on consistency and routine, especially for kids.
For example, we value outside time and we have always tried to limit screen time. Our kids do quite a bit of their schoolwork outside and in the sun (which is rare in Vermont in the spring). We put a time limit on their online learning, but not on their “recess”. We do extra schoolwork on rainy days so that we have more freedom to be outside on sunny days. We try to dictate our own lives, as opposed to feeling like we don’t have any control over our circumstances.
Tip #7 - Talk To Your Kids’ Teachers
As an educator, I would encourage you to have a conversation with your kids’ teachers. Be honest and real about how you are doing with their learning. Give them positive and constructive feedback about how things are going. Understand that they are busting their tails to give your kids a quality education from afar.
And don’t be afraid to share about your goals and plans as a family. Whether you are starting a garden, planning a project at your house, experimenting with baking or cooking, or something else, there is tremendous educational value in what you are doing. Share these ideas with them and you might be surprised with how open they are to including this in your kids’ learning.
We’ve now been living with Covid-19 for a little over a month, and who’s to say how much longer this might last. Eventually, there will come a time when Netflix, pajamas, and showerless days will start to get old. Hopefully, sooner rather than later, we can all find a rhythm and routine that allows us to really capitalize on this unique time in history. For our family, that rhythm and routine will be dictated by the natural world around us.
In conclusion, I invite you all to consider that, instead of falling behind as a result of the challenges of Covid-19, perhaps all of our kids (and us, too!) might actually have a chance to get ahead. Rather than running the “rat race” that so many of us despise, maybe we’ll choose instead to slow down and appreciate the simple things in life. Maybe instead of choosing a life dictated by endless screentime, we’ll try to reconnect with our roots by developing a real and lasting bond with the natural world. In our “Return to Nature” there is a chance that we will all remember again what it really means to be human.
Luke Foley is a husband, father, educator, and avid outdoorsman living in the Mad River Valley of Vermont. On top of running the Paine Mountain Experiential Learning Center at Northfield High School, he is a longtime friend of Icelantic Skis. He owns a pair of Icelantic Scouts with serial number 10, and remembers Ben first brainstorming Icelantic skis (instead of reading poetry, probably) while sitting in Mrs. Helseth’s English class in high school.