April 1, 2014 By Kathy Fitzgerald
I believe it would be a rare occurrence to find an environmental science major that did not have a lasting connection to the outdoors. My connection began as a child, where I had every opportunity to experience nature.
My childhood home was not air conditioned, making it unbearable to be indoors during the months of July and August. From a very young age I retreated to the woods, most often with my older sister. Under the age of ten we usually stuck to the path between our house and our neighbor’s house and at a small clearing at the edge of our backyard that housed two small boulders. Once I was ten and didn’t have to be in direct eyesight of my mother, I forged my own paths in the woods. I created an entire kingdom that spanned far beyond my family’s property. My sister and I would end up in yards of houses we didn’t recognize, and days later point excitedly when we spotted one of the houses as we drove past in the family car.
As Richard Louv suggested, I was definitely introduced to the outdoors by my grandparents. My paternal grandparents taught me the joy of gardening as well as how to cook what I grew. My grandfather had a giant garden until he was in his mid nineties, where he would grow everything from tomatoes to pumpkins for us to pick in the fall. He also raised bees and made honey that I would help him sell at his roadside stand. My grandfather gave me my own cherry tomato plant every year, which I would painstakingly care for until they ripened and I could assist my grandmother as she used them in her recipes. My maternal grandparents offered a unique opportunity to experience nature. My grandfather was the president of his chapter of the Civilian Conservation Corps that he was a member of during the Great Depression, and was influential in establishing their museum in Shenipsit State Forest in Stafford, CT. My sister and I would run wild in the fields surrounding the museum during my grandparents’ shifts, gathering bouquets of wildflowers my grandmother would proudly display on my grandfather’s desk. Sometimes we would get so tired we would nap on the cots set up in the display area of the museum.
The fact that my love of nature spanned into adulthood was definitely my attendance at overnight summer camp. I began attending camp at age ten, and became enamored with the beautiful red cabins nestled beneath the towering white pines next to the glistening lake. I was more excited to receive my acceptance letter as a counselor in training at 16 than I would be when receiving my acceptance letters to college two years later. I spent a blissful 8 weeks crammed into a tent with seven other girls, sneaking out at night to lie under the stars. During my time on staff I learned confidence and a sense of self most teenagers wouldn’t be graced with until they ventured off on their own to college. I got involved in the environmental education program offered to local schools by my camp. In this program I was able to share my love of nature with kids who had never been to summer camp, or even away from their home before. I worked at my camp until I was 20, which is when I realized that I could translate all I learned during my time at summer camp into a lifelong career.
Richard Louv discusses the onset of “nature deficiency disorder” in kids as an epidemic. I have most definitely seen this disorder first hand. My nephew, who was 8 at the time, described his frustration when my parents told him to go outside and play. “I mean, I have toys outside, but I’ve already played with them!” My niece and nephew are definitely children of technology: they have televisions in their room and multiple gaming systems, which have robbed them of their imagination, as Louv has described.
For every technology addicted kid, there are multiple that only need a shove to embrace nature and the imagination that can come with it. The major fault behind Louv’s theory is that he diagnosed this generation as if there was no cure. Louv repeatedly describes the need for children to be outside, but does so in a manner that seems as if it is a lost cause, and the reintroduction of nature will only have temporary effects. When my niece and nephew come to visit, they do so knowing that there will be no excessive TV watching or whining about being bored. We spend the summer hiking on various trails in Maine, going to the beach to body surf the waves and collect heart shaped rocks and gathering blueberries from hidden bushes in the woods. They don’t complain about missing their Xbox, but beg to visit the science center and have me bury them in the sand. My niece and nephew are proof that the disorder can be easily cured, but sometimes kids (and adults) need a reminder to look up from the screen and take in their surroundings.
Having worked at multiple summer camps and outdoor education centers, I did not encounter the same surprises at Pemi that some of my colleagues did. No doors or windows on the cabin? Day after day of rain? I had gladly prepared for these obstacles and more, and relished in sharing my abundant resources as well as my know - how for surviving for a few days in a rustic setting. What did surprise me at Pemi were my colleagues themselves. To become friends with someone in such a sterile and organized environment as a classroom cannot prepare you for spending 24 hours a day with that same person, especially when they are outside of their comfort zone. I have always found that friendships accelerate quickly while at camp, and Pemi was no exception. I met someone from across an ocean that I would most definitely not have otherwise had the chance to meet, and we began what I hope will be a long term friendship.
I was not only surprised by the social interactions, but the ideas I gathered from both the students and instructors. I arrived at Pemi and considered myself to be in the “advanced class” of the clinic, due to my background working at camp. While I was experienced with some of the games and activities that were offered, I had never imagined that I would learn so much, especially when working with people who had never previously worked at a summer camp or considered education as a career. Pemi solidified the fact that you don’t need expensive gadgets in order to experience or teach about nature, but tools you make yourself may provide even better results. After my time at Pemi, I am rejuvenated and more ready than ever to start my career in environmental education. I plan on recommending this clinic to everyone at UNH, because everyone should have the opportunity to experience summer camp and immerse themselves in nature, no matter how old they are.