We have a morning routine. Before leaving for work, I give the dogs a treat and then take them out for a short walk to do their business. We walk down the gravel road to the bridge, about 250 yards from my house, then come back. The dogs take a big drink from the county ditch, thoroughly water the foliage and do what dogs do. In the canine world, where complicated communications we humans don’t understand are written in a language of scents and markings, this is my dogs’ home turf.
The other morning, we discovered there were visitors sometime during the night. Two large piles of wolf droppings were on the road shoulder. One bristled with deer hair and the other was tarry black. It appeared the wolf or wolves had feasted nearby on a fresh kill. Depositing the droppings on my dogs’ home turf was unlikely coincidence. My dogs, ever interested in such matters, sniffed the piles. Then they lifted legs and watered them. I know little about the interspecies communications of canines, but I got the gist of this wolf-dog exchange.
Moments later, a bicyclist out for a morning ride zipped by. He was going so fast and appeared so absorbed in his workout that he didn’t seem to notice the dogs and I. I was struck by the juxtaposition of his time outside that morning and mine. He was getting exercise. I was getting a glimpse into the natural world that surrounds me. Since I was soon headed off to work, the cyclist had more time to enjoy the fine morning than me. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was getting something better from my brief experience.
Like many folks, I lead a busy life. Often, I reach the end of my work day worn out and with the realization that I haven’t accomplished everything I set out to do that morning. You’ve probably felt the same way. Nevertheless, I try to make time every day to slow down and smell the roses. This includes a daily walk with my dogs, time spent at the woodpile or in the garden, and, as often as possible, fishing or hunting. Some may call this relaxation or recreation, and it is, but for me it is also necessary time to appreciate the natural world.
Many of us have lives where it is difficult to slow down or take your eyes away from a screen. This is due to our need to make a living, but very often staying busy or abiding within virtual reality starts to take over the time we really should call our own. Of that, I’m guilty at times. That’s why I make the effort to slow down.
Scientists tell us that doing so is good for our health, even more so if we spend at least a portion of that time within the natural realm. But I think the benefits of slowing down go beyond what it does for us as individuals. It extends to how we interact with others and view the world around us. Almost certainly, those of us who spend our slow time in the natural world are the ones most likely to defend it.
This brings me back to the wolf droppings and the cyclist. A sizable segment of our population (though a stroll through any public place will show it is not nearly enough of us) are devoted to exercise and fitness. This is a good thing. Many folks choose to exercise outdoors, which has led to a surge in activities such as mountain biking, trail running and similar physical pursuits. This is a good for our collective health. These activities are introducing many people to the outdoors. This is a good thing, too.
But we can’t assume exercising outdoors will necessarily lead people to appreciate and, more importantly, defend the natural world. While they may become supporters of mountain bike or hiking trail development, their use of the outdoors as a fresh air gymnasium may not lead them to understand or support broader conservation and environmental issues. This isn’t intended as a dig at fitness buffs, but as illustration of the challenge facing advocates of conservation and the environment, who are in desperate need of new blood.
It is no secret that the community of conservationists and environmentalists, never numerous, is shrinking and aging. This is one reason current politicians feel emboldened to make attacks on what were once bedrock policies and principals intended to protect clean air and water, public lands, and the abundance of fish and wildlife Americans hold in common. They’ve launched a war on conservation with many fronts, which makes it all the more difficult to mount an effective defense.
In a world where many people are too busy with their day-to-day lives, or too consumed with the trappings of technology to pay attention to or even care about the politics of conservation and the environment, those of us who are paying attention are aware of how perilously close we are to having the natural world taken away from us. We’ve watched with dismay the declines in bird species, ranging from waterfowl to songbirds. We’ve seen wildlife restored and then removed from the prairies with the rise and fall of the Conservation Reserve Program. We are alarmed by the political efforts to divest our nation of its wealth of public lands. And we know you cannot take clean air and water for granted.
We know these things because we, on occasion, slow down and immerse ourselves in the natural world. We’ve seen the sunrise from a deer stand, observed a distant flock of birds with binoculars, cast a fly on quick water, watched a seed we’ve planted grow and gone walking on a morning alive with bird song. Deep down, we know we are better off for all of this. We are humbled by the simple gifts that Nature provides. And we know the world would be a far lesser place without them.