“If you go out in the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise.”

I didn't need this opening line from the children’s song “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” as an incentive to get out into the woods as a child. My friends and I spent most of our non-school waking hous in the woods adjoining our neighborhood. 

We found all kinds of big surprises in the woods. Opossums hanging from their tails, stinky skunk cabbage growing up through the snow in early spring with steaming leaves warm to the touch, foxfire glowing inside an old sycamore, thousand legger” millipedes, a horned owl roosting in the “spooky” old apple tree in the middle of the woods, crows feasting on suckers spawning in the creek. 

The surprises aroused our curiosity and taught us a lot about nature. We were active, hiked for miles and had lots of unstructured fun.

There’s another angle on that opening line of the “Teddy Bears Picnic” song.

Fewer people were venturing outdoors in the recent decades. There was a boom in outdoor activities shortly after World War II to the mid 1980s. There are many lines of evidence pointing to a shift in people’s participation in nature-based recreation. Hunting, fishing, and boat license sales were trending down. Fewer people were sailing. The number of people out backpacking was way down.

Then came the COVID pandemic. Some people became hermits, isolated in the

cushy built environment, plugged-in and tuned-in. This “videophilia” -- spending time in rapt attention to computer games, the Internet and television -- shifts interest away from physical activity, nature and the outdoors.

Does this mean that a whole generation of young people is being deprived of experience in the outdoors, thinking that nature is yucky, bug-infested and boring? Will they grow up to be people who have to be electronically entertained? Will they care about the environment?

This is a serious problem. We have an atavistic, hard-wired” motivation to be outdoors. Harvard Professor Emeritus E.O. Wilson calls this the biophilia hypothesis; that humans are innately attracted to nature. Biologically, we are still hunters and gatherers. We still need at least occasional immersion in nature.”

“The natural world is the refuge of the spirit, remote, static, richer than even the human imagination.” 

“Splendor awaits in minute proportions.”

“To explore and affiliate with life is a deep and complicated process in mental development. To an extent still undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hope rises on its currents.”

-- Edward O. Wilson, “Biophilia”

Others took the CDC COVID-19 pandemic guidelines differently and spent more time to be distant from people outdoors. Fishing license and boat sales were up considerably in the last year. 

Now that more of us are getting vaccinated, it seems that there is a large pent-up demand to be with others in the outdoors. That’s a good thing for our health. It’s a good thing for the environment in that the more eyes are on the natural world; more people are concerned about it and more people will do work and vote to protect and restore native habitats.

Children need experience outdoors to sense the wonders of the world and connect to the landscape where they live. Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has shown that kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder benefit from a major reduction in symptoms after spending after-school and weekend hours outdoors.

The last stanza of the “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” advises, “If you go out in the woods today, you better not go alone.” Turn off the switch, put on your boots, pack lunch, binoculars and a magnifying glass, bring a young friend and get out the door.

Migratory birds are back! Turkeys are gobbling! The spring flower show is about to begin!

Dan Wilcox of River Falls, Wis., writes a periodic column. Send comments and suggestions to him at rtnews@orourkemediagroup.com.

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