Nature, Redefined

Last week we went out for a walk Out Back.

“Out Back” is a big, huge empty lot surrounded by trees that border the Nottawasaga River.  It’s home to The Frog Pond (really a storm water run-off stream), The Stone Bridge (a retaining wall along the run-off stream), The Beach (massive amounts of pristine sand probably dumped there 10-15 years ago by developers), Bras Lake (the storm water reservoir — don’t ask how it got it’s name), The Ravine (water-eroded channels through the sand) and numerous organic walking trails.  Out Back is also home to a huge number of Red-Winged Blackbirds, Bull Frogs, Spring Peepers, rodents of various kinds, and possibly even some wildcats.  We’ve spent many hours Out Back walking, playing, exploring, scavenging, and digging and replanting.

We live in a relatively new development, and houses are being built all around our neighbourhood almost year-round.

But about a month ago, a backhoe appeared Out Back.

Last week, that backhoe, several dump trucks, and one bulldozer started dumping massive amounts of dirt right in front of  The Frog Pond.  Standing at the bus stop that chilly morning watching the trucks roll in, one of my daycare kidlets said “Diggers making Megan sad?”.  And he was right.  With the arrival of heavy machinery, I started to realize that this little paradise was about to change.

When I was growing up, we had The Hundred Acre Wood, The Cow Field, The Cow Pond and The Apple Trees to play in.  I spent so much time out there either with friends or on my own, climbing trees, building forts, watching the clouds, playing Hide & Seek, and just enjoying the outdoors.

Out Back is my kids’ suburban version of what I had.  They don’t spend nearly as much time out there.  With a techie father, there are far more distractions to going outdoors.  But when they do finally head outside, they tend to disappear into the wilderness, venturing farther and farther as the landscape pulls them in.

So when we went out for that walk last week, I saw it as one of our last few chances to enjoy the nature (scarred as it is) around us.  One of the kids was particularly hesitant to go out.  He prefers the low-lighting of the basement along with the soft glow of the computer screen to the actual outdoors.  Dragging him outside was almost impossible, but I do my best not to enter a battle I’m not planning on winning.

As we followed the sidewalk towards Out Back, he grumped and complained while I spouted research: “Scientists have been studying the affects of the bacteria found in dirt on people’s moods.  One kind of bacteria is released that increases serotonin levels, and that makes you happier, makes you less worried, and helps you learn new things  (M. vaccae, from Science Daily, 2010).  Do you know what that means?”

Grumpy Boy said “Huh?”

Shaking my head, I thought that he just might be a lost cause when it comes to understanding just how important it is for everyone to spend time outside, enjoying creation. But as we headed out into the field, his eyes began to widen.  Taking in the 15 foot high ring of dirt, the width of several dump trucks, his pace began quicken.

“THIS is a FORT!” he said, and he broke out in a run towards the pile, with his siblings close on his heels.  “Okay!” said his brother, “This is my home base.  We have to fly the shuttles through space to get to the other planet!”.  Four of the kids’ friends were already playing on the massive hill, so Daddy and I pulled up a tuft of grass and settled in to watch.

While I watched them running along the crest of the hill, jumping down the hill landing on their backsides, rolling down the hill, and climbing back up again, I realized that progress and development isn’t all bad.  And that through the eyes of a child, nature is redefined.

Sure, the hill isn’t a natural feature of the landscape.

But my kids were still breathing in the beneficial bacteria present in the relocated soil, increasing their levels of serotonin.

They were soaking in the sun’s rays, increasing their levels of Vitamin D, allowing them to process more calcium, increasing their skeletal strength.

They were subconsciously reaping the calming benefits of listening to the ambient birdsong and Spring Peepers (the topic of a study in progress by Eleanor Ratcliffe, of the University of Surrey).

They were engaging in pretend play, increasing their creativity and ability to focus and practicing cooperation and leadership skills.  They were exercising their large muscles, increasing blood flow to their extremities and again, building skeletal strength.

And they were possibly ingesting microbes that lower levels of C-Reactive Protein, a “biomarker for cardiovascular problems later in life” (Chicago Tribune, 2010).

Sure they were covered in dirt when we got home.  Our bathtub looked like it had bathed 3 bags of dirt by the end of the night.  But immersing our kids in earth was worth it, for all of the health benefits they experienced immediately (Grumpy Boy was no longer grumpy), and for all of the benefits they will continue to experience.

Perhaps this is why our family doctor’s office thought we had moved away.  We haven’t had a need to see a doctor in quite some time.

And while Out Back will never be the same, that’s okay.  Because as nature itself is constantly renewing itself in a never-ending cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth, so is our experience with it.

(And yes, those were my kids tobogganing down the dirt pile yesterday.)


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