I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the natural world has never been more important than in 2020. For so many of us, nature has been the break from the increased screen time in our work, learning, and connection with others. A hike, or even a step outside relieves stress brought on by myriad changes we’ve had to adjust to. And gathering outside, compared to inside, was shown to be healthier overall.
And this happened worldwide. The market research groups found sales of equipment for outdoor activities, specifically cycling, paddle spots (such as canoeing, kayaking, paddle boarding), golf, camping, and bird watching saw explosive growth this year, from a 22% – 60% increase in sales.
Many of us don’t need sales receipts to tell us this because we’ve experienced it. We have witnessed more and more people flock to the outside world to stay occupied and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps you saw trailhead parking lots overflowing. Or tried to purchase a bicycle or kayak in June only to find that your choices were very limited. Or your travel plans were canceled so you explored local parks, trails, and waters instead.
At Audubon, we witnessed this. This spring and summer, we were pleasantly surprised to see Audubon’s parking lot full. Visitors enjoyed the grounds in safe and responsible ways for the most part. We’ve had increased sales of birdseed and phone calls about wildlife as people reconnect with the natural world at home. We believe that spending time outside is beneficial for our mental and physical health. It is encouraging to be able to provide a place for others to develop and nurture their connection to the natural world.
But the true constant — change — is happening again. In this seasonal transition, I wonder what will happen as winter sets in. Will we still turn outside for our mental and physical health in our ice- and snow-covered region? Will we find the same relief and renewal of the view of sunshine on frost rather than flowers?
I have been inspired by some stories shared so far. For example, my niece has found the joy and freedom of biking. She often bikes to and from middle school. As the colder weather and shorter days set in she hasn’t stored her bike away in the garage until spring. On cold days, she dons gloves, hat, lights, and jackets. She is even willing to pull her bass clarinet on a trailer behind her.
My coworker also talks of finding the right gear and lights because his daughter wants to bike ride after dinner. But as we approach the winter solstice, after dinner is dark. My experience is similar. I am becoming, if not quite a friend to, at least a cooperative companion with the chill and dark.
We are a culture that loves celebration. In the same spirit that holidays were created such as National Donut Day (June 4, in case you were curious) or Squirrel Appreciation Day (January 21), I want to declare this 2020 – 2021 winter, Winter Appreciation Season. Imagine what our lives would look like if we continued this renewed connection with the outdoors though the winter. Our social gatherings bundled up around a campfire. Cross country ski and snowshoe trails more frequently visited. Snow-covered yards full of adult- and kid-sized snow angles and snow sculptures. Social media stories not about a celebrity scandal or politics but the explosion of birds at local birdfeeders and trail reviews. Starting this spring, we were driven outside because we needed it. I hope we stay outside because we have found it worthwhile and worth the effort, even when it gets hard and uncomfortable.
I realize that is a tall order. But doesn’t growth happen outside of our comfort zone? We all have different comfort levels, needs, and abilities. My winter challenges may not look like yours. I’ve decided I needed an extra push to get outside this time of year. The comfort relaxing by the gas fireplace and cradling a warm cup of tea is very, very tempting. I am challenging myself to go for at least a mile walk outside everyday from now until the new year. Some days it will be easy. Other days I know it will be hard for me. But I know the fire and tea will feel even better after I make it out.
At Audubon, we are planning winter programs that aim to encourage this winter embrace. We’ve invested in tents to keep our youth programs outside longer. We are reimagining our winter festival and offering additional hikes and activities. But in this planning, we began thinking of other ways we can serve our community and keep people outside.
Many of us have the ability to purchase the good winter gear. From that position, it is easy to say “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing” to motivate people to recreate outdoors in more than just dry, warm, and comfortable weather. But what if you don’t have or can’t afford the proper gear to keep you warm and dry in winter?
To that end, Audubon is hosting a winter clothing drive so warm clothing is not a hurdle for people to still enjoy the outdoors this winter safely and comfortably. You can drop off any size (kid and adult) new or gently used jackets, snow pants, boots, gloves, mittens, hats, and scarves now through the end of the year.
As items come in, they will be delivered to Jamestown Community Learning Council (JCLC), which will make the items available to kids and families who need them. JCLC’s mission is to strengthen the capacity of families to nurture, support, and provide for their child’s academic development, emotional growth, and physical well-being by establishing effective relationships between home and school.
So, we invite you to clean you closets or go to the store and help others get outside this winter. And challenge yourself and others to get outside too. (Remember that big game firearm hunting starts November 21 in New York and November 28 Pennsylvania. So when you do go outside, do some research about hunting in the location you are going and don some blaze orange or bright pink to keep yourself safe and hunters aware.)
Katie Finch is a Senior Nature Educator at Audubon.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are still open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is partially open, including restrooms, the Blue Heron Gift Shop, and some exhibits. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.