Monday, February 7, 2011

Tim Herd: Real on Tap

No, kid, it’s imaginary!

When I used to do nature programs in elementary schools, the most common question I received from the eager upturned faces was: “Is it real?”

(What? You thought I brought fake nature?)

Despite how I may have liked to respond, the kids’ interest — and their question — was real, which reveals two important things.

First: there’s an innate need to connect to our beautiful, resourceful, sustaining, real world.

Here in February, despite its seemingly lifeless state, there’s something magical in connecting with a stately old maple just as it revives for another growing season. The crows’ cries herald the coming of spring — though the calendar may yet deny it — as frosty nights and mild days signal the start of the sugaring season. Rising external temperatures increase internal pressures in the tree, drawing the sap upward to jump-start new growth at the twigs’ ends until this season’s leaves begin food production. Riding that flow is a reserve of last year’s leftover — yet still potent — sugar food. Although less than 5 percent of the sap, it is the trees’ only internal link to a sustainable future.

And yet, despite that seemingly tenuous link, there’s life enough to share.

Tapping a hearty maple, hanging a bucket, and collecting its clear sap this time of year not only uniquely bonds us to nature in all its realness but also romances and refreshes our spirits, especially as we distill its inner sweetness over a crackling fire into genuine maple syrup.

Now that’s real.

And real good!

Whenever I introduce the history, lore, and how-to behind this sweet treat to others, the result is always a better connection to our real world and its life-sustaining resources. And that’s good for us.

Because here is the second important thing: that connection is increasingly strained, ignored, and broken.

Perhaps it’s to be expected from a generation that has always known a “virtual reality.” Or maybe it’s surprising in a society that boasts a digital “app” connecting nearly everyone to everything else. But that such a doubting question as “Is it real?” is asked in the first place may well be the gasping canary of our societal coal mine.

According to accumulating research, time spent in green outdoor spaces by children fosters creative play and relieves attention deficit disorders. Among adults the rejuvenation derived from such outdoor pursuits as trailing a tiny ball through the byways of a golf course — or the hours teasing trout with an artificial fly — are well known. Aerobic activities of jogging, walking, and swimming contribute directly to our physical health. But perhaps surprisingly, studies show that the amazing therapeutic benefit of the outdoors extends even to those with a mere view of green plants and vistas — they experience less frustration and stress.

No virtual world is truly a substitute for first-person knowledge and experience in our real world. Our food doesn’t come from a supermarket. Our water originates from other than the faucet. Our wildlife depends on clean resources and habitats, just as we do. The man-made — or made up — can never replace the real thing.

Get out! Go see!

There’s reality on tap.

Naturalist Tim Herd is the executive director of a regional parks and open space commission in the Pocono Mountains. He blogs at Scene & Herd, is the creator of Nature Newswatch, and is the author of Kaleidoscope Sky, Discover Nature in the Weather, and Maple Sugar. He lives in Pennsylvania.


Mimi Foxmorton said...

I, for time to time, sail on a pirate ship....and at *least* five times a day someone will appraoch the docked ship and ask: "Does it go in the water?"

Have a natural day! ;)


Year Round Vegetable Gardener said...

Nice post.. I get the 'is it real?' all the time when I go to the local schools with a basket of purple beans, purple carrots, lemon cukes and black tomatoes! :)