Nature has always been a big part of my life. Even though I grew up in the city, I used to spend most of my summers at my grandparents’. They lived in a small village encircled by deep woods. Their house backed onto a large garden plot cut off by the narrow ribbon of a crystal-clear, ice-cold stream. On the other side of it was an orchard with apple and pear trees. I loved to spend my Sunday afternoons lying in the tall grass, munching on apples and pears I’d just found on the ground, weaving flower wreaths and watching the clouds floating above.
The orchard gradually melted into the forest. That’s where we roamed with my friends (long before we turned ten), foraging for mushrooms, wild strawberries and hazel nuts. The forest was not scary and unknown. I was a magical place full of life, beauty and tasty surprises. I still remember the sound of twigs crunching under our feet, the joy of finding mushrooms under last year’s leaves, the sweet taste of wild strawberries and raspberries melting in my mouth, the smell of spearmint that I liked to pick along the stream and rub between my palms.
Some days we would scale cherry trees that grew in a communal orchard, saddle one of the highest branches and spend hours eating cherries and spitting out pits. Or we would find a mulberry tree, pick it clean and come back home all stained and full of juicy goodness.
In the afternoon, most of the kids in the village would take cows to pasture. We would take turns watching each other’s cattle, start fire and roast apples and corn. We would stay in the meadow late into the evening, sometimes coming back as it was already getting dark, met by our grandparents and parents’ reproachful “Do you know what time it is? We still need to milk the cows.”
That was the thing, though. We never knew the time. Those summer days weren’t measured in minutes and hours. They were fluid, slow, and unhurried. When I think of those summers I spent at my grandparents’, the things that usually come to mind are the warm smell of the earth, the cooling breeze in the woods, not having to wear shoes for weeks in a row, and the feeling of freedom.
Now as I watch my kids grow, I want them to experience the same connection to nature and feeling of freedom I was lucky to have when I was little. I want them to know that it’s not us versus nature and that we don’t need to protect ourselves from it. That nothing they will see on a screen comes close to the fascinating sights, smells and sounds of forests, lakes, mountains and oceans. That mosquito bites and getting soaked in the rain are a small price to pay for all the benefits we receive when we spend time outdoors (plus getting caught in the rain can be quite fun).
I can see it working when they don’t want to go home at the end of each camping trip. When my 17-year-old son keeps asking where we are going next. When our 10-year-old refuses to wear shoes. When they stop to study a flower or listen to a bird. When they pick up berries in the woods and say those taste like nothing we could ever get in a store. When my younger son wants to wake up early and go canoeing with me. When my older son brings pictures of a sunrise from his, now independent of us, travels.
I hope this feeling of fascination and freedom stays with them when they grow up.
P.S. I took the pictures during my trip back home a few years ago. Unfortunately, the beautiful forest of my childhood looked much thinner due to excessive logging. As in other parts of the world, economic development is taking priority over environmental protection.