Going wild

I look at my small sons spooning up cheerios across the kitchen table—milk dripping, long limbs and messy hair flying. I wonder, who will they become?

There are certain things I know: the older one will always push against the boundaries of the world. The younger one will follow the older one every step of the way. But what I don’t know is what values they’ll carry forward from their childhoods. Will kindness matter to them? Will they care about all living things?

Working for an environmental organization makes me think a disproportionate amount about the future of the planet. This summer was a hard one—wildfires, dried up rivers, a dead whale calf.  Hope is hard in the face of so much destruction. How can we as a community make sure our children and youth grow up to care for our natural world?

A number of studies have been done to determine whether there’s a link between childhood experience and environmental values and actions as an adult. What comes out every time is that wild and free exploration in nature is what makes the difference. Structured summer camps are great, formal education can be amazing, but it’s wild experiences in nature as youth that help form adults who will take positive environmental action.

In the end, it’s a lot more about the heart than it is about the head. I read a beautiful interview with conservationist Michael Soule in The Sun. He says, “All I know is that I spent a tremendous amount of time outside as a kid, wandering around, mostly by myself, and that I always felt at home in nature… It’s difficult to speak about this feeling of being at home — of finding solace in nature — because the experience is emotional. It’s the heart that falls in love.”

Wildsight has been taking kids into the backcountry for years through our Go Wild wilderness adventure program. Youth aged 14-18 put on heavy packs and follow their guides deep into our local mountains. This year, one of the Go Wild trips was into the Jumbo Valley, a special place in the Purcell Mountains that’s been threatened by a ski resort for almost three decades.  

The youth that go on these trips get something far more important than wilderness skills, they get an unmediated up-close encounter with the wild. The kind of far away from the everyday structures experience that puts blisters on the back of the heels and lights up the mind with bird sounds and mountain peaks. Sure, they learn about the local ecology and resident wildlife, and about no trace camping practices—which is important, don’t get me wrong—but what seems to matter most is the connection—the meeting of place and person.

David Sobel also writes about this idea of love of the natural world. “Knowledge without love will not stick. But if love comes first, knowledge is sure to follow. It’s our responsibility as parents and teachers to make sure that love comes first.”

I feel lucky that we live in place that offers a multitude of deep wilderness experiences for our youth. And that we have organizations like Wildsight and special people around who are not only teaching our kids how to read maps, but also about how love for a place can help form the roadmap to who they will become.

I hope my boys get to go on a Go Wild trip one day. In the meantime, I will do everything I can to let them roam wild and free and connect with nature on their own terms. It’s the only way they’ll learn to love it for themselves. And maybe these experiences will help them develop a respect and responsibility for all living things that they’ll carry with them for their whole lives.