A Device-Free Summer

When UJ and I were kids, we spent a few weeks one summer at Camp Y-Noah, located somewhere in northern Ohio.  We took hikes, made crafts, swam in a pond, sang around a campfire, slept in a cabin, learned how to ride a horse, played capture the flag, and ate camp food in a large mess hall.  We also shot bb guns, tried to hit a target with a bow and arrow, and used an outhouse for the first time.  As a tubby, bookish kid, I wasn’t a huge fan of camp, frankly, but it was a good experience to try different things.

ssnl-campynoah-2Those camps are still around.  And, surprisingly to some, they remain attractive to kids — even though many of the camps ban the smartphones, iPads, laptops, and other electronic gizmos that kids are supposed to be addicted to these days.

According to the American Camp Association, there are about 8,400 sleepaway camps in the United States, and about 90 percent of them ban campers from bringing personal electronic devices.  And while some kids — and, surprisingly, parents — try to sneak their way around the rules, and camp counselors have to spend part of their time on the lookout for devices that violate the camp rules, most campers apparently quickly adapt to a life that is focused on the outdoors, without texting, or YouTube, or handheld games.  When they’ve got other fun things to do, the urge to constantly text their friends is apparently less compelling.

I’m not a diehard opponent of technology; electronic devices are a reality of the modern world and kids inevitably are going to use them.  But I do think that it’s good for people to step away from constant connectivity now and then, and enjoy some fresh air and exercise.  I’m glad to see that so many camps have decided to stick to their (bb) guns on this issue and take steps to get campers to leave their devices behind and see what nature offers instead.  I’m not surprised that kids are enjoying the break.

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The Benefits Of “Forest Bathing”

The Japanese call it shinrin-yoku, which translates into English as “forest bathing.” It has nothing to do with bathing in the normal sense of the word, however.  Instead, the concept might better be described as “forest immersion.”

IMG_1396For some time now, Japanese people looking to reduce the stress of everyday living have been heading to the forest.  Their approach to shinrin-yoku is simple:  go out into the woods, shut off your cell phone, and take in the forest atmosphere to the maximum extent you can, without a specific goal or destination in mind.  Use your senses as you wander.  Breathe in the cool fresh air that leaves your nostrils tingling.  Touch the rough tree bark and the soft moss.  Listen to the wind rustle the leaves, and hear the birdsong.  Sit down on the ground or a fallen tree and smell the humid mix of growing plants, decaying wood, and moist earth.  Feel the tree shade on your skin.

The proponents of shinrin-yoku say that it produces all kinds of health benefits, in addition to stress reduction:  improved functioning of the immune system, reduced blood pressure, improved mood and energy, heightened mental acuity, and better sleep.  In short, regular leisurely, relaxed strolls through the woods can provide the kind of mental and physical health benefits that stressed-out Americans typically try to obtain through prescription drugs or some other artificial means.  Should this come as a surprise?

One of the weirder things about modern America is how resistant some people are to actually experiencing nature.  Every morning, as I’m on my morning walk, I travel past a small health club where people are jogging and walking on treadmills, watching TV —   when they could be jogging around the same park I’m heading to only a few blocks away, where they could breathe some fresh air rather than stale sweat smells, experience the morning quiet, and chuckle at the quacking ducks waddling by.  Why make that choice?  Why do people hop in their cars rather than walking, even for short distances?

I don’t think you need to plan a trip to a primeval forest to experience the benefits of shinrin-yoku.  I think any effort to get out into the natural world, in quiet way, walking at your own pace and listening and looking and feeling, is going to be a good thing on more levels than we can count.

The Tree That Wouldn’t Die

We  used to have two pear trees in the middle of the arced flower beds around our patio.  They were the same kind of trees, planted at the same time.  Some years ago one of them was taken down by a storm.  Two years ago the other one began to split in two and had to be chopped down, leaving us with no shade and two stumps in our flower bed where we now perch flower pots.

The first tree that fell just died.  It left a stump and roots behind, but they promptly began to rot away and now break apart easily into spongy shards when nicked by a shovel.  The other tree, however, refuses to give up the ghost.  Two years later, it still clings to life as best it can, sending up dozens of leafy shoots from its rock hard roots.  The shoots grow up among the flowers and through the shrubs framing the rear of the flower bed, and because they are harming the shrubs and interfering with the flowers, I snip them all off at ground level — and then, a month or two later, I do the same thing over again.

As this process has repeated itself I’ve developed a grudging respect for this feisty tree that refuses to accept its unfortunate fate.  Now I feel somewhat guilty when I take out my clipper and cut down the shoots.  I guess some trees, like some people, are just more stubborn than others.

Why Did Zebras Get Their Stripes?

Why do zebras have stripes?  It’s a question many kids have asked their parents, and one that many scientists have tried to answer.  Now researchers say they’ve solved the puzzle, and it has to do with . . . flies.

Awful, blood-sucking horseflies, to be precise.  The researchers contend that the patterns of stripes reflect light in a way that makes zebras unattractive to flies.  They conclude that the coats of black and brown horses, poor devils, reflect light in a horizontal way that horseflies love, whereas the coats of white horses don’t reflect light in that way and, as a result, white horses are less troubled by painful fly bites.  When stripes were added, the researchers found, even fewer flies were attracted.  Hence, they believe that stripes evolved to keep flies away.

Color me skeptical.  Much as it sucks to be bitten by blood-sucking flies — and it does — it’s not life-threatening and wouldn’t seem to be a sufficient cause for a significant evolutionary detour.  If it were, we wouldn’t be seeing black and brown horses romping through the pastures of Ohio, and elsewhere.  As I understand evolution, the process of natural selection works only if a genetic variation makes the individual with the variation more likely to survive and reproduce.  A variation that allows you to be more successful at avoiding non-life-threatening fly bites wouldn’t seem to fall into that category.

On the other hand, it could be that lady zebras long ago decided that black-coated males who were covered with biting flies were less attractive potential mates than those cool, laid-back striped dudes over by the watering hole who weren’t frantically twitching their tails at swarms of horseflies.  Or, alternatively, the black-coated lady zebras tormented by blood-sucking flies were less likely to be in a receptive reproductive mood than their serene, striped counterparts.

 

Sea Lions Lost, Sea Lions Found

Nature is weird.

Sea lions at Pier 39, before the exodus

Twenty years ago, hundreds of sea lions showed up at Pier 39 in the Embarcadero area of San Francisco, where they quickly became a fixture and a tourist attraction.  Millions of tourists (me included) stopped to watch them splashing around, barking, flopping onto the flat rectangular wooden docks floating at the pier, and dozing in the sunshine.  Then, suddenly, a month ago they were gone, and no one knew where they went or why they left.  All kinds of theories were offered — including one suggesting that the sea lions, using some kind of aquatic ESP, had sensed an imminent earthquake and hit the road.

It turns out that reality is a bit less sensational.  Sightings of sea lions up in Oregon have caused scientists to conclude that the sea lion colony has migrated north up the Pacific coast in search of food.   I expect that we will soon be seeing stories about how what happened to the food supply in the San Francisco Bay and whether there is another explanation for the sea lions’ unexpected departure.  In the meantime, I imagine that the tourist-dependent businesses near Pier 39 will be fervently hoping that the frolicking sea lions will quickly return.  Pier 39 just won’t be the same without them.