Monday, December 29, 2014

Monday Meditation (from the garden)

“Odd as I am sure it will appear to some, I can think of no better form of personal involvement in the cure of the environment than that of gardening. A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world. He is producing something to eat, which makes him somewhat independent of the grocery business, but he is also enlarging, for himself, the meaning of food and the pleasure of eating.”
– Wendell Berry

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Monday, December 22, 2014

Monday Meditation

“Our lives are not as limited as we think they are; the world is a wonderfully weird place; consensual reality is significantly flawed; no institution can be trusted, but love does work; all things are possible; and we all could be happy and fulfilled if we only had the guts to be truly free and the wisdom to shrink our egos and quit taking ourselves so damn seriously.”
– Tom Robbins

Friday, December 19, 2014

Find the Moments… and Seize Them!

It’s crazy sometimes—juggling work, personal goals and other commitments while still trying to make time to be a good parent and spouse.  Life gets busy.  Sometimes it feels insanely busy!

And it’s not just us grownups.  Our kids feel it too.  Since I was growing up—way back in the 1970s—the amount of time kids spend in unstructured outside play has decreased by half.  Think about that for a minute.  Do you remember those golden moments of your childhood—riding your bike home under a darkening sky with the moon lighting your way, playing kick the can until it was too dark to see, sitting in the branches of your favorite tree, making snowmen, building forts or just hanging out with friends in the park and laughing?  Too often the kids we love are being robbed of those free and easy childhood moments.  On average our children now spend more time strapped into the backseats of our minivans than they do playing freely outside.

I struggle with this.  I’ve been guilty of overextending my kids (and myself)—running from afterschool language classes to music lessons to sports practice before rushing home to gulp down dinner then scrambling to finish math worksheets and a book report before bed then getting up before the crack of dawn to do it all over again…  Phew!

We add all these things to our lives because we love our kids.  We want them to succeed.  We want them to have every experience that could possibly benefit them, and we sometimes forget that letting them run out the back door untether to explore an adult-free world and get their shoes dirty is a crucial part of growing up too!

As a dad I think one of my jobs is to remember what it was like to be a boy, and to help my kids find moments like the ones I cherish most in my memories.  If we pay attention, if we’re thoughtful, we can help our kids find and create moments of freedom and discovery.

I have two sons, one in middle school and the other in elementary school.  I have morning duty in our family, which means I fry the eggs and drive the school bus, dropping my older son off at 7:20 and the younger one at 7:50.  That’s a thirty minute window of opportunity.  It’s an opportunity for me to help my youngest son get outside and find a few of those golden childhood moments.  Thirty minutes isn’t a lot of free time (especially when you factor out about 10 minutes of driving), but over the months those short periods add up!

Some mornings we go to the beach or the park, and I let him chart our path and set the pace.  Other mornings we go to his school garden and check out all the changes in the greenhouse and the raised beds.  A couple times each week we take our mandolins (we’re taking lessons together) and we find a cool place to sit and jam for a while.  Whatever we do, I try to make it his time.  I try to let him call the shots.  He has the opportunity to open his senses and lead the way.

Yesterday as I opened the car door to drop him off at school, he turned to me with a smile and said, “Dad, I really love our mornings together.”

I cherish them!  Thirty minutes is a short window of freedom.  We’re not doing anything extraordinary.  But for a few minutes every morning we’re setting ourselves free, giving ourselves opportunities to observe things—like the groups of pelicans that glide in unison along the crests of waves, or the delicate tendrils of new life growing out of potting soil in the school greenhouses.  And it’s a chance for us to connect, to each other and to the place where we live.

Life is busy.  But if we stay aware, we can all find our moments.  We can momentarily set ourselves free.  We can get mud on our feet!  Find your moments and seize them!

Jason Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Monday Meditation

“Always be like a water. Float in the times of pain or dance like waves along the wind which touches its surface.”
– Santosh Kalwar

Friday, December 12, 2014

Family Fun at Wild Willow Farm

The weekend after Thanksgiving Pam and I took the kids to Family Fun Day at Wild Willow Farm and Education Center.  And it was cool!

Wild Willow Farm is located in the southwest corner of San Diego County, less than three miles from the Pacific Ocean and two-thirds mile from the Mexican Border.  The fields opened to the public in 2010, and the farm is now in its fourth year of development, growing food while educating locals about sustainable living.  It’s a cool place!

We made crafts, enjoyed fresh guavas, fed goats, prepared planting soil, sowed seeds and more.  They even fed us a fantastic lunch, including fresh sourdough bread baked in a wood-fired oven.

Making wreaths with native plants and local shells


Relay race through the passion fruit tunnel

Preparing potting soil

Yum!  Thanks!

There is a growing movement of urban farming and community supported agriculture.  Getting involved is a great opportunity to eat healthy, get outside and help your family connect to nature.  To be honest, I’m kind of new to all of this, but I’m finding there are lots of neat ways to be a part of some wonderful local farms.  I’ll share more with Mud on Your Feet readers as I explore and learn.  In the meantime, here are a few links that can help you get started.

J.S. Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Monday Meditation

“Human nature is like water. It takes the shape of its container.”
– Wallace Stevens

Friday, December 5, 2014

Old Banner Grade

A few weeks ago, I woke my family early to take them on a fall hike in the Cuyamaca Mountains near our home.  I wanted to explore a short trail known as the Old Banner Grade, which was originally used as a wagon road in the 1800s.  I’d never hiked that stretch of trail, but I’d heard it led to the ruins of an old mine, the Warlock Mine, which was started in 1870, and I thought the kids would enjoy a taste of local history.

What I didn't realize is that a fire had recently burned through the area.  Wind gusted as we arrived at the trailhead, blowing dust off the bare ground and into our eyes.  What little vegetation remained was charred and dead.  My wife looked doubtful, like I was taking her on a hike into the apocalypse, and I feared the whole outing was about to flop.

But the kids didn’t hesitate, taking off down the trail, immediately imagining themselves as worn survivors in some long-ago battle ground, the dog at their heels, wagging her tail and sniffing.  Pam and I walked behind them, squinting against the wind-blow grit.  But doubtful as we were, the simple act of being outside eventually worked its magic on us too.  The burned and gnarled oaks captured our imagination, and after a while we made it through the burn area and into scrubby vegetation that ran down the hillsides to the desert below. Eventually we found the mine and explored a little before sitting on an old concrete slab to enjoy a simple lunch.

A small, collapsed mine shaft along the trail

Scrub vegetation beyond the burn area

An old shaft at the Warlock Mine

The Warlock Mine

Gone savage with charcoal face paint

Savage bird dance strut

On the way home we stopped in the town of Julian and ate apple pie with ice cream, and as I sat there enjoying the treat with my family, I felt satisfied.  We hadn't done anything extraordinary.  The kids had bickered some, and we’d even gotten dust in our eyes.  But it had been a good day.  Getting outside had done us all some good.  It energized us, painted our imaginations with old miners and wagon rides, and brought us together as a family.  And it was just one more reminder that it’s always good to get outside.  Even the simplest of walks can wake you up to all the small, wonderful things in life.

If you live near San Diego and want to explore Old Banner Grade and the Warlock Mine ruins, drive one mile east from Julian on Highway 78 and turn right at Whispering Pines Road.  Make an immediate sharp right on Banner Road, then a quick left onto Woodland Road.  After about half a mile on Woodland Road the pavement ends.  Park in the cul-de-sac and respectfully follow the private drive downhill to the trail.  One the way home, eat some pie!

J.S. Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Water is Fun!

Water.  No matter where you live, warm or cold, it’s fun!  Go outside and get wet!

“The water you kids were playing in, he said, had probably been to Africa and the North Pole.  Genghis Khan or Saint Peter or even Jesus may have drunk it.  Cleopatra might have bathed in it.  Crazy Horse might have watered his pony with it.  Sometimes water was liquid.  Sometimes it was rock hard—ice.  Sometimes it was soft—snow.  Sometimes it was visible but weightless—clouds.  And sometimes it was completely invisible—vapor—floating up into the sky like the souls of dead people."
– Jeannette Walls, Half Broke Horses

Monday, November 17, 2014

Monday Meditation

"Wonder, and the reverence it brings, is the best part of human nature."
— Tom Montgomery Fate

Monday, November 10, 2014

Monday Meditation

"Learning to see the beauty and relatedness of the wild without, in the woods, is not separate from learning to see the beauty and relatedness of the wild within ourselves, and in our partners and children."
— Tom Montgomery Fate

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Overprotected Kid

Even if you don’t do anything else today, READ THIS FANTASTIC ARTICLE BY HANNA ROSIN!

“A preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery—without making it safer. A new kind of playground points to a better solution.”

Read the entire article HERE.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Monday Meditation

“Those who shun the whimsy of things will experience rigor mortis before death.”
– Tom Robbins

Saturday, November 1, 2014

A Family’s First Backpacking Trip – And Now They Want More!

I was really happy to read this story about the Quintana family’s first backpacking trip and their plans for future wilderness adventures.  The fact that they attributed some of their inspiration to stories I’ve shared on this blog felt like a huge honor.  A few weeks ago, the Quintana family hiked 10 miles to Havasu Falls, and Adrienna Quintana (also an author with a new novel coming out in January) has shared some beautiful pictures on her blog.  They are worth checking out HERE.

Hats off to the Quintana family for making this trip happen!  Thank you for sharing your story with us!  

Monday, October 27, 2014

Friday, October 24, 2014

Trees Improve Student Performance

Living close to trees boosts student academic performance.  That sounds like some tree-hugger's fanciful notion, but it’s actually true.  A new study demonstrates that third graders who live in close proximity to vegetated green spaces score higher on standardized tests than students without green spaces nearby—even after controlling for other factors such as socioeconomic position.  Several past studies have found similar results. 

So take your kids outside.  Grab a shovel.  Plant a tree… or several.  And read more about the study HERE.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Monday Meditation

"We cannot protect something we do not love, we cannot love what we do not know, and we cannot know what we do not see.  Or hear.  Or sense."
– Richard Louv

Friday, October 10, 2014

Bring Down the Barriers!

Richard Louv nails it again.  I couldn’t agree more!

“In the 21st Century, our Great Work – as Thomas Berry put it – must be the creation of a new, restorative relationship with the rest of the natural world. It’s time to envision that future. It’s time to bring down the barriers, including these — which are not only between people and nature, but also between people.”

Read Richard Louv’s discussion of 5 barriers contributing to Nature Deficit Disorder HERE.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Unhassled, Unhurried, Unscheduled—Kids Need Opportunities to Know Nature

There was a time, not all that long ago really, when most children grew up close to nature.  In 1900, 40% of the U.S. population lived on farms, and even city dwellers had relatively easy access to undeveloped open spaces.  By 1990, less than 2% of the US population lived on farms, and too often modern city dwellers must fight traffic for an hour or more to reach remaining patches of wildlife habitat.  That’s a big change in a relatively short period of time.  Our connections to rural places are dwindling, and I often find myself wondering what effects these changes have on our kids.

Richard Louv posed the question well in his book Last Child in the Woods.  “Nature is imperfectly perfect, filled with loose parts and possibilities, with mud and dust, nettles and sky, transcendent hands-on moments and skinned knees.  What happens when all the parts of childhood are soldered down, when the young no longer have the time or space to play in their family’s garden, cycle home in the dark with the stars and moon illuminating their route, walk down through the woods to the river, lie on their backs on hot July days in the long grass, or watch cockleburs, lit by morning sun, like bumblebees quivering on harp wires?  What then?”

Too many of our remaining open spaces are shrinking, often disappearing entirely as the human population keeps growing, requiring more resources, more housing tracts, more strip malls.  The result is often increased pressure and overuse of the few open spaces that do remain, and this increased pressure often leads to new rules aimed at protecting these resources.  Today more than 57 million Americans live in homes ruled by some type of condominium or homeowner’s association, and many of these groups have strict covenants that ban or discourage kids from playing in landscaped or natural areas.  City ordinances also often restrict children’s access to open spaces or limit the activities they can engage in while playing outside.

The intent of these rules is generally good—protection of a shrinking resource.  But discouragement of natural play has been a sad and unintended consequence.  Many remaining pockets of urban open space are now strictly set aside to be seen—not touched.  Too often, there is no room left for free, unorganized, outdoor play.  And this creates unfortunate consequences for kids.  In too many communities there is nowhere left for them to wander off the sidewalk, build forts of fallen branches, construct rock pools along streams, catch snakes, find out what wild onion tastes like, or lay on the earth in the dappled shade of an oak tree, unhassled, unhurried, unscheduled, simply reflecting and dreaming.  As these quintessential outdoor childhood moments fade, I can’t help but worry that there is some important aspect of being human that fades along with them.

In the not too distant past, a basic familiarity with and understanding of the natural world was seen as an important character trait.  As Robert Michael Pyle explains, “George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both excellent naturalists.  A lively, experimental curiosity in plants and animals was nothing unusual, it was simply one component of the engaged citizen’s life.”  In their day, and for more than a century afterwards, natural history was emphasized in schools and universities as an important area of study.  And before that—for millennia—understanding the life we shared this planet with was essential knowledge.  Bill McKibben states it perfectly.  “You pass a hundred different plants along the trail—I know maybe twenty of them.  One could spend a lifetime learning a small range of mountains, and once upon a time people did.”

Now, however, fewer students are being trained to identify plants and animals, to understand their life cycles, their unique ecological positions and interactions.  As a result, even while our population is skyrocketing, there is now a far smaller proportion of human beings with the ability to recognize, let alone understand, a significant number of the living things we share this planet with.  At a time when conservation of biodiversity is most urgent, we are losing much of our capacity to train and employ people with the right knowledge to sustain Earth’s ecosystems.

Why does it matter?  If we know something, if we’ve grown up with it, engaged with it, we’re more likely to care about it.  But if we’re not familiar with the plants and animals around us, then we won’t recognize when they disappear.  We won’t make the changes needed to sustain them.  Ignorance breeds indifference.  The less we know, the less we notice, the less we care, and it’s a downward cycle.  We’re already losing our natural neighbors, eroding the ecological processes that sustain life on this planet, and in the end it will come back to bite us.

However, each of us, you and I, can start turning the cogs in reverse.  We can get to know the living things in our own communities, and if we share these things with children, we’ll all benefit.  Playing in nature, whether young or old, stimulates a sense of wonder, creativity, imagination—and it helps us develop and nurture a sense of place.  Taking the time to notice and experience nature, even urban remnants, even the tiniest patches of garden, helps us realize (and remember) that we’re part of everything, made of the same elements as earth, water, air and all living things.  We’re all just pieces of the greatest puzzle, and we need to pay attention to how the pieces fit.

For children, pockets of nature render a canvas for countless types of creative play—opportunities for control and mastery, construction of special spaces, manipulating loose parts, moving in a wide variety of ways, taking risks, solving problems, and finding stillness.  In the words of Stephen Kellert, Ph.D., “Play in nature, particularly during the critical period of middle childhood, appears to be an especially important time for developing the capacities for creativity, problem-solving, and emotional and intellectual development.”

In this, it seems the Scandinavians have gotten it right.  The Norwegians have a word, Friluftsliv, which translates to “free air life”—a concept that promotes direct experience in nature.  In Norwegian culture it is viewed as a prerequisite for learning.  The link between nature and learning is also emphasized in Finland’s education system.  And it’s an informed approach.  A growing body of research has shown that multisensory experiences in nature help build the cognitive constructs necessary for sustained intellectual development.  Finland consistently ranks in the top three countries worldwide for academic performance (the United States ranks far below at 20 according to recent United Nations Study).  Finland pays higher teacher wages, allows more independence for teachers, has shorter school hours and emphasizes the value of unstructured outdoor play time.

We also know that spending time in nature enhances well-being and provides positive mental health benefits.  Time and again, research has shown that nature-based experiences reduce anxiety and stress, improve self-esteem, mitigate depression, alleviate attention disorders, and even lead to positive behavior changes.

How can spending time in nature help with all these things?  In nature we tend to engage in the types of activities and thought processes that enlist and strengthen the brain’s right hemisphere, and this has been shown to restore harmony to overall brain function.  It helps to think of the brain as being capable of two types of attention—directed attention and involuntary attention.  Our culture has become more and more focused on directed attention, leaving less time for involuntary attention.

Why does this matter?  Directed attention is what our kids use for hours at school or while doing homework.  It’s important, but it causes fatigue, and too much directed attention leads to agitation, impulsiveness, irritability and difficulty concentrating.  Involuntary attention, on the other hand, is more automatic and can be thought of as fascination.  Involuntary attention is what we often experience in the outdoors, and it gives our brains a much-needed break from the rigors of directed attention and helps restore brain performance.  In fact memory and attention span have been shown to improve by an average of 20% after just one hour of interacting with nature.

I think most of us in the modern world could use an extra dose of involuntary attention in our daily lives—and we can find it by walking in the woods, growing a garden, watching the sunset… getting mud on our feet.  Even though 98% of us now live in cities, we can find, create and cultivate the pockets of nature around us.  We can share these places with the kids we care about—and if we do they will benefit!  So will we.

Are you looking for natural spaces near your home?  Check out this Where to Go site from Discover the Forest or this Nature Findsite from the National Wildlife Federation.

J.S. Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.

Friday, September 26, 2014

A Parent’s Guide to Nature Play

I recently stumbled across this great resource for parents… or grandparents… or cool aunts and uncles… or anyone else with a child in their life.  I wish I would have found this booklet earlier so that I could have done some of these activities with my kids when they were even younger!  And I want to share it with all of you, so that you can put some of these great ideas into action!

This booklet “A Parent’s Guide to Nature Play: How to Give Your Children More Outdoor Play… and Why You Should” is written by Ken Finch of the Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood.  Check it out!  Have fun with the kids you love!  Get mud on their feet!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Monday Meditation

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.”
– Mahatma Gandhi

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Security of Nature

I enjoyed this essay by Sarah Walker, a member of the Board of Directors for the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada.  She makes a great point.  In many ways we are teaching children to be afraid of the world.  We need to counterbalance those messages by helping them find places in the natural world where they feel connected, secure and confident.  We need to help them understand life is good.  Here is a snippet from Sarah’s essay:

“Today’s kids live in world where society largely believes that leaving the backyard to play is too dangerous, walking to school is too risky and exploring the small river in the park is a health hazard. The only place to be absolutely safe is inside…  

However, there is something that we can do to make sure this generation of children reaches adulthood feeling secure and safe in their individuality and surroundings. Take your child outside; let them discover at what height they can jump from before it hurts, or how fast they can run down a grassy hill before they fall. Let them explore the fascinating world that is nature, let them watch a caterpillar turn into a butterfly and understand that their potential has no bounds.”

Read Sarah’s full article HERE.  Then take your kids outside and help them fall in love with the world they live in!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Feeling Small in a Big Universe

Last summer my son Noah and I spent a magical August night sleeping beneath the stars.  We were backpacking along the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River, and we decided to brave a night outside the tent—and we couldn’t have timed it better.

As I snuggled into my sleeping bag Noah announced, “Shooting star!”

“Really?”  I hurried onto my back and looked up.  I’d only waited a few minutes when another shot right above us, leaving a bright, long tail across the sky.

“Cool,” we both said, and the meteors just kept coming.

The sky darkened to black, filling with so many stars that a person could spend an entire lifetime trying to count them.  The rushing of the river seemed to fill everything, the sky so huge that we were almost nothing in comparison.  We were tiny and awake and breathing.

Feeling small—not belittled or minimized—but small and very much alive in a fathomless universe is a wonderful experience.

Feeling small in a big universe puts things in perspective.  It momentarily washes away the neurotic fussing of our egos.  It creates reverence.

Somehow, lying against the Earth on my back, gazing up at a sky drenched in stars, puts me in touch with things that matter and erases things that don’t.  On some instinctual level it forces me to grasp all that has transpired on this chunk of space rock we call home—a chunk of space rock that has transformed from a flaming blotch adrift in the vacuum of space to become this astonishing entanglement of life… still adrift in the vacuum of space.  The atoms in our bodies, every one of them, yours and mine, were once stardust.  As Carl Sagan put it, "Our planet, our society, and we ourselves are built of star stuff."  That’s cool.

As parents we want our kids to grow up felling large enough to face all the things life will throw at them.  Of course we do.  But sometimes, in the most marvelous of ways, we should also hope that they feel small.

As I laid there with Noah, looking into the endless space above, I thought of an article I once read by David James Duncan.  In it, he described an image captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.  The telescope was aimed at one of the darkest parts of space, focused on an interstellar region the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length.  Researchers aimed the telescope at this dark fraction of the universe and captured 276 exposures over 10 days, gathering traces of distant light.  What they found is hard for me to fathom.  This tiny speck of our universe, one of the darkest patches in the night sky, contains a vast stretch of galaxies.  Entire galaxies!  Lots of them!

In the article, Duncan wrote, “Even the tiniest points in this image, the astronomers say, are not stars but galaxies.  The light from some, travelling 186,000 mile per second, takes 11 billion years to reach Earth.  That is what I call a Roadless Area!  This is true wilderness.”

For me, trying to wrap my mind around such vastness, such endlessness, drives home the point that all the small things right here in our daily lives are truly miraculous.  The simple fact that we’re here, that we have this fleeting opportunity to be a small part of it all, is something we should each marvel at now and again.  And we should help our kids marvel at it too.  It puts us in touch with the sacredness of things.

A while back an old college friend of mine named John Saunders posted the following comment on my blog.  “I have a buddy who has taught biology for non-majors at San Jose State for 40 years.  He polls his class every semester by show of hands to see how many students have ever spent the night outside.  The number declined steadily until ultimately not one student in a class of 200 college freshmen had ever spent a night outdoors.”

That makes me sad.  Each of these young adults had been alive on this planet for more than 6,000 nights, and they hadn’t spent a single one of them outside.  They’d never had the experience of waking up after some dark midnight with a vast sea of stars to put them in their place.

Being put in our place…  We tend to use that phrase to express something punitive, the act of making someone feel less powerful than an authority figure (or a bully).  But feeling small in a vast universe can put us in our place in a positive way.  Staring into the night sky and feeling small can help us understand the marvel of being alive, of having a planet overrun by a cacophony of living wonders, a planet that makes our very lives possible.  This place is a blessing!  Being here is a miracle!

Letting the universe put us in our place can also help us understand that the gifts of our individual lives don’t last forever, so we better do something meaningful with them.  We better live thoughtfully.  We better start now.

That night along the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River, Noah and I saw at least ten more meteors before I finally got too tired and had to close my eyes.  I was almost asleep when Noah said, “Thanks, Dad.”

“Thank you,” I answered, and I scooted closer to him.  It gave me the happiest feeling, just knowing that he was laying there beside me soaking up a sky full of stars, feeling small and alive.  I’m not sure how long he stayed awake watching the sky.  I dozed off long before he did.

Jason Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Risky play and skinned knees are key to healthy child development

I enjoyed this article by Andrea Gordon in the Toronto Star.  Safety for our children is, of course, very important—but there are also risks in taking safety too far.  Here is a snippet from the article:

“Here’s what kids at play have always liked to do: Race, climb, wrestle, hang, throw, balance, fence with sticks, jump from heights and gravitate toward sharp objects. Ideally, while escaping the watchful eye of grown-ups.

Here’s what today’s kids hear when they’re even flirting with such pursuits: Slow down, get down, put that down. No throwing, no sticks allowed, don’t jump from there. Don’t touch, that’s too dangerous, be careful. And for goodness sake, don’t go anywhere without an adult.

In the last generation, adults have been consumed with protecting kids against all odds. But now, some child injury prevention experts are warning too much bubble wrap may be thwarting healthy development.”

Read the full article HERE.  And let us know what you think!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Monday Meditation

“What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”
– Jane Goodall

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Gray Hairs are Alright with Me!

Despite some new aches and pains, some patches of gray in my beard, a little downturn in energy, I’ve found there is a real joy in growing up.  You get to venture into the world unleashed and find your place in it all.  You get to realize who you are—and if you do it right you get to realize that there is so much more to it all than who you are.  The world, the universe, is quite a place.

For me growing up has been a very gradual process… a process that didn’t really take hold until I was well into my thirties.  And I’m sure Pam would be happy to tell all of you that I’m still very early in the game.  But so far I like the game.  I’m excited to keep playing.

Becoming a parent was a huge turning point for me.  This isn’t to say that you must have kids to grow up.  Certainly not.  Some of the most grown-up people—that is to say some of the wisest, kindest, most mindful people—that I have been lucky enough to know were not parents.  But for me, coming to grips with the fact that I had children, that they called me Dad and looked at me the way I looked at my own parents, was life changing in the best kind of way.  It gave me a big slap upside the face and shouted, “It’s not all about you!”  It made me want to be a part of bigger things.

Of course it was a hard transition.  I slapped back.  It’s a shock to go from being a moneyless but free-wheeling ski bum, focused on how fun it was for me to strap on my skis and hit my secret powder stashes in my free time, to being a dad changing someone else’s diaper and wiping someone else’s butt at someone else’s whim.  Of course there was the whole marriage thing too… and don’t even get me started on the nine-to-five job with one week of annual vacation!  Let’s just say there have been plenty of times when I didn’t handle it well.  When I resisted.  When I fought hard to hang on to my juvenile tendencies.

Growing up means there’s a lot to juggle—the people you love and make commitments to, the bills you have to pay, the job you have to keep in order to pay those bills, the dreams you have to put on the back burner or maybe even let go of.  It’s tricky to navigate the rat race without becoming a rat.  It’s not easy to hang onto your soul when so many drivers of our modern economy are soulless.  It’s all too easy to let heartless forces creep in and run our very lives, to harden us.

Part of me hardened in my late twenties and early thirties, as I entered a point in my life when it felt like a daily struggle just to keep my financial head above water and avoid drowning.  Without consciously thinking about it, I even started to feel that one of my primary roles as a father was to harden my children in order to ready them for the world.  But I was wrong.  Of course helping our children toughen a bit is a good thing, so they learn to dust themselves off, hold their chins up and keep trucking after life knocks them down, skins their knees or bruises their egos.  But toughening is different than hardening.  And slowly the process of loving my children has taught me that growing up shouldn’t be a hardening at all.  It should be a softening.  An opening.

As grownups, shouldn’t making the world a good place for children be our primary responsibility?  In this very moment and in every moment that follows, we can stop being rats.  We can kindle those untended fires in our souls and take action to ensure that our communities are places where children learn how to be kind and patient and mindful… places where they can grow up right.

And that’s what makes growing up so cool!  If we open ourselves up to these bigger responsibilities and seize the opportunities they offer—to enhance our societies, to be conscientious parents, to be stewards of life on this planet—our existence takes on new meanings.  Our lives get repainted with a whole new pallet of colors.  It’s like finally getting the super-big box of crayons, only cooler!

I’m not always good at all this.  Sometimes the pictures I create with all those crayons turn out ugly, even scary.  Sometimes I still just grab the black and haul off with some quick, thoughtless scribbling.  I’ve even broken a few of my favorite colors and had to tape them back together.  I’ve failed miserably at times.  But I want to be a good grownup.  I’ll keep working at it.

My son Kai was born with a club foot.  It was awkwardly twisted, like a hook, and at the moment of his birth I was afraid he might never walk.  As a baby he had to wear a brace—stiff leather boots that angled his feet and bound them to a bar, like being strapped into uncomfortable snowboard bindings all day and all night and not being able to unbuckle.  At night he woke several times and struggled against it, so he slept with Pam and I until he was two, so we could comfort him when he woke.  There was a lot of waking up, and I was tired during those years, but there were magical moments when he woke me up in a much bigger sense.

One morning, shortly after he learned to speak his first words, I woke to the sound of Kai saying “Hi” and looking down right into my face.  It was 4:30 AM and the first hint of dawn was just teasing the horizon outside my window.  But he had the biggest smile on his face, the brightest look in his eyes, as if just being there awake together in that moment was the greatest thing that could possibly happen.  And it was.  I reached up and he put his tiny hand in mine and his smile spread into me and filled me up.

We got out of bed and woke Kai’s older brother Noah, and I took them both to a patch of old growth forest near our home at the time, Bellingham, Washington.  We spent a couple hours there, just exploring beneath the giant trees, climbing on fallen logs, watching a heron in the wetland… until the coffee shop opened and we went for treats.

It was a simple morning.  It was the best kind of morning.  It was the kind of experience that I think of as a reward for growing up, and it filled me with the best kind of feelings.

One thing about being a grownup is that you get to share things that give your life meaning with the next generation.  You get to help them understand the things you’ve found that make the world worth living in.  Of course it doesn’t just happen.  You have to seize that opportunity.  You have to muster the energy and make it so…  You have to turn off your damn cell phone and put it away for a while.

For me, nature has always been at the top of my list of important things to share with my boys.  I want so strongly to share with them the wilderness that has given my life meaning—that has fed my soul and given me purpose.  But I can’t really put it all into words, at least not in a way that any kid would want to listen to.  It reminds me of a great quote by David James Duncan.  “But from boyhood through manhood it has been my experience that trying to grasp an insight, a deep mystery, a transrational experience, or any act of love via reason alone is rather like trying to play a guitar with one’s butt.”

So I try to make time to get outside with my boys, to provide some gentle guidance and share experiences.  And I just hope that we do this often enough that they find something and it speaks to them, helps them find their place in the universe, helps them see the miracles of their own lives and of all the other living things they share this planet with, helps them realize the possibilities that their beating hearts afford them… helps them comprehend the fact that none of it last forever, and that it’s okay.

Making time just to be in nature with no other agenda was one of the most wonderful gifts that my parents shared with me.  One of the fun things about growing up is that I get to pay that gift forward.

We all grow older.  Eventually it just happens to you, no matter how many multivitamins you take.  But growing up is different.  We have to work at becoming good grownups, at being mindful elders and stewards.  There’s a lot to balance.  It can be a lot of work to stay curious, enthused and playful.  It takes effort and desire.  But I think it’s worth it.  Big time.

I’m pretty sure e.e. cummings understood—and each of us can probably learn from his approach. 

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

I’d love to hear some of the things all of you enjoy about growing up.  Please share your thoughts and experiences with a comment below.

Jason Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Treasure Lakes – A Great Backpacking Trip for Kids

Treasure Lakes is an idyllic spot located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, near Bishop, California.  It is a short hike, approximately three miles from the trailhead to the first lake—which makes it a great location for parents looking for a fun backpacking experience with kids.  The hike in is mostly uphill and somewhat tough, but given that it is only three miles you can take your time and keep it enjoyable for the children you are hiking with.  And the lakes, once you reach them, are a playground for kids—shallow areas to wade, rock islands, and fish visible in the clear water.  Enjoy a cross-country day hike along a narrow stream to the upper lakes as well.

The Treasure Lakes area is located in the John Muir Wilderness of Inyo National Forest, and you will need to obtain a Wilderness Permit before you begin.  My family visited this area in late August.  The days were warm, but the early mornings and evenings were chilly, so bring plenty of warm layers.  And of course storms are always a possibility, so be prepared.

Trailhead and Directions:  This trip starts at the South Lake/Treasure Lakes Trailhead.  To get there, turn west on Line Street in Bishop then follow Hwy 168 and South Lake Road.  A paved parking lot for day hiking with some overnight parking spots is located past the boat ramp at the road’s end.  My family stayed in hiker cabins at Parcher’s Resort (very close to the trailhead) before and after our trip.

If you go, please drop me a comment and let me know!  Happy Trails!