Guest Post: The Community in Nature

Honorary Granolans, introductions are in order. Below you will find the first guest post on Val in Real Life. Jay Puckhaber is a long-time friend of Camp Granola, going back to Jester’s days at Georgia Tech. I wasn’t going to talk numbers but Jay went and spilled it in his post. So yes, Jay is an “old” friend.

State park family fishing. (Courtesy of Jay Puckhaber)

You may recognize Jay from last year’s post about the Hike Inn. He’s one of the clowns I chaufered up there for Jester’s 40th birthday hike. If you want some crazy hiking stories, Jay’s your man. He’s the only person I know who’s been evacuated from a mountain top by Black Hawk helicopter. So yeah, he’s got outdoor cred.

These days though, you’re more likely to find him leading Boy Scout trips and fly fishing. He shares the Camp Granola mission of keeping kids out exploring and, given his long history of outdoor exploits, I thought he’d be a great voice to have here. So enjoy…

The Outdoor Community…

So Val, my friend of over 20 years mentioned the idea of writing something for her blog. Val and I both have a passion for the outdoors (the environment, nature and the outdoor experience altogether). We even shared a trip to the Rocky mountains together in the mid-90s. Now we have something else in common, we each have a family and kids that we want to experience the outdoors with.

One of my favorite "places." (Courtesy of Jay Puckhaber)

Now before I begin to comment on kids and the outdoors, I’ll have to say that I think Val and I have a lot of differences too. I think that each of our early life experiences with the outdoors was quite different. I was a Boy Scout that camped mostly in the mountains of North Georgia and Val grew up in another country (South Florida). [Love ya Val ;-)] Val’s other half (who also hails from the deep recesses of Florida) has been one of my best friends slightly longer than Val, and I remember his first experience with “fall” in Atlanta.

As a result, we may have different worldviews about some things, but thats what I believe makes our common interest all the more intriguing. If our earliest impressions of the environment, nature and the outdoor experience are so different, then there must be a root to our shared passion that is not as surficial as it would seem.

Rather than spending paragraphs setting this up with a long hypothesis of what I think the commonality of outdoor experiences is, I think I will default to a word from my daughter’s ecology vocabulary:

Campfire (Courtesy of Jay Puckhaber)


…A group of plants and animals living and interacting with one another in a specific region under relatively similar environmental conditions.

My most valuable experiences outdoors always involved a community, whether it was other Boy Scouts as a youth, college friends on a road trip to the Rockies, or my family in a National or State Park. In helping my daughter with her science vocabulary, I learned that the definition of community requires a place as well as people. I know we often perceive virtual communities on Facebook (there is a report on the illusion of this though) or elsewhere, but I think that a real community must have a shared experience “in person” in a specific place. When I think of my friends like Val, it’s almost always in the context of a hike, a paddling trip, a campfire or a road trip to the Sangre de Cristo range of the Rockies in Northern New Mexico / Southern Colorado.

The Scouts have definitely capitalized on the Tooth of Time as an Iconic place for scouts to remember (Courtesy of Philmont Scout Ranch)

Yet community in nature doesn’t always require people.

One of the last jobs I’d had in Yellowstone was delivering the mail on snowmobile; that’s the only way you can get around in the wintertime. . . . There I was, by myself, with just snow, and just mountains. And as I dropped down into Hadyn Valley, there were bison crossing over the road; 2,000-pound mammals crossing over the road. And it was so cold [that] the bison, as they breathed, their exhalation seemed to crystallize in the air around them. There were these sheets, these ropy strands, of crystals kind of flowing down from their breath. As I was watching them, they turned their heads and looked at me.

I remember stopping the snowmobile and turning it off, and listening. And I felt like this was the first day; this morning was the first time the sun had ever come up. I was all alone but I felt I was in the presence of everything around me, and I was never alone. It was one of those moments when you get pulled outside of yourself into the environment around you. I forgot completely about the mail. All I was thinking of was that a single moment in a place as wild as Yellowstone—or most of the national parks—can last forever. A single moment.

I felt like I could almost hear the clouds as they were moving over me and could almost hear the light as it was hitting the ground. And I just completely lost the concept of time, of who I was, identity. I just sort of went out there into the landscape.

Maybe I’m still there.

–Shelton Johnson, Park Ranger, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea by Ken Burns

I can think of a handful of moments like Shelton Johnson had, when I felt absolutely part of the landscape, but at the same time I felt the loneliness he did. I wanted someone else to share it with and be part of my community. I think that’s the magic I want to share with my kids, and I want it to create a bond between us and with others. I want it to be selfish and about us, while at the same time reminding them that it is bigger than us too.

Finding your outdoor community…

Even though we are all “at-one” with the outdoors and part of that community, there are obviously different flavors and different shared experiences. We all identify with those experiences through different traditions that may even help us to transport the community place:

Community spontaneously created on snow-covered road in the south. (Courtesy of Jay Puckhaber)

  • Roasting marshmallows around a campfire with our family. It doesn’t matter where the campfire is, the “campfire” is the place.
  • Pulling into an Airstream RV park. Although this is not one of my traditions, I understand that you often see the same people in the same metallic trailers, which creates a community where only the scenery may change.
  • The taking of the “Campfire Ashes” for some Scouters (this is a World scouting tradition – Boys and Girls). I have some ashes with a lineage of 2,721 campfires (including Philmont) dating back to the first Boy Scout encampment with Robert Baden Powell on Brownsea Island in 1908. The ashes traveled and burned in over 50 countries (6 continents) around the world before I received them and I look forward to passing them on at future campfires.
  • A “re-entry meal”. In college, our outdoor program had a tradition of stopping for a big meal before heading back to Atlanta. This seemed to strengthen the community of people that participated in that particular excursion to a particular place.
  • Geocaching – Although we may rarely (if ever) meet other geocachers in person, we always share a location and experience with them that makes up a community.
  • A long course at Outward Bound is a great way to learn about community.

The key to making outdoor experiences worthwhile with kids is finding the “community” to engage them in. This can be other people or the natural community around them. They need to step away from the DS and engage the community, or they will miss it.

Why Outside?

So, what makes these experiences better than our local community? Maybe nothing. There are lots of other reasons I think taking our kids outdoors is valuable (learning self reliance and social skills, witnessing the science lesson that is nature, practicing basic living skills, observing the beauty of nature). But, we are always part of the world ecological community when we are outdoors and I think our interaction with that community is all that matters in life, and that compliance with our community association’s rule on how tall my grass can grow when I am on a trip is insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

Many thanks!

So a big granola thank you goes out to Jay for sharing his thoughts with us. If you like what you’ve read, I hope you’ll help me encourage Jay to start his own blog…or at least keep sending me great stuff!

In the meantime, what’s your outdoor community?

And now for your moment of green…

Get kids to dive into the details of the outdoors and they'll find a community of people to share it with.