WILD YOUTH: REFLECTIONS ON MY EARLY YEARS AND THE IMPORTANCE OF CONNECTING YOUTH TO NATURE

A young Eastern Screech-Owl peers out of it’s nest box at the wild world outside.

 

As I sit at my desk this morning reading the latest news in wildlife and conservation, my mind is swirling, twisting, and turning as strongly as the incredible storm that is passing through outside. So many stories to tell. Memories of a youth spent mostly outdoors, unwittingly soaking in the wonders of nature.

It was a humid morning. While making the short walk back to the parking area of the Ash Cave waterfall, a stunning 90-foot tall waterfall nestled in the Hocking Hills region of southern Ohio. A friend and I were talking about self-identity and how I could brand myself and my photographs. He jokingly quipped “well, you’re a wild man”, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. He hit the nail on the head! Wild Man…

 

The Ash Cave waterfall, in the Hocking Hills region of southern Ohio.

 

From a young age, birds have played various roles in my daily life. While there were periods where I gave them less attention than I would have liked, there is no doubt in those that know me of their impact. I spent the majority of my time outdoors, exploring further and further into the AEP lands that bordered our property owned by the power company. A massive expanse of mixed woodlands, this area was a second home to me.

Suddenly, my mind begins to shift and shimmer as it’s drawn to a much deeper memory, some twenty five or more years before, showing me a vivid picture in my mind’s eye of my first birding experiences. My father always liked birds, and placed makeshift bird feeders made from empty two-liter bottles all over our yard. My family lived in an old trailer, that my parents had painstakingly spent months restoring. It was a wonderful home, nestled on a two acre piece of land bordered by Salt Creek, a wide “crick” as we called it. I spent many days armed with my Peterson’s Field Guide, sitting at the window and just seeing what birds would come to our feeders. All of the “backyard birds” were regulars. Chickadees, Cardinals, Sparrows, Robins, and Woodpeckers galore. We also regularly hosted what are still some of my favorite birds to this day. Indigo Buntings, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, even a Scarlet Tanager one year!

 

An Indigo Bunting perches on a branch, surveying its’ territory while keeping watch over its’ nest.

 

These reflections, as many others usually do, bring me to a crossroads. While thinking about the sheer joy I experienced as a child that loved birds, I also thinks of the disparity between my childhood and how much different it is for young people today. This inevitably leads to questions. How is the everyday lives of youth today different from those that I remember? How can the wildlife and nature communities instill the passions that we have into younger generations? I have a few thoughts…

Kids born today, or any time in the last fifteen years really, were/are born into a much different world than many of us that actually consider these questions. Everyday life has changed from an often quiet, balanced day with limited interruptions from the outside world, to a world saturated with distractions. How do we break through these distractions and reach young minds?

 

A male Evening Grosbeak perches on a pine bough, impatiently waiting for an opening at a nearby feeder.

 

Personal connection! Do you notice a theme forming here? Much of what I speak on is the amazing ways that birds and other wildlife draw us closer together, and there is a reason for that. We’re in the middle of a technological revolution. Adults and youth alike spend more and more time on their computers and mobile devices. That can be a great thing! I think it’s essential to embrace technology in all areas. It’s the future of everything!

Balancing this time with real outdoor time is also becoming a trend for many families, and it’s really making impacts. Many people are seeing the importance and value of getting their children into nature. I see this more and more in the parks that I frequent, and it’s wonderful! While sometimes loud and overzealous, seeing kids embrace and engage with nature is a heartwarming sight.

 

A local Sandhill Crane family feeds together at Slate Run Metro Park Wetlands.

 

I spend much of my time these days outdoors with my camera, birding and observing nature and wildlife with a wild passion that borders on the obsessive. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be on the giving end of a host of amazing mentors. I now work here at Wildside, where I not only get to connect with all of you through the blog, but at festivals and other venues that give me the chance to change people’s lives and show them wondrous birds and wildlife that they’ve never seen before (THANKS KEVIN!) I even get to travel the country from time to time, sharing my photos, knowledge, and love for wildlife with all kinds of people! The power and impact of the relationships that I’ve built as a result of these adventures are immeasurable. I believe that community is one of the most important aspects to nurture in regards to these passions, and I do my best whenever I encounter folks to pass it along.

I’d like to bring this to a close with a simple thought for the day. When you’re out on the boardwalk, or a trampled dirt path in a local park and you see a family gazing excitedly up into the trees or pointing out the frogs lounging alongside mud puddles and vernal pools, smile and say hello! Share your passion and love of nature, and help instill it in the younger generations. This is a gift we can give freely! Young lives can be impacted with strong emotions, and those emotions thrive in our vibrant communities. This is just another small way that we can give back to the wild places and wild things that we love so much. Thanks for reading folks, I hope you all enjoy the wonderful weekend ahead!

-Justin

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