Tailgates opened and closed, and women chattered as we milled around the parking area after a snowshoe hike. I stood in a sort of receiving line as the hike participants—mostly retirees—stopped by to ask a few more questions or share a recent encounter with nature.
One woman, with a sparkle in her eye, just wanted to thank me “for making us feel young.” I thought back to the steep hills and sometimes uneven trail, the cold wind off the lake, and the stiffness that was already creeping in to my (much younger) lower back. “Oh, the fir-rari and mentioning C.S. Lewis,” she said in response to my questioning look.
I smiled, happy to know that she also appreciated two of my favorite teaching tidbits. “Firs are flat and friendly, and they have racing stripes like a FIR-rari,” I’d lectured with a smile while holding a sprig of balsam fir. The stomata (doorways for gas exchange) in their needles are sunken in to two whitish stripes on the bottom of the needles. It’s something to look for if you’re comparing the fir with a spruce.
C. S. Lewis is the author of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and inventor of a magical land called Narnia. I read the Chronicles of Narnia series many times over as a kid. Earlier in the day, after we’d talked about the actual science of the Subnivean Zone (visit my blog if you need a refresher), I’d spotted a place where a mouse had popped out of the subnivium, hopped across the snow, and then re-entered through the little space next to a fallen log. “Look, it’s a wardrobe!” I’d stage-whispered to the people closest to me in line, referencing one of the magical portals into Narnia.
While neither of my jokes were the laugh-out-loud type, even moderate chuckling can help us relax, improve circulation, and reduce pain. Learning new things keeps your brain happy and healthy, too. Those benefits, and others, combine to make us feel younger. I thought back to the article I wrote about sliding—while I was in the midst of planning a sledding party for my 40th birthday—and how being playful with friends made us all feel younger. Play is essential to kids, of course, and increases survival. Play also benefits adults—essentially by making us feel like kids.
Later, as I sat on the yoga mat in my long johns, feeling old and stretching out sore muscles before they stiffened up completely, I thought about the contradictions. Outdoor adventures can be physically taxing, but being out in nature mostly makes me feel young. Jumping in a puddle, sliding (purposefully) on ice, splashing in the lake, squishing mud between my toes, talking about animal poop, laughing about the gross, ridiculous, or amazing things that animals do, or even just soaking up sunshine brings a lightness to my spirit.
“What makes you feel young in nature?” I asked friends. With shining eyes, one woman told me a story about skinny dipping in a private pond, blue sky and sunshine, and no one else around for miles. The fun of letting your curiosity and imagination run wild—especially if you have an actual kid with you—popped up several times. Experiencing awe and wonder were recurring themes—their health benefits supported by data. Another friend mentioned the wind on her face, and the way that you can escape from societal expectations in the woods and just be yourself—more like the unselfconscious, unburdened days of childhood.
As for nature making us feel old, several answers revolved around the sadness of not being able to do favorite activities anymore. Sometimes the changes aren’t in our bodies, but in the places we love. Childhood haunts are paved over, and a favorite lake turned green with algae. Planting and growing things came up, too, since the life cycles in our garden plants are so short, and becoming a gardener can also mean taking on the role of your grandmother.
I also think about my age in relation to critters who live fast and die young. Many moths and butterflies complete their entire life cycle in a matter of weeks. If they are one of the generations who must survive the winter, then their life might last a whole year, with a long dormancy in the middle. The flowers they feed on also race through life. Many songbirds and small mammals can’t live more than a single decade, while here I am starting on my fifth one!
If I want to feel young, though, I look up. In the shade of a centuries-old white pine, my daily doings seem smaller in scale. And then there are the stars. A human at any age is young within the universe.
One of my wisest friends boiled it down to the fact that: “When I feel joy, I feel young; when I don’t feel joy, I feel old.” For him—for many of us—nature is that reliable source for joy.
Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books and at your local independent bookstore, too.
For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Visit our Mysteries of the Night exhibit before it closes at the end of February. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and cablemuseum.org to see what we are up to.