I had my first mystical moment in nature the first time I slept out under the stars at summer camp.
While we usually slept in modest cabins, and I had been attending week-long camps for a few years, one night we had the option of either sleeping in the rec room, or going on a short hike with our sleeping bags to sleep under the stars.
How novel! Though tempted by the all-night prospects of air-hockey and pool, I was immediately drawn to the stars.
After a short hike through the dark, the ten or so of us settled into our sleeping bags and each our own personal display of the dark tree canopy framing an opening to the crystal clear sky.
I took a deep breath of the crisp mountain air and thought to my 10 year old self:
I’m breathing air particles that have traveled all around the world, from HAWAII to Colorado. These same air particles could have been in the lungs of ABRAHAM LINCOLN and hundreds of thousands of others. And now I’m breathing them.
WOW. I was certainly having a special moment as I settled into a perfect night of sleep, with none of the trouble I had sleeping in our cabin’s creaky-springed bunks.
Are the stars always this bright!?
Research in the field of Conservation Psychology has identified this sort of early, transcendental moment as a common strand amongst people who go on to work in conservation or otherwise devote their careers to the outdoors (see: CU Boulder Env. Design professor Louise Chawla’s citations on “significant life experiences” in nature, she’s an international leader in the field of child-focused environmental design).
My career has often hinged on the work of connecting youth with nature, and that work is often framed in the light of building the next generation of land stewards. The logic goes along this path: If they don’t experience the land they won’t love it, and if they don’t love it, they won’t take care of it. Therefore we aim to provide experiences in nature. But…
But what kind of experiences build a true connection?
I certainly had a lot of exposure to nature from both my family (both sets of grandparents lived in the Colorado mountains), school trips, and summer camps. The majority of those experiences do not particularly stand out in my memory, and often felt like the regular rhythm of childhood, being dragged around to wherever the adults were going. Some even bordered on traumatizing. (Each grandfather failed to impress upon me fishing, in their own comic-tragic misadventures.)
To me, the mystical moment under the stars marked a new sort of connection with nature.
It had little to do with adults’ intentions. It had little to do with an activity, getting somewhere, or doing something. It was quiet, personal, and all my own. A special moment and feeling that no one had ever told me to expect or look for. And when it happened, I needed no artifact or explanation to make sense of it.
With my lungs full of jet-streamed air from Hawaii, sharing the breath of life with Abe Lincoln, I at once knew the world was infinitely immense and contained all within me.
I was in the forest, under the trees, under the stars, in a quiet tribe of fellow campers, perfectly at home.
Decades later when I completed research for a youth and nature initiative, I came across the idea of transcendental childhood moments and recognized that special night under the stars as my own.
I’ve had moments since then, in nature, that hinted at such oneness:
- descending into the Grand Canyon from the South Rim on a college Thanksgiving backpacking trip, the sun setting after a really really hard first day, feeling utterly connected to our small group of travelers
- stepping out of a forest camp into an open alpine meadow to eat my simple bowl of diner under another epic sunset at 13,000+ ft in the Music Pass area above the Great Sand Dunes
- deliriously wandering out of a sweat lodge at the Canyon de Chelly, following mountain lion tracks around the mesa top and circling back on myself
But none of these came close to the complete knowing I had at 10 years old.
I’m not sure how we best craft these moments for youth. There’s certainly not a formula, and each moment is completely personal and unique.
But as we think back to our own experiences, and learn about others’, we may find ourselves framing our outdoor education programs a little differently.
We may have to suffice to know, as long as we keep getting kids outdoors in different ways, experiencing different things, at some special moment aligned with their particular inclinations, one of these mystical moments might happen!