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Earth Matters: The Magic of the Woods

children playing in brook

This article was written for the November 2, 2018 “Earth Matters” column in the Daily Hampshire Gazette by Kari Blood, Communications & Outreach Manager. The column is sponsored by the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.

When I was a child growing up in upstate New York, there was magic all around me. I found that magic in The Woods, as we reverently called them, that surrounded our neighborhood. I could wander out through my own backyard to the footpath leading into the forest of oaks, maples and hickories, and explore anywhere the well-worn trails took me. I often visited The Stream, where I’d overturn small rocks looking for crayfish or salamanders, or simply marvel at the feel of the cool water tumbling over my fingers from a miniature waterfall.

My older sister taught me the names of the birds we heard, and how to look for raccoon tracks in the moist sand along The Stream. In the fall, I’d watch the forest floor become carpeted with red, orange and yellow leaves and I learned to name the trees that dropped them there for me to happily kick up into clouds of color.

Back then, I imagined that every other child must also have a magic forest to explore and love, right in their own backyard. I had no idea how wrong I was.

Even back in the 1970s, when “screen time” meant three channels on television, and playing outdoors after school was the norm for the community I lived in, there were still many children who didn’t have a place to get outdoors like I did. Today, this is truer than ever.

Certainly, one factor is screen time: According to a 2010 national survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, children aged 8 to 18 spent an average of nearly 8 hours a day on electronic devices, leaving far less time for outdoor play. But another important factor is simply the lack of access to public parks or trails in the first place. The Trust for Public Land estimates that across the United States, more than 100 million people — children and adults — don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk of home.

Outdoor Experiences Have a Bounty of Benefits

The impact is significant: Research continues to show that having access to nature not only improves physical health, but mental and emotional well-being as well. Around the world, studies show that exposure to undeveloped land with natural vegetation, including urban parks, leads to better health outcomes, like lower blood pressure, less stress and reduced rates of diabetes. As little as 15 minutes per day spent in outdoors can also help relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety, improve memory and enhance creativity.

The nonprofit Children and Nature Network cites research that shows kids who play outside are happier and more creative, and do better in school. Spending time in nature — even being able to see it from their classroom windows — can improve kids’ academic performance, boost their focus and attention, and enhance their problem-solving ability.

In an era when technology is consuming more of our time — and development is consuming more of our landscape — parks, trails and public conservation areas provide a valuable opportunity to connect to the land. Since not everyone can live in a neighborhood that backs up to The Woods, we must work together to ensure there are special places like this that are open to all. That’s why the process of land conservation is a critical public service.

Permanently conserving woodlands, forests, wetlands and other natural areas to protect them from being converted into buildings, roads and parking lots has many benefits. It protects habitat for the many animals, insects and plants you’ve read about in past Earth Matters columns. It helps keep our air and water clean, and even helps fight the impacts of climate change. But conserving these lands is also imperative for the well-being of human society — children and adults alike.

“Kids who play outside are happier and more creative, and do better in school.”

We’re fortunate to live in Massachusetts because support for land conservation is relatively strong. A nonprofit organization whose mission is to facilitate land conservation is called a “land trust” and our Commonwealth has more of them than any other state besides California. Kestrel Land Trust, Franklin Land Trust, Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust and Hilltown Land Trust all serve different regions of Western Massachusetts. (There are also smaller land trusts in our area that work exclusively within individual towns.) All of these organizations work with their local communities, as well as state and federal conservation agencies, to create public lands with willing landowners.

For example, Kestrel Land Trust based in Amherst is working on several projects right now to improve access to the natural parks and trails in the Valley. This includes town conservation areas that are close to home, as well as the state parks on the Mount Holyoke and Mount Tom Ranges. In Easthampton, Kestrel is working to secure public access to the Mount Tom State Reservation and its trails for local residents. This new conservation area will include a universally accessible overlook, with views of the Oxbow, and trails through the woods connecting to the New England National Scenic Trail.

Projects like these ensure that people can have the opportunity to reap the invaluable benefits of experiencing nature as a regular part of their lives. We all deserve a place to enjoy the outdoors where we can get off our screens and into the woods — where magical experiences await.

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