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Giving Ourselves Permission to Play

Story and photos contributed by Sydney Giuliano

The cold, wet weather we’ve had this spring can get us down and coop us up, but this Kestrel volunteer Sydney Giuliano found a way to give herself a much needed recess. Here’s her story.

Back in February on a weekday lunch-break, when I couldn’t stand being indoors any longer, I decided to ditch my office. I stuffed a granola bar in my mouth, changed my high heels for snow boots, blasted my favorite hiking playlist (acoustic indie) through my car speakers, and wound my way along the rural roads of Hadley. My destination was the Hampshire College Conservation Area. The drive over to this conservation land is nearly as calming as walking its quiet trails. That day, the open fields and low valleys collected fresh glittering snow. The branches of the Mount Holyoke Range ahead were outlined in a layer of winter that flashed like mirrors.

Hampshire College conservation

The trail opens at one end of a quiet residential street off of Rt 47, a stark contrast to the popular hiking spots I am used to frequenting. There is no parking lot, no porta-pottie, no sign of humanity besides the footprints dotted along the snow. I was even lucky enough to spot a few deer tracks that strayed from the man-made path, a welcome reminder that I was actually a guest here. Yet, the tranquil seclusion of this trail brought me back to my childhood, when I explored the forest behind my home in rural eastern Connecticut. I couldn’t help but remember winter days with my brother building snow forts among the trees and sledding down the makeshift hills created by my dad’s snow plow—small bumps compared to the mountains here.

I miss carefree days like that. Somewhere between adolescence and adulthood we lose the permission to play, or at least it feels that way. Winter months seem to stretch forever; huddled in stuffy offices and behind closed doors, we sit waiting for summer. Deep within my memory, however, are snow days and snowmen, runny noses and snow pants.

This day I made the conscious effort to go out and play. The forest was silent except for the soft crunch of my heels in the frozen snow. The midday sun twinkled through the evergreen branches of a nearby hemlock tree (a native to this area that is slowly being thinned out by two invasive insect species, the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid and Eastern Hemlock Scale). The evergreen giants shape our forests, providing habitats for countless New England species of plants and animals.

Not only do these trees support this ecosystem, but in their own small way they improve the lives of Hampshire College Conservation area winter hemlockeveryone who traverses these trails. Studies have proven that humanity benefits psychologically from increased biodiversity. We have evolved to seek out habitats that best match those that we thrived in when we were a new species. This means, of course, that if you are searching for a quick and healthy mood boost, the best place to find it is in nature. The cramped outlook we have in winter is in large part due to our indoor confinement. It is important that we make time for the forest, not only to cultivate a healthy appreciation for our planet, but to develop a healthy relationship with ourselves.

For me, this meant taking a spare hour to shuffle through the snow beneath the trees, reveling in the silence between the branches. Stray thoughts floated in and out of my mind. I could be running errands, working on my resume, finally cleaning out my car, writing those few emails, but no. Today I gave myself permission to pause, I gave myself permission to play.

And Finally Spring Arrives

Bud on multiflora rose

One month later, I returned to the same trails for another self-mandated recess, this time bringing along a friend. We sang along to my playlist together, our voices drifting out my car windows and across the hills. We made it to the conservation land by twilight, my favorite time of day. There’s something magical in the way the sun dipping below the horizon can paint the world in a thin layer of gold. The earlier mid-day warmth barely clung to the air, just the right temperature for a cozy hoodie and hiking shoes. Small patches of snow lazily stretched across the shaded crooks in the pathway, forcing us to be creative with our footing. I love this trail in particular because of its quiet seclusion. It provided the perfect combination of the excitement that comes with being engrossed in wilderness and the comfort of a well-worn path.

Girl on trail at dusk

My friend laughed at me while I tried to capture just the right picture of the opening buds of a Multiflora Rose, another invasive species. Its buds open much earilier in the season than its native counterparts, giving it an advantage for reproduction. For my purposes, this early bloom was the best evidence of Spring, right on time.

I rubbed the painful thorn pricks on my fingers while the two of us caught up on our lives’ current events. As much as I enjoyed my winter adventures, I am grateful for the warmer weather and the friend who wouldn’t have accompanied me without it. After the isolating cold of another New England winter, I am looking forward to blooming flower buds, sunshine, and friends to share it all with.


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