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February 23, 2012

Making Connections

If you spend enough time in the great outdoors, you probably have a deep catalogue of tales to tell of amazing trips and close encounters with creatures big and small. Stop by the San Francisco headquarters of the Sierra Club sometime, and I'll tell you about a big bear that came calling late one night in the Grand Tetons....

But my favorite camping story isn't about a hair-raising adventure. It comes from one of the first camping trips my wife, Mary, and I took with our daughter, who was a little more than two years old at the time. We were camping among the beautiful redwoods in Hendy Woods State Park, not far from Mendocino, California.

It was after dinner; the sun was going down, and the forest was bathed in a magnificent golden light. Our precocious little girl had us up on a log and was directing her obedient parents to jump on and off at her command.

Suddenly she stopped. "Wait!" she exclaimed. "The whole world is broken! I have to fix it. I'll be right back." She turned away, took a few steps, and began rubbing her hands together. Mary and I looked at each other, shaking our heads in wonder and amusement. I have to stop talking about work so much, I thought. Then Olivia came back, a reassuring smile on her face, and said, "Okay, everything is better now. Let's play!"

Let's play. Although the Sierra Club's motto is to "explore, enjoy, and protect the planet," we don't always pay enough attention to the first two parts. Sure, the Club has an unparalleled track record of winning big environmental battles: everything from shutting down coal plants to protecting kids from lead poisoning to keeping oil rigs out of the Arctic Refuge. But we also know that people who experience and appreciate the wonders of nature are more likely to work for its protection. It's a link buried deep in our DNA. At the Sierra Club, it goes all the way back to John Muir, the Scotsman with itchy feet and boundless curiosity who founded the Club in 1892.

Back then, the Sierra Club was already a social network -- just one that didn't include computers, smartphones, Facebook, Twitter, texting, or any of the other modern ways people communicate. That's not because its members hated technology. Muir himself was a talented inventor, the kind of guy who could design and build his own clock. These folks used the tools of their time to discuss and spread the radical idea that bound them powerfully together.

What was that idea? Simply this: Nature doesn't need people, but people need nature. Without it, we're something less than fully alive. It's why my family takes every chance we can to explore in our extended backyard of Northern California. It's why the Sierra Club takes thousands of inner-city kids on wilderness trips every year. It's why Americans have set aside many of our best remaining wild places as national parks and other protected lands. And it's why we can't let climate change destroy everything we've preserved.

We're saving it because we need it.

The Sierra Club has expanded far beyond anything John Muir ever imagined. Today we are more than one million strong. We connect on the Internet, in local chapters and groups around the nation, and in social networks. These tools help us work even more effectively for the planet, as well as share information about the places we love. But no matter what the medium, it always comes down to the connection between people and the amazing world we live in.

When I was a kid, my parents took my siblings and me camping up and down the eastern seaboard. They tell me that I even learned to walk at a campground in Maine. Each time Mary and I take our own kids camping, I can feel their connection to nature get a little stronger.

Someday our children may ask us what actions we took when beauty and wilderness were threatened by greed and carelessness. As a dad, I hope they do ask, because it will show that they care. And I know that they'll care deeply enough if they make their own connections with nature in their own ways. So we fight the big environmental battles, and we hike the small trails. We keep after corporate executives and politicians, and we celebrate the grandeur of wild places.

I can't even begin to imagine the tools my children will use to share their love of the wild and tell their tales, any more than John Muir could have imagined using the Sierra Club's online activist network. But as long as they carry nature in their hearts and memories, I know we'll have a fighting chance.

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Michael Brune

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