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March 24, 2014

Finding Common Ground Outdoors

Someone once said, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." Blogging about getting outdoors feels a bit like that. Part of me thinks that rather than writing 850 words about getting outdoors, I'd much rather be outdoors. And then part of me thinks that, rather than reading those 850 words, you might feel the same way!

But since we're here, together, united by this glowing screen, let me share a few thoughts about Sierra Club Outdoors -- which, every year, helps more than 250,000 people get their nature fix.

Getting outside has always been a big part of the Sierra Club, of course. The Club was started, after all, by a group of mostly city dwellers who wanted to explore and enjoy the great outdoors. Back in the 1890s, mind you, this was still a somewhat novel idea. Not so long before, most people still saw the great outdoors as something to escape from or stoically endure.

What those first Sierra Club members instinctively realized (with a little help from nature's greatest evangelist, John Muir) was that in "escaping" the outdoors, people were also cutting themselves off from a key nutrient -- like being deprived of an essential vitamin.

Today, of course, "nature deficit syndrome" is widely recognized for how it affects kids who grow up without access to outdoor experiences. We know that direct nature experiences shape the lives of young people, improve their self-esteem, raise their test scores, and help them lead healthier lives. That's why one volunteer-run SC Outdoors program is specifically aimed at helping thousands of urban youth -- kids who may have grown up 10 miles from the ocean without ever walking on a beach, for instance -- experience the outdoors.

The lack of nature doesn't affect only kids, though, and its benefits can help others, too.

Our Military Outdoors program, for instance, ensures that those who served our country, as well as their families, can enjoy the splendor of the land for which they've sacrificed. What Thoreau once called "the tonic of wildness" can do powerful things. At a minimum, outdoor experiences can provide military service members and their families with adventure, camaraderie, as sense of mission, or just a chance to relax and reconnect with one another.

Although we're proud of our programs that serve some of the people who stand to benefit the most from getting outdoors, the Sierra Club was founded on the premise that everyone deserves the opportunity to experience wildness, regardless of where they live or what their economic circumstances might be. We make that happen in two ways. One is by working to ensure that we don't focus only on iconic national parks or remote wilderness areas. Wonderful as those are, there's also a need for local places that individuals or families can easily visit for a picnic or an hour-long stroll. We call such places "nearby nature," and they are where many of our local outings happen.

The other way we make that happen is by having lots of outings in lots of places. Our volunteers lead more than 13,000 outings a year -- and they happen in every state and U.S. territory. Every one of these events -- whether it's a short day hike or a backpacking trip through the High Sierra -- happens because of a volunteer leader who loves the outdoors and wants to share that with other people.

As a result, no matter where you live, there's probably a Sierra Club outing happening near you soon. Find out right now by visiting the SC Outdoors page on our website.

OK, now that you've found your next outing, I want to leave you with just a couple of more thoughts before you lace up your boots and hit the trail: I'm convinced that the programs that make up SC Outdoors are more than just an important part of the Sierra Club's work -- they are an essential part. How many great conservation victories have been achieved without the hard work of ordinary folks who didn't want to see a place they loved destroyed? I can't think of a single one. The strongest passion for protection springs from love. No wonder throughout our history so many of our greatest leaders, from John Muir onward, have found their way to the Club through their love of the natural world.

It goes even deeper than that, though. Spending time outdoors can be personally healing, but it's also something that can bring people together, regardless of differing backgrounds, political beliefs, or experience. In nature, we have an opportunity to connect with people on a different level -- and to find common ground at a time when so many other forces are working to push us apart. Nature helps us restore our funds of hope, cooperation, and optimism -- and we can't have too much of any of those, whether we're fighting to save an Arctic wilderness or working to replace a dirty power plant with clean, renewable energy.

So come outdoors with us. You won't be sorry you did.

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