Dave Anderson's Forest Journal: As summer ebbs, a naturalist reflects on the outdoors
The seemingly sudden onset of shorter evenings with cooler temperatures signals to plants, wildlife and to people that summer is fading faster than a September suntan. It's bittersweet when the riotous dawn chorus of birdsong falls silent. The earliest departers - shorebirds and hummingbirds - are already fueling for their annual autumnal migration. Can school buses possibly be far behind?
August nights so recently punctuated by meteor showers now feature chirping crickets reminiscent of autumn. Wet weather in June and July has necessitated leaving portions of fields unmowed and made many just about abandon hopes for a bumper tomato crop. Instead, a lush growth of garden weeds and fields of wildflowers conceal a wealth of grasshoppers, fat spiders and fledgling songbirds or turkey poults that survived our June monsoon.
While more resilient, trees like the red maples growing in swamps and margins of brim-full beaver ponds reveal the first early blush of autumn color. These "Judas trees" are all too quick to betray the remaining days of summer.
Naturalist goes 'people watching'
I've been watching people enjoying the New Hampshire outdoors all summer while traveling from the White Mountains to Mount Monadnock, to Mount Major and amid the coastal communities of Portsmouth, Rye and Hampton. I've noticed how deeply nature and outdoor recreation figure in our economy, our culture and our collective regional sense of place and well-being.
As a naturalist, I focused my powers of observation on the human species this summer as I observed hundreds - perhaps thousands - of people engaged in hiking, climbing, camping, fishing, swimming, boating, paddling, biking, dog-walking, birding, identifying dragonflies or wildflowers - or just strolling a lake shore or ocean beach at sunset. There is more than one way to earn an ice cream cone!
I no longer believe New Hampshire factors into nationwide statistics related to widespread "nature-deficit disorder." If such a broad cultural and spiritual crisis exists in other regions of the country, you wouldn't know it around here.
Even during a wet summer punctuated by tropical downpours and bouts of sweltering heat, people are flocking in droves to the Great Outdoors.
Forsaking the comforts of air conditioning or the easy entertainment of high-tech video games, people are traveling across our state's waterways and swarming into our forested mountains. Outdoor, nature-based recreation remains the preferred wellspring for wellness and a reliable lure for visitors and residents alike.
While recent news stories re-enforced the dangers of high water, lightning storms or a lack of preparedness, especially when relying exclusively on cellphones or GPS in lieu of map-reading skills, the fact that people sometimes experience trouble outdoors merely shows we are indeed getting outdoors to gain experience despite potential risks.
The natural 'NH advantage'
It's good to see people enjoying themselves while experiencing the best New Hampshire has to offer - discovering wildlife and physical fitness through outdoor recreation pursuits amid the stunning natural beauty of rivers, lakes, forests and mountain trails.
Perhaps even the elusive solution to the "access to affordable health care" debate is as close as the nearest New Hampshire state park or White Mountain National Forest trailhead? No harm in trying.
The role of outdoor recreation for wellness should rightfully become more prominent in the national health care debate. Policy-makers and health clinicians would do well to consider the role of the existing treasury of public lands as a support network for health and wellness. Beyond the direct benefits of clean air and clean water, a healthy environment provides opportunities for outdoor recreation, which can indirectly yield a happier and healthier human population.
From what I've witnessed, New Hampshire remains among first-in-the-nation states when it comes to appreciation for a high-quality natural environment and outdoor recreation. This is my tree-hugger version of the oft-cited "New Hampshire advantage!"
Seize the day!
Good news: Five weeks of fine summer remain, including the long Labor Day holiday weekend. Now it's high time to check off items remaining on your summer "bucket list" of places to go and things to do. Make plans to make tracks!
As the earliest tint of fall colors will soon remind us . on second thought, wait check that. The autumn foliage season is pretty sweet for getting outdoors, too!
Naturalist Dave Anderson is director of Education and Volunteer Services for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. The column appears once a month in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the Forest Society Web site: forestsociety.org.