Above the Waterline: Nature is the ultimate holiday gift

On Thanksgiving, I had a new guest at my house: my granddog, Randy, who needed a home for a few days while his dad traveled to California to spend the holiday with my other son and his wife. Although still a puppy, Randy is big with a Saint-Bernard-like face and a long, lean body. Like most dogs, his passions are eating, sleeping and taking walks.

When I pick up his leash, and say the magic word, “walky,” Randy reacts with uncontrollable spasms of joy and excitement. The great outdoors! New smells, sights, sounds and, best of all, squirrels. On this Thanksgiving morning, a glorious day in the city, Randy and I walked the streets and parks of my neighborhood.

The autumn colors were astonishing: bright yellow ginkgos, trees that are largely invisible until they change color and drop a buttery carpet of leaves on the ground; maples, sporting cinnamon red-hot leaves, like the tree in my front yard, to dark reds, yellows and oranges; and poplars, wearing pale yellows and browns, the kitten-faced leaves of my childhood.

I’m forever in wonder of nature: the never-straight lines of tree branches, streams and flower stems. While the tall buildings of Midtown Atlanta serve as an impressive back-drop, I’m spellbound by the blue heron that Randy and I discover feeding in a small pond; by the falling leaves that, wind-propelled, spiral downward in a rain of color; and by the birdsong that surrounds us.

These are just a few of the natural gifts that can be found right outside our front doors, the rich diversity of the world around us. Humans have done nothing to earn or deserve this wealth; it predates us. Perhaps that is why we too often take nature for granted.

Author Terry Tempest Williams says that our public lands make each one of us “land-rich”, that these places are our inheritance. She is hopeful when she writes: “This is what we can promise the future: a legacy of care. That we will be good stewards and not take too much or give back too little, that we will recognize wild nature for what it is, in all its magnificent and complex history.”

Sixty years ago, William O. Douglas, the longest-serving justice on the U.S. Supreme Court and a prolific outdoor writer, wrote: “Those who visit Hart [a mountain in southern Oregon] next century will know that we were faithful life tenants, that we did not entirely despoil the earth which we left them. We will make the tradition of conservation as much a part of their inheritance as the land itself.”

Will we be able to say the same – that we were faithful life tenants of the natural world around us? That we protected ourselves and future generations from what has been called the extinction of experience?

When I am stressed, a walk outside helps me relax; breathing deeply of fresh air revitalizes me. Those curving, irregular lines of nature please my eyes and my body makes a visceral connection with the moveable natural feast that surrounds me. A walk in wilderness is even more powerful. In a few days, I’ll take a long hike in north Georgia on the Benton MacKaye Trail. The leaf piles will be deep on the trail, which receives few visitors this time of year. I know that I will slow down in the woods, breathe deeply and forget the politics of men, seeking wild things instead.

Nature is the ultimate gift this – and every – holiday season. We must never fail to give it to ourselves (to leave our electronic devices and walk outside) and to offer it to those who we love through experiences with nature, be it a family walk after Thanksgiving turkey or a longer adventure away from home.

I learned from my parents the important lesson of giving my time and special experiences; they presented outings as gifts to my grandmother, rather than items for which she had no use. We would drive to the mountains and picnic by a stream in the fall and rent a pontoon boat at Callaway Gardens and view the beautiful azaleas there every spring. Right here in metro Atlanta, there are boundless opportunities to lose yourself in nature – from your own backyard and the park down the street to one of our three national parks.

You can also continue the tradition of conservation by making a gift donation in honor of a special friend or family member to one of the many nonprofit organizations that are working daily, right here in Georgia, to protect our rivers, forests, urban parks and wildlife. Most importantly, after praises have been sung, the presents opened and the holiday meal consumed, make sure to open the door and walk outside.

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and current board president of Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy whose mission is to build a community of support for the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Her Above the Waterline column recently won first place for opinion writing at the Georgia Press Association Awards. 

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