EarthWorks Institute

earthworks institute

Kids running wild, as they should, during one of EarthWorks’ summer programs. (Photo courtesy of EarthWorks Institute)

The quintessential American childhood is built upon exploration. We see it time and again in children’s literary classics, such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Bridge to Terebithia, and the Little House on the Prairie series. More often than not, the freedom of exploration is linked with the outdoors. Even when the kids are housebound, they often find a way to circumvent their situation—say, via a secret garden or an enchanted wardrobe—and hidden, natural worlds once again are theirs to pursue. Nature is the most accessible landscape for—to borrow a line from Dumbledore—the flighty temptress adventure.

I don’t need to tell you that kids spend a lot of time in front of screens these days. If you haven’t witnessed it yourself, then you’ve definitely been bashed with a dozen or more headlines about it. Like the debate on artificial sweeteners or millennials choosing avocados over houses, screen time for children is a hot-button issue that never lacks in “news” coverage.

It’s something Lindsay Cray has noticed, too. Lindsay is the Co-Founder and Executive Director for EarthWorks Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on connecting residents in the Greater Rochester, New York, area with the world and community around them. Typically this is done through developing a closer connection with or a better understanding of the outdoors. Although EarthWorks offers classes for a variety of ages, its emphasis is on kids.

“Kids are lost,” Lindsay told me in a phone interview. “I’ve met children who literally don’t know how to climb trees, or don’t know how to cross a creek. And I’m not talking a raging river creek. I’m talking a creek that’s five or six feet wide with stones to step on. I’ve worked with children who have stopped dead in their tracks in front of a small body of water and looked at me like, ‘what do we do from here?’”

Before dedicating herself to outdoor education, Lindsay worked as a research scientist studying facets of the human condition, knowledge which influences her work today.

“We’re not as far away from our primitive ancestors as we like to think we are,” said Lindsay. “Doing things like climbing trees increases your balance and also helps you become good at math. Being outside and learning how to push your physical limits helps you to control your mental limits as well. Kids who are constantly dealing with sensory overload don’t understand how to process information and that information can either be schoolwork, or it can be social emotional learning, or it can be critical thinking skills. They’re losing that because they don’t physically challenge themselves in ways that are healthy.”

EarthWorks has many programs designed to get kids reacquainted with nature. They offer courses in tracking, foraging, primitive tools, zombie slugs, and even a Jedi-themed summer program where kids will learn “the true power of the FOREST AWAKENED.”

And the programs are working.

Lindsay says that the response from participants—both kids and adults—has been overwhelmingly positive: “A lot of people tell us that the work we’ve done with them or their children has changed their lives, that the children have become people that the parents didn’t even realize they could be, or that it’s brought them out of their shell. Kids beg to come back, especially for our forest school and our summer camp program.”

In 2016 alone, EarthWorks reached 2,180 participants. They conducted around 700 hours of programs, 620 of which were oriented at children.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would’ve been a very different story if Huck had been given an iPad in the beginning. Forget building a raft. He could have rented a kayak and booked Airbnbs along the way. But where’s the rip-roaring adventure in that?

We need adventure in our lives, especially the wilderness variety. As adventurer and indie vanlife god Chris McCandless once wrote, “I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong. To measure yourself at least once. To find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions.”

So let the kids run wild. A little bit of mud never hurt anybody.

(Interested in learning more about EarthWorks? Click here!)

Sierra Club, Lehigh Valley Group

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The Lehigh Valley Group of the Pennsylvania Chapter hosted a screening of “From the Ashes” at the Charles Brown Ice House in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

If you’re involved in the outdoors in any capacity, you’ve heard of the Sierra Club before. Headquartered in Oakland, California, and founded in 1892 by environmentalist and outdoorsman John Muir, the organization boasts three million supporters, making them the undisputed king of grassroots environmentalism.

I met with Executive Committee member of the Pennsylvania Chapter Don Miles after a screening of “From the Ashes,” a documentary about America’s coal industry. The film screening was busy, but not packed, and at 24, I was on the younger side of attendees.

The attendee demographic wasn’t surprising. I see far more of my peers at events like the Banff Mountain Film Festival tour than I do at environmentalism events. Who wants to hear about how U.S. coal plants are responsible for more than half of human-caused mercury emissions when you could watch Angel Collinson ski unbelievable lines in Alaska? Adventure trumps activism. Or so it seems.

So who is strapping on their Tevas and taking up the environmental banner (a sustainably produced banner, of course)?

Well, not the people who showed up to the public hearing on wind turbines in the Lehigh Valley region that Don attended.

“[There were] 300 people there. All screaming and yelling, and all full of misinformation,” said Don. One man stood up and expressed concern about the danger turbines posed to deer, bear, and mountain lions. Don informed him that the eastern cougar (mountain lion) has been extinct for nearly 70 years, the last one formally registered as killed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission in 1874. “There’s a certain sort of person who knows what they know and doesn’t want to hear any facts. And you can’t argue with them,” he told me.

When people do show up to public forums, Don pointed out that they’re not usually supporters: “My experience in practicing law for 40 years is the vast majority of people who show up to meetings are against what’s going on, not in favor of it. If people are in favor of something, they just think it’s going to happen. It’s the people that are against something that turn up.”

I’ve never been to a public forum before. Prior to 2017, I’d never called or emailed a government representative. But apathy is a luxury I can no longer afford. The cost of inaction is too high.

There are different degrees of activism, and any type of participation is helpful. But how do we motivate people to go from hashtags to public forums? How do we cultivate passion for things we so often take for granted? How do we make films about coal just as enticing, just as attention-grabbing as films about skiing?

I don’t have many answers. But this blog, for me, is a start.

In Their Own Words

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Bethany Keene and Jason Zarnowski work for the Delaware Highlands Conservancy at their Hawley, Pennsylvania, office.

“We hope the community sees us as a resource. . . .We’re not here to tell people, ‘Don’t do that.’ We’re not pointing our finger and saying, ‘You can’t do that with your land.’ We’re helping people who want to protect what they have, who have this beautiful land and they want to say that it’ll still be a farm, it’ll still be a forest, whoever owns it. So we really help people meet their goals for their land, which benefits us all.” —Bethany Keene, Outreach & Development Team Lead

“I often get emails and phone calls saying, ‘I have this on my property, and I don’t know what to do about it.’ The latest one was about bees. ‘I’ve got all these bees, and I don’t know what to do with them.’ And while we didn’t know what to do in staff, we knew where to point them. If they don’t know what to do, they know we can send them to someone who can help.” —Jason Zarnowski, Outreach and GIS Coordinator

Delaware Highlands Conservancy

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The Conservancy focuses on land protection, education, and community initiatives within the Upper Delaware River region.

If Pennsylvania does one thing well, it’s waterways. From the Delaware River in the east to the Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela in the west, what Pennsylvania lacks in mountains it makes up for in rivers and waterfalls galore (fun fact: Ricketts Glen State Park has 22 waterfalls alone).

Water was a running theme (see what I did there?) in my talk with Bethany Keene and Jason Zarnowski from the Delaware Highlands Conservancy. They have a variety of community programs—everything from teaching women landowners on how to best steward their land, to running eagle viewing sites in the winter—but one of their primary focuses is land protection, which, in turn, protects water quality.

“Whatever you do to the land, you do to the water,” said Bethany. “So if you want to have clean drinking water, it’s based on what you’re doing on your land. If you’re dropping fertilizer, if you’re mowing right up to the edge of a lake or stream, everything you do on your land affects the water. And that’s why we work so hard to protect the farms and forests here because that’s really what’s helping to keep the water clean.”

Two numbers from our conversation really stuck with me: seven and 15 million. Seven is the number of Conservancy employees, and 15 million is the number of people who rely on clean water from the Upper Delaware River region, which is the area the Conservancy works within.

Seven people helping to preserve water quality for 15 million people.

Seven.

Fifteen million.

Of course, the Conservancy is not alone. There are other organizations and agencies helping to regulate water quality, but we, the consumers, trust a very small body of people to control something as essential as water. Like so many other things, a luxury of living in a first-world country is that water quality is something we don’t think about until something goes wrong. We assume it’s a given.

Which is why education is such an important part of the Conservancy’s mission: If we learn how our actions affect our water sources, if we all contribute in big and small ways to conserve and protect, then the ripple effect lessens and the ratio increases. It’s not just seven people safeguarding drinking water, it’s 100, 10,000, 10 million.

Want to take the first step in protecting local water sources? Bethany and Jason directed me to Clear Choices Clean Water, where you can learn easy ways to conserve water and take a pledge to make a difference. Check it out!