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Nature as a teacher: A lesson in appreciating the simple things

By Marissa Stipek, Opinion Editor

When I was younger, I went to summer camp every year. Not sports camp or theatre camp, just your general Parent Trap, "Camp Walden" type, complete with hiking, fishing, archery and bunk beds. Even though a session lasted only six days, it was always the highlight of my summer.

The preparations began weeks in advance. A small pile would accumulate in my room, growing as I collected more and more necessities- sunscreen, bug spray, white T-shirts to tie-dye and the traditional box of Hot Fudge Sundae flavored PopTarts.

The brochure that was sent to campers included not only a list of what to bring, but also a list of what to leave at home. And on that list, catalogued among nice clothing, hairdryers and bad attitudes, was "cell phones."

This rule never phased me as an elementary schooler, but as I got older and more dependent on my phone, I was always a bit dismayed at the thought of being disconnected from the outside world. What if my friends tried to text me? What if I missed something important back home? This was before the term FOMO was coined, but I'm pretty sure that's what I was experiencing.

Still, I knew that in order to fully immerse myself in the camp experience, I would have to leave my phone behind. It was kind of nice to be completely absorbed in the moment and not think about what was going on elsewhere. Although camp was only an hour away, it felt like a different world: greener, simpler, without a single worry aside from which cabin would win the competition for the most "spirit points."

Last week, my environmental journalism class took a field trip to Edge of the Farm Preserve, part of the Three Valley Conservation Trust. Donna McCollum, who lives on the property with her husband Hays Cummins, guided us on a tour of the natural areas.

From the moment we stepped off Donna's deck and made our way down the rock-paved path into the forest, I was reminded of my days at summer camp and overwhelmed by a sense of adventure I hadn't realized I was missing.

Donna took us through trails and up hills, pausing every hundred yards or so to point out something new. On our right there was honeysuckle, an invasive species encroaching on the forest and threatening to overtake the native plants. On our left sat white snakeroot, a poisonous plant that, as Donna informed us, killed Lincoln's mother when she drank milk from a cow that had grazed on the flower. Donna's enthusiasm for the environment was contagious. On multiple occasions she described things - plants, insects, her three rescued dogs - as being an "absolute delight."

Eventually, we emerged into a field of tall grass. As I gazed at rows of golden flowers, my fingers twitched at my sides and I regretted leaving my phone in the car. The sunflowers looked so pretty in the late afternoon light -- and I desperately wanted to Snapchat the image to my friends.

But why? My inability to share - or show off - what I was experiencing didn't take away from the fact that I was experiencing it. Why couldn't I be content with what I was doing without needing to update everyone else?

Donna told us how she and Hays had come to the woods one day to see a flock of birds migrating through. There were hundreds of them perched among the branches of trees. Having forgotten their cameras, Donna and Hays vowed to come back the following morning; unfortunately, by the time they returned, the birds had moved on. Donna recounted this story, lamenting her missed opportunity to capture the experience. However, she said the fact that the moment had been so fleeting made it all the more special.

She had a good point. After reevaluating, I was glad that I didn't have the distraction of technology at my fingertips. I was able to focus on what was right in front of me instead of on my screen.

At school it can be easy to sweat the small stuff: there are chapters to read, deadlines to meet and emails to respond to. Throw in grocery shopping, having a social life and making it to class on time looking halfway decent, and the hustle and bustle of everyday life can get overwhelming.

But, out on the trails, all of that went away. The trip served the same purpose as going to camp always had for me: it forced me to unplug and unwind, find happiness among the simplest things and to appreciate the beauty around me.