Many of my most vivid childhood memories come from family camping trips. Roasting ?banana boats? over a blazing fire, fishing for the next day?s breakfast, and card games set to the sound of raindrops. Camping wasn?t just about time spent near each other, it was family, wrapped in and around a slab of canvas we called “The Circus Tent.” You couldn?t miss our campsite, thanks to a yellow and green canvas monstrosity that had belonged to my grandparents. I loved it, despite a musty smell and frayed look.
A symbol of nostalgia even when I was small, this tent was where I slept in the same spot my mother had as a child, and just looking at it connected me to my grandparents, long after they had passed away. The Circus Tent, and the outdoor opportunities it afforded, spurred a common theme in my life. Nature meant family, and time spent there supported healthy relationships.
As an adult, outdoor experiences (and other tents) meant new friends who shared common interests and values, like nature-inspired date nights with my future husband on the tops of mountains, where we cooked dinner over a fire, waiting for the sun to set behind the Blue Ridge Mountains. In a bigger sense, the outdoors elucidated my position in the web of all living things; feeling a breeze, listening for birds, and watching sunrises or sunsets reminds me that I am a part of something bigger, providing perspective even in the darkest moments of my life.
While pregnant with our first child, I found new meaning in nature. I walked around a nearby lake and fantasized about bringing my daughter to marvel at tiny turtles on sunken logs, and covertly sharing secrets of the outdoors? therapeutic powers. When she arrived with several unexpected health issues, that plan and others didn?t materialize, at least not right away. After a few months at home, we went into the hospital for surgery, and stayed there, battling complications, for eight weeks. That was the first year I watched leaves change through a hospital room window instead of feeling them crunch beneath my feet on a trail.
Once a week, I would steal away and take the walk I?d enjoyed so many times during pregnancy, but, of course, this wasn?t how I?d imagined it. Something very important was missing ? my daughter. But the moments I spent there, thinking and crying as I watched the placid water, rejuvenated me, and allowed me to face another week of overwhelming uncertainty with my tiny child healing in a hospital crib.
As I walk with my daughter now, I think ahead to activities I want to share with her, things like swimming holes, hikes to waterfalls, paddling, and, of course, camping. I want for her what I selfishly derive from nature; an escape, a way to decompress after a long day, a boost to health and happiness. But I also hope to cultivate in her a connection to the earth and all life, feeling ?part of things and places needing our protection.
Experiencing the outdoors with my child has provided clarity to a passion I?ve always possessed but perhaps didn’t recognize: my role in carrying on a legacy of valuing nature for nature?s sake, begun 60 years ago when my grandparents first took their young family camping in that enormous, smelly tent.
When my husband and I took our first walk around the lake after leaving the hospital, my baby?s eyes lit up at the sound of water rushing over the spillway. I teared up. It looks like perpetuating the legacy of The Circus Tent may be easier than I expected.
Heather Longo is a freelance writer and editor with a background in environmental science. ?She currently lives in Alabama with her husband, daughter, and an outdoor-loving Labrador retriever. Heather?s daughter is now 9 months old and thriving at home while she continues to heal. The whole family is eager for her first camping trip.