In this annual Sense of Place issue of photo and literary essays, photographers and writers offer first-hand accounts of their outdoor experiences. As such, they run counter to a trend away from nature-based outdoor recreation. Minnesota state parks, for example, recorded a 3 percent decrease in visits from 1996 to 2006. Nationwide surveys show continuing declines in the number of people who fish, hunt, and visit national parks. Some researchers speculate that people's growing use of the Internet, video games, and other electronic entertainment has caused a shift away from outdoor activities.
I'd like to pose another way to understand this change in human behavior. Instead of recreation, let's look at the role of outdoor work. For most of human history, work -- what we do to survive and prosper -- has connected people to nature. Today, a smaller percentage of people work outdoors. Yet every story in this issue shows a vital connection with outdoor work.
"Makers of Firewood" offers a clear-cut example: an extended family putting up wood for winter. Once an essential enterprise, their work continues today as a ritual that brings father and son together in the woods.
The romantic view of woodcutting is missing from the Young Naturalists story on life in a logging camp in the late 1800s. The companies dictated the order of the day and almost every minute. The boss forbid loggers to speak in the dining hall because talking would keep them at the table longer. To save company time, the cooks delivered midday meals to loggers in the woods. The language of loggers -- "Sweat Pads, Logging Berries, and Blackjack" -- injected a bit of humor into their relentless workday and expressed fondness for the cook, arguably the most important person in camp.
In "The Deer Woods," hunter Michael Furtman relishes the work of walking miles in highland forests. After a rugged hike to a backcountry lake, angler Mike Kallok finds evidence of fisheries biologists' studies of an unusual population of muskie, "The Fish That Time Forgot." Though these sportsmen need not hunt or fish to survive, they find their hard traveling gives them a heightened sense of purpose and a better understanding of place.
Every worker must study his or her subject. In "Mapping Home Ground," ecologist Nancy Sather gives us a glimpse of how she does her work: conducting biological surveys of western Minnesota's remaining patches of prairie and forest. She studies historical records before going afield to find, examine, and map natural plant communities. Her mapping of place, Sather says, began in childhood.
Sather's assertion that a sense of place begins in childhood strikes me as irrefutable. A child's play is, after all, a child's work. Whether we call it work or play, a child's purpose is to explore and get to know the world.
This summer I witnessed a fine example of a child's capacity for outdoor work. One Saturday morning in July, I joined a group of volunteers helping freelance entomologist Elaine Evans with a survey of wild bees. We gathered at Long Lake Regional Park. To begin, Evans' 6-year-old son, August, demonstrated how to hold a plastic cup in one hand and its lid in the other and then slam the two together to capture a bumblebee. He's never been stung, Evans told us.
For almost three hours, the curly haired boy bounced across fields of invasive knapweed and native wildflowers, catching bees and skipping downhill to deliver them to his mother to mark, identify, record, and release. Passing by me, August called, "Nineteen! How many did you get?" By morning's end, the group had captured and released seven species and 184 bumblebees.
The consummate counter, August worked steadily without complaint, stopping only for a drink of water or a handful of Good & Plenty candies. As much as I admired August, I also admired his mother for casually including her son in her important work.
Lucky is the woman, man, or child with meaningful work to do. Luckier still is the person with outdoor work.
Kathleen Weflen, editor