Living on the ranch where I work affords me the good fortune of an incredibly short and beautiful commute from my home to my office. The only things I miss from my former 30- minute morning and evening commutes are the news and talk radio. In my brief five-minute morning drive not long ago, I turned on the radio to hear Glenn Beck talking about a camp where kids are out seeing nature in action. He talked about how nature teaches patterns in life for everything, even families. One thing he said that really got my attention were these words: “plug in means tune out.” Glenn was referring to the modern trend of youngsters being entertained by electronic devices rather than engaged in outdoor activities.

We see evidence of this when 100+ youth ages 8-15 attend the Youth Outdoor Adventure Program (YOAP) over the summer months at Joshua Creek Ranch. The first-timers do suffer withdrawal when they realize they’re allowed no television, internet, cell phones, electronic games, etc. Their 10 days at YOAP are all about the outdoor sporting life. You could call it iOutdoors. But there’s no iPhone app for it. The application is 100-percent, real natural outdoor settings with their hands on real shotguns, rifles, bows, arrows, fishing rods, kayaks and oars. Yes, the application requires nimble fingers and quick reflexes, but not for pushing buttons.

Anyway, I agree with Glenn Beck about nature being a great teacher. You can’t be out in it without noticing the wondrous intricacies of how miraculously it works. I’ll share some examples that we loved seeing these kids observe:

One of the favorite recreational areas at the ranch is spring-fed Joshua Creek. The kids love swimming and fishing there, but last summer the drought was so severe that we had no flowing water in the creek. This year when kids returned they were awed to see the effect of rain on the creek. And when we had a night of thunderstorms while those kids were at the ranch, they were filled with anticipation about the impact the rain would have on the water flowing in the creek. The next day they were happy to see the significant rise in the water level, but not so pleased to see the temporary muddy condition created by the runoff that were both a consequence of bountiful rainfall.

At the beginning of each and every session of the youth program, we have a traditional initial activity. Counselors vie for the opportunity to paint a face on a sacrificial watermelon. The kids are gathered round while the caricaturized melon is set on a rock wall about 20 yards away. With all eyes fixed on the happy green face, a counselor mounts a shotgun, takes aim and shoots the unsuspecting melon-head. The explosion of red mush splatters in every direction. The effect astounds the kids and the lesson is taught. They’re about to engage in 10 days of a fun sport that can have deadly consequences if not conducted in a safe manner.  

kercheville-08-2012A couple of boys at the Joshua Creek Youth Outdoor Adventure Program learn shotgunning.

We watched another of the laws of natural consequences unfold during one of the youth program sessions. Every year a pair of barn swallows return to our office porch and attaches their nest to one of the ceiling joists near our front door. For some reason, these adorable little birds just love to nest right over doorways where, of course, they leave an incredible mess. But they are so much fun to watch that the mess is tolerable for their short migratory duration. Last year, this pair had four hatches out of their summer nest under the porch. But this summer, the second hatch ended badly. It happened during one of the youth sessions that it was time for the fledglings to learn to fly and leave the nest. The parent birds circled the nest incessantly to demonstrate how to fly, sometimes stopping to perch on the edge to deliver a chirp of encouragement. One by one the little birds stepped onto the edge and took their first brave leap into winged flight. But among them was one fledgling that would not get off the edge. The parents kept circling and swooping. They even lit on the ground below the nest as if to demonstrate that it would be safe to land there if his first attempt to fly was not successful. But he never would take the leap. After a long while, the parent birds gave up, departed, and did not return. The baby bird just continued to sit on the edge of the nest. Then later when we looked, he had gotten back into the nest. The parents never returned, the baby bird never got back on the edge and so he never took the leap to fly. He died in the nest. We talked about how these parents had done everything they could for their fledgling. They’d fed him and made him strong enough to fly, they’d demonstrated flight, they’d continuously encouraged him, they’d even shown him that he could safely land just below the nest if necessary. But they couldn’t make him take the leap, so they finally gave up and so did he. It was a tough life lesson to watch, but an incredibly valuable example of the law of natural consequences.  

To intersperse the action of shooting, archery, and river sports with the intrigue of little things like catching just the right bug that will lure the big fish of the day is to take those steps that ultimately create a life-long bond with that great teacher, nature. Interestingly, when the 10-day sessions of the Youth Program end, there’s no mad dash for iPhones when the kids get picked up. In fact, there are generally clamorous petitions for staying longer or coming again next year. Nature and real outdoor experiences have an appeal that often outshines those fascinating electronic devices