Home & Garden Columns

Excursions: It’s Time to Get Back in Touch With Nature

By Marta Yamamoto, Special to the Planet
Tuesday January 09, 2007

Picture a winter’s day 30 years ago. Even in lousy weather you couldn’t wait to get outside. Explore the neighborhood, build a fort, climb a tree, head down to the pond for crawdads; you knew the limits of your adventures but they extended beyond your door. On weekends, family outings ventured into the hills or along the coast and lasted an entire day. Hiking, wildlife viewing, building castles in the sand, being outdoors in nature, giving free reign to your imagination. 

Today, our children’s lives, as well as our own, experience nature through technology, in software or through television nature programs. We know facts about global warming, the rain forest and Galapagos tortoises, but are unfamiliar with wildlife around us. Our lives cycle with little non-programmed time; parents fear unsupervised play and emphasis leans toward academic achievement. Today’s children are isolated from nature. 

In Lost Child in the Woods—Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv equates non-contact with the natural world to the withholding of oxygen and links this deficit to ADD, childhood obesity and depression. Doug Gibson of the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy states, “Children develop love of nature by seeing it, smelling it, touching it”. He echoes the concerns of many—children may never develop that love of nature that drives people to fight to protect it. 

Studies have shown that the natural environment has far-reaching effects on the health of all ages, physical, psychological and cognitive, while fostering a positive environmental ethic. Who can gaze at an arrow of pelicans grazing the ocean without a sense of wonder, imagining their capture of a meal? Who can linger beneath towering cathedral redwoods without a profound sense of peace? 

It’s time to return to nature, alone, in groups, with the kids—as close as your backyard, neighborhood, or regional park. As far as the West Marin Coast and forests. There’s no time like the present. Don’t wait for the “right” day, don’t pencil in your outing between noon and 1 p.m. Give yourself time to observe, absorb the rhythms of life. Prolong the day with a thermos, snacks, a meal. 

With over 95,000 acres, 65 regional parks and 1,150 miles of trails, there’s always wilderness nearby. You can’t go wrong supporting an organization dedicated to protecting and restoring parkland and preserving critical wildlife habitat. On your own or through a naturalist-led activity, you’ll find more choices than days in a year. 

Where better to renew your acquaintance with nature than at Tilden Regional Park, at Berkeley’s backdoor? Use the Visitor Center’s exhibit telling the story of Wildcat Creek Watershed to take an imaginary walk through a land shaped by water, through native stream, woodland and chaparral. Outdoors, experience these communities and their denizens firsthand. The Jewel Lake Trail, a multi-generational crowd-pleaser, carries you by trail and boardwalk over marsh and through a jungle of foliage to a small lake, home to raccoons, ducks, turtles and a wonderful Great Blue Heron. Every weekend naturalists lead activities highlighting evergreens, slugs, salamanders, owls and newts. 

Robert Sibley Volcanic Reserve offers a geologic treasure box—volcanic dikes, mudflows and lava flows. At the Visitor Center, pick up a self-guided tour of Round Top. Walk past the cross-section of a great volcano observing the folding of rock formations resulting from uplifting and erosion. On broad trails marvel at seasonal adaptations among coyote bush, wild current, snowberry, big leaf maple and madrone. 

In Alameda, Crab Cove Visitor Center makes estuary and bay learning fun. Interactive displays peak your curiosity, leaving you hungering for more. Microscopic organisms, crab “innards,” mud flat dwellers, barnacles, anemones, an 800-gallon aquarium and the Old Wharf classroom make the park’s mission clear: marine and shore life are interdependent and worth preserving. Take your wonder outdoors to the Marine Protected Area to explore tidal pools and mudflats. 

Exquisite bay vistas, windswept bluffs, eucalyptus forests, pebble beaches and rare coastal prairie all thrive at Point Pinole creating habitat for wildlife. Within the forests, deer, owls, hawks and migrating Monarch butterflies; in the salt marshes song sparrows and harvest mice. On 12-miles of mostly level trails across 2,300 acres changes in scenery are subtle; look for patterns on eucalyptus trunks and mud flats. Pick a bench to look out across the bay or a narrow trail to explore the shore. Naturalists focus on over-wintering birds and Monarchs for activities through January. 

Point Reyes National Seashore speaks to the believer in all of us. Believers in the importance of preserving open space. So many options exist within this expanse, your head will spin. Select one and take time to get the sense of the land, feel its cadence. Consider the links that connect all living things and the ethics of our treatment of nature. 

Winter in Point Reyes means whales and elephant seals. At the Elephant Seal Overlook, elephant seals’ natural behaviors are both amazing and comical. Huge males with Durante proboscises stake out their claim before females arrive to give birth. Watch males contest dominance and mother-pup interactions. Even with eyes closed the spectacle grabs your attention—males trumpeting and pups crying. On weekends and holidays trained docents man the cliff with spotting scopes and Elephant Seal 101 data. 

Though the Lighthouse is the ideal whale-watching locale, bird-lovers are also impressed. In the cypress trees roost songbirds, warblers and grosbeaks. Soaring through thermals are hawks, turkey vultures, ravens, Peregrine falcons and common murres. Nearby Chimney Rock also offers whale-watching vantage points and blossoms with wildflowers in spring. 

The Tule Elk Preserve out to Tomales Point is home to over 500 elk on 2,600 acres of open grassland and coastal scrub. Commanding vistas are breathtaking—a cerulean Pacific Ocean, Tomales Bay and Hog Island, corrugated coastline. You’ll be transported to Scotland in the blink of an eye. 

At Drake’s Estero, a one-mile walk through a deserted Christmas tree farm brings you to a footbridge over brackish waters. Here shorebirds, herons, egrets, hawks and osprey forage for food. At low tide, the exposed mudflats come to life, while the largest Point Reyes’ harbor seal breeding site lingers nearby. 

In you’re still unconvinced of the power of nature and vision, visit Muir Woods National Monument. In 1905, William Kent secured almost 300 acres of old-growth forest in the name of America’s foremost conservationist. Over one hundred years later, we walk beneath these giants, humbled by their peace. Winter brings fungi and banana slugs to the forest floor and Coho salmon to Redwood Creek. Follow trails past named redwood groves, illustrated kiosks and ecology talks. Venture away and discover a Muir Woods all your own. 

Relish the sunshine but bring on the rain and cold. Sharpen your senses, juice up those creative brain cells; salute the natural world. Recognize what’s worth preserving. Batteries not included.  


East Bay Regional Parks 

Naturalist activities published bi-monthly in Regional In Nature and on-line. Many require advance registration. 



Point Reyes National Seashore 

Ranger-guided programs are offered each weekend, check web-site for schedule. 

(415) 464-5100, www.nps.gov/pore.  


Muir Woods National Monument 

Mill Valley. (415) 388-2596, www.nps.gov/muwo.  


Photograph by Marta Yamamoto