Every year I grapple with the same thing. The first weekend in November typically is gorgeous, with the sun just strong enough by midday to shine a few final bursts of warmth through the bare trees before it withdraws into the dark and cold of December. Most of the leaves are down, although a few still decorate the landscape with splotches of orange or red or brown. My body instinctively screams at me: “Get outside while you can. It will be a good five months before you see days like this again.” This after an unusual October snowfall the previous week sent an early reminder of what’s to come.
But the first weekend in November is also when we host the American Conservation Film Festival (ACFF) here in Shepherdstown WV, with four days of films, speakers and workshops, intended to educate and inspire people to become engaged in conservation. Most of our screenings are held in the evening, when the warm autumn sun has faded for the day and the air is hinting at frost. But we like to make the most of our limited four days and so we also show matinees all day Saturday and Sunday. As a member of ACFF’s Board of Directors and Past President, I want and need to participate in many of the events, introducing films, moderating discussions, and meeting with supporters. But I’m torn. The sun beckons.
I’m not alone. It seems everyone these days is overcommitted. Many Americans work longer hours today than they did 50 years ago and according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, we take less vacation time and family leave than our peers in other developed countries. (Lexington’s painfully humorous column in the Economist is perhaps the best way to acknowledge this reality.) In most households both adults work, so time at home is often spent on chores and maintenance rather than leisure. And we’re constantly plugged in. According to a Pew Internet and American Life survey posted by Mother Jones, about half of employed email users check their emails on the weekend or on sick days, and a third check it on vacation. With schedules like this it’s amazing that anyone gets outside at all.
But they do. Last year the National Park Service recorded 281 million visitors to all of its parks (although they didn’t report on trends, so it’s hard to know if we’re getting out more, or less, than in the past). And how much is enough anyway? There are some obvious mental and physical health benefits to getting outside, but undoubtedly this is a personal question. Personally, my answer is as much as possible.
What makes the matinee conundrum even harder for me is the proliferation of books and films – including the well-known Last Child In the Woods by Richard Louv — warning that children today have “nature deficit disorder” leading to a host of (now-common) childhood physical and mental ailments like obesity and depression. Over the years at ACFF, parents have flocked to screenings of films that explore this phenomenon. The irony is not lost. But I’m proud to say that we get around this dilemma by including an outdoor component to our Saturday afternoon children’s schedule. Some years it’s a photo safari in which photographers take the kids outside to explore the grounds of the surrounding National Conservation Training Center where we hold much of our festival atop the bluffs of the Potomac River. This year, we took filmgoers to view the resident bald eagles and their magnificent nest; a platform of sticks lording over the surrounding yellow fields on the large limbs of an exposed sycamore tree. But first we primed them all with a screening of When Eagles Dream by filmmaker Robert Owens. And we enjoyed a repeat performance by filmmaker and all around nature guy Peter Schriemer who always follows up screenings of his children’s films with some outdoor hands-on exploration time with the kids.
I had the great opportunity to get to know Washington Post science writer Joel Achenbach this weekend as one of our panelists following the controversial film The Big Fix, by Josh and Rebecca Tickell. And I learned a lot about storytelling in the workshop led by screenwriter Khris Baxter. I loved Parthenon Entertainment’s stunning film The Gorilla Whisperer and was pleased to meet Parthenon’s gracious CEO Carl Hall and Amelia Hanibelsz of his staff. But I confess to all of these wonderful people that on Sunday afternoon, after ACFF’s award winners were announced at noon, I took a glorious hike in the sun and left the theater behind.