At a recent speaking engagement in front of an area church group, an elderly woman in the first row sheepishly raised her hand in the question-and-answer session and opened with this commonly encountered disclaimer: “I’m not an outdoors person, but . . . ”
She had to be 80 years old, fast flirting with 90, sharp as a suture needle, and I noticed very early in my usually rambling and tangent-ridden talk about Lake Erie, Asian carp, algae, growing up with eight sisters, and other fun topics that she was paying strict attention to every word.
“I’m not an outdoors person, but I was wondering why we don’t do a better job of taking care of our lake,” she said. “Since back when I was growing up, I’ve seen Lake Erie go from good to awful, and then back to healthy, and now it seems like we’re getting near the awful stage again, with all of the algae problems and these invasive species.”
What she said was a very accurate observation that followed the general historical record of the lake over most of the past century. Her question also made it clear that her opening statement could not have been more inaccurate — she is very much an outdoors person, since she has cared enough about the lake to pay attention to it for what was likely eight decades.
Maybe 40 years ago, the outdoors for some was about “me and Joe got a couple six packs and went fishing,” or about groups of men and their bird dogs hunting pheasants in the brushy fence rows and stubble fields of Ohio and Michigan. Those were considered the outdoors people of the time.
But those days are beyond ancient history. Our communities and our region are filled with outdoors people who have never shouldered a shotgun, never raised a bow, never pitched a tent, backed a boat trailer, or filleted a fish. The definition has changed from a relatively narrow one to something we might struggle to find accurate parameters for, no matter how hard we try.
The folks from Partners for Clean Streams and the legion of volunteers they rely on for their projects along the Maumee River — those are all outdoors people down to their DNA, although many tell me that they never fish the river.
Many of the “Friends of Side Cut Park” probably don’t own a fishing license or engage in the annual spring ritual that brings hundreds of anglers to this area, but they make the stewardship of this wildlife-rich and ecologically sensitive river bottom land their cause. They are outdoors people in everything they do.
The birders who make this area one of the top destinations in the world for viewing the wonders of migration are often some of the most dedicated outdoors persons that I encounter. They put on one heck of a festival each spring, but their commitment to birds, habitat, education, and outreach is one of those 24/7 365 deals, until they can figure out how to manufacture more hours and more days to get things done.
Those bikers who don’t own a Harley but do own a helmet, such as distance maniac Brian Brown — they are outdoors people from start to finish, since many of their journeys cover our backroads where wildlife and habitat are more plentiful. They see a lot, report on it, photograph it, and share it.
We’ve also got that popular sub-class known collectively as “lake people,” and they certainly are outdoors people first, before the strong magnetic pull of the water and the sunshine repeatedly lures them to Lake Erie. Many of the cottage owners, regular campers, and day visitors to the lake are not there to fish, hunt ducks, or study the ecosystem, yet the lure of the lake is one they can not resist.
There are also hikers, runners, golfers, walkers, serial picnickers, and those folks who confess to really enjoying something as simple as “a ride in the country.” They are outdoors people, one and all.
So many emails, phone conversations, letters, and notes start with that same apologetic fallacy: “I’m not an outdoors person, but ... ” — and it seems like every single one of those people is wrong. Their interest, their passion, their concern, and even their questions are enough to put them in our club.
The elderly woman from the church group could have been my mother, who would have turned 93 on Labor Day.
Mom never hunted or fished, and probably did not consider herself an outdoors person, but she could prepare the best iron skillet rabbit and gravy your dreams could imagine, and she knew how to take the fish we caught and make it light, moist, and delightful.
Mom was of that generation when most assumed a house dress and an apron automatically disqualified you from being an outdoors person, yet she was feeding the birds these wonderful wintertime concoctions of peanut butter and bread crusts and bacon grease long before backyard feeders became a staple of suburbia.
She was the greatest Irish ambassador of the al fresco movement, so if it wasn’t snowing or pouring rain with an occasional bolt of lightning, we ate outside. And there was a picnic or two where it did snow a little but we stayed outside and finished, and those are etched in the family lore.
Mom loved her funky and unique gardens, which took up most of the property and made our lawn mower the loneliest tool in the garage. These were wandering swaths of flowers and vines and driftwood, with brilliant chunks of granite, heavy bricks from the demolished church, colorful railroad insulators, and something that looked like it was part of a turret in old England. Mom’s private piece of the outdoors was all Salvador Dali meets Martha Stewart, and lovingly referred to by her grandkids as “grandma’s jungle.”
There are many people out there who love to work the soil, raise some vegetables, hear the birds sing, count the stars on a clear night, watch the waves march to the beach in endless lines, or walk through the woods just to see what’s there. Others, like my charming questioner at the church talk, they just care, and care a lot about our water, our wildlife, and our planet.
You’ll never see a picture of them holding a prized rainbow trout or raising the rack of a trophy buck, but they are outdoors people in every sense of the term. It has grown into a very, very big family, and one with room for everyone.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.