Nature is important to me. My coastal friends often wonder why, with two perfectly serviceable coasts available for settling on, my wife and I ended up in Minneapolis. That's when I start talking about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, the Superior Hiking Trail, and the Minneapolis city parks system that many consider to be second to none.
And this in turn is why, as the dad of a soon-to-be-walking infant boy, my attention was piqued by a press release for this year's "Fourth Annual Hike & Seek nature events sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation."
Sounds great! In a nutshell, the release initially reads like a clarion call for a nationwide reconnection to good old-fashioned wholesome outdoor activity, taking place in 11 cities this autumn.
But what's actually being pitched is something more modern. Registering costs money, requires your contact information to be entered online, and nets you and your impressionable young ones a cavalcade of experiences featuring "interactive 'Stop & Study' nature stations," live wildlife displays (which presumably but not necessarily go beyond the actual wildlife you'd typically see while walking in a natural area), and a "Map & Mission Guidebook" for every child registered.
The cherry on this odd sundae of wholesome outdoor activity and modern commerce may be this: "This year's events will include a station highlighting an activity about trees themed around Disney Junior's hit animated series 'Jake and the Never Land Pirates.' "
To distill the message: You're being offered the opportunity to spend as much as $25 (registration fees vary) to go on a one- or two-mile walk with your family, featuring advertising. I'm not an anti-commercial, anti-modern-life kind of guy – I drive a car, eat hamburgers, and contribute to climate change with the best of 'em. But somehow this ad- and sales-ridden walk verges on the desecration of something sacred: family time spent together in nature.
Growing up in Madison, Wisc. (another good city for people who like both the cosmopolitan comforts of urban living and lots of trees and lakes), my family would go for weekly walks in the University Arboretum. It was beautiful, it was diverting, and the only media consumption that we experienced was the occasional reading of the plaques in the garden that explained what various plants and trees were. It was also free.
NWF's big-picture motives here are clearly noble: connect people with nature, and somehow make hiking into an event, while harvesting money, sponsorships, and information that can help perpetuate the group and its noble mission. I don't begrudge the NWF its attempt to make a national, high-profile event out spending family time in nature. It may well be the only practical way to get people talking about something that now seems so simple and old-fashioned. But speaking personally: If I spend money to hike, it'll be to buy a Minnesota State Parks permit, not to underwrite a Disney marketing push.