After returning from a three-week, whirlwind, action-packed trip to Europe, where I visited London, Oxford, Paris, the Loire Valley, Heidelberg, Cologne, Rotterdam, and Amsterdam, a weekend respite during this Thanksgiving weekend seemed in order.
There is nothing like a stay in the Maritimes — Canada’s east coast jewel — to recharge and relax amid a slower pace of living, expansive, still largely untouched natural spaces (including forests and beaches), and of course, renowned Maritime hospitality. Fall is also a magical time of year for running, second only to the season of winter, in my opinion. This past Thanksgiving weekend, I was thankful to be staying in the home of my childhood — that of my parents— just steps from our much beloved nature park, where I had spent many happy years running and cross-country skiing, among other outdoor pursuits. Knowing the forest would be awash in color this time of year, I looked forward in eager anticipation to lacing up my trail sneakers and getting outside for a meditative run through these woods to contemplate nature and its brilliant autumn hues on display.
Having grown up in the Maritimes, returning is always a homecoming of sorts, even though much has changed since those youthful, care-free days as a child spent playing outdoors with friends during cool, fall afternoons, raking huge bales of fallen, red and golden maple leaves to alternatively jump into or throw at each other.
Fall has always been my favourite time of year. The air is crisp and cool, not subtropically hot and humid as is becoming so disturbingly typical of summers in central Canada. It signals the beginning of the new academic year, the restarting of activities and clubs that were on hiatus during the lazy summer months. The release of new films and books. The always stylish and plentiful offering of fall fashions, especially the shoes and boots. Concerts, conferences, work-related travel opportunities. Pumpkins, Hallowe’en, farmers’ markets. Earlier nightfalls, frosty mornings. Silvery moons and twinkling stars. Cozy fires and wood smoke that permeates the night air. Flannel blankets, goose-down comforters, and chilly night breezes rustling the branches and leaves and blowing at the drapes through a partially open bedroom window — delicious sleeping weather.
In the fall, the leaves change from lush greens to a canopy of rich yellows, oranges, and reds, which are reflected in the surrounding lakes, rivers, and canals like an Impressionist painting, gradually falling off the trees along with the pine needles to the canal paths and wooded trails creating a soft, sometimes crunchy Klimt-esque like tapestry on which to walk, run, or cycle.
I had initially thought, when I set out on my early-ish Sunday morning run that I would complete my loops around the serpentine trails first and then take pictures afterward. However, the combination of colors and lighting was too beguiling and so I acquiesced to my photographic muse, pausing frequently and pulling out my compact Sony Cybershot point-and-shoot camera in a sort of Sysyphean or Monet-like attempt to capture Nature in its ever-changing, elusive light. The morning light gradually giving way to clouds, I put away my camera and happily completed my trail run, enjoying all the sensory delights of the forest, especially the fragrance of fresh pine trees after an overnight rain.
After visiting so many opulent castles and beautiful, ornate churches in Europe, my re-acquaintance with our breath-taking Canadian landscape and scenery — found even in the greater backyard of my parents — reminded me of how blessed we are as a people to be living in a country as beautiful and as geographically diverse as Canada. In a continent where millions of people must reside in such close proximity to each other, often tolerating high levels of pollution and limited access to natural spaces, it is a gift that as Canadians we are able to so accessibly enjoy clean air and the natural beauty of our country both inside and outside our national and provincial park systems.
And yet, despite the hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of parks in this country and the myriad opportunities to discover, explore, and play in our giant, natural playground, we don’t. Not really. Sure, there are many of us who do on a regular basis, myself included. So often, however, we choose to stay indoors, preferring to hunker down or cocoon during the fall and winter months watching television, playing video games, or engaging with social media for hours at a time, instead of nurturing our physical and spiritual selves by embracing our outdoors and this invigorating time of year. Our European counterparts envy our natural spaces and our ease of access to them. I have no doubt that they could teach us a few things about appreciating our land.
Interestingly, Europeans also seem to invest far less time idling in front of the screen; I was astounded by how many people I met in Europe, who did not own a television. Unlike large sections of our country, which were built around the automobile, European cities are, by comparison, a walker’s and cyclist’s paradise, whose infrastructure and esthetic seem purposefully organized around human power supported by a modern, efficient public transit system and extensive national rail networks, largely obviating the need for car ownership. That is not to say that Europeans have all the answers. The prevalence of smoking remains maddeningly high and still quite socially acceptable in contrast to Canada. When it comes to exercise and active living, however, it was striking to me and to my brother who had visited Europe before me, just how fit and spry Europe’s senior citizens seemed to be. When I arrived in the Netherlands, for example, my great aunt who walks with a cane, rushed in to greet me at the train station and insisted on helping me carry my heavy luggage! Her husband also maintains an active lifestyle, cycling daily several kilometers with an outdoor cycle group and playing golf. Again, not to say that we do not have active seniors in our country, but I think it is fair to say that more often than not, our aged-matched seniors are generally not so physically strong and active, likely a product of our sedentary North American way of living. I would suspect, too, that many of these same European senior citizens are also fitter than many of our Canadian parents and middle-age adults.
I think our country has forgotten how to play in our great outdoors. It’s time we started stepping outside more often. Whether it be for a walk, a bike ride, or a jog. Make it a family thing, if you’re a parent. Recreation is not just for the kids; your kids look to you as the role model, so get off the couch and get outdoors. Help them develop a lifelong love of the outdoors and being active. It’s fun — you’ll see, and it’s healthy. Step outside. Inhale that fresh, fall air. Jump in the leaves. Take out your bike. Embrace that inner child. Start somewhere. Just start.