Sameer Caul grew up in India, and now that he is raising his own family in Brooklyn, he wanted his son to experience the same closeness to nature he had once felt as a child walking around the Himalayas.
And so, Caul and his son Avi, 9, joined a dozen other people for an outing New York City’s urban rangers organized in Van Cortlandt Park this past weekend.
“We live in an urbanized world here in New York City, and my son didn’t see what I saw when I was a kid,” Caul said. “I saw the Himalayas, I was in the northern part of India. I was very close to nature. And he unfortunately is not getting that experience. So, just to get him in touch with this world of nature, I come here.”
The Jan. 21 gathering in Van Cortlandt Park was titled “Pioneering skills: Building with ropes and wood.” Its purpose was a simple mix of the academic and the practical: to learn about a couple of indigenous plants — dogbane and milkweed — that Native Americans used to extract fibers and make cordage, and then to master a few knots of varying degrees of complexity and intricacy that could be used to bind wood poles together in structures as basic as a tripod or as adventurous as a raft.
“With these three specific types of knots, you can tie anything you want together,” Adelaida Duran Ruiz, an urban ranger, told her group.
The three knots she showed — the clove hitch, timber hitch and square knot — can be combined to bind poles firmly at a desired angle. After letting her class of children and their parents practice the knots on sets of pencils and synthetic cords, Duran Ruiz took the group outdoors to test the skills on ropes of natural fiber and on hefty wooden poles.
“It’s kinda hard, but I’m still learning,” 9-year-old Avi said after building a tripod with some help from his father.
There may be more to the class than learning the ropes of pioneering or Native American craft. Avi’s father, for one, maintains humans might be evolutionary conditioned to benefit from contact with nature.
“We might not even know this consciously, [but nature] might be affecting us on some level,” Caul said. A lack of contact with nature, he maintains, can cause problems such as anxiety.
Science seems to support his view. Studies have indicated that children who engage in outdoor activities or are regularly exposed to greenery show better attention, concentration and working memory.
One of the recent examples of such research, conducted by scientists from Europe and the United States — led by Payam Dadvand of the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology in Barcelona — published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the summer of 2015, indicated that children who encountered a lot of greenery on their daily routes between home and school showed greater improvements in cognitive skills over time than their classmates who did not.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, gatherings in Van Cortlandt Park and other events urban rangers organize around New York City draw many families in which parents, like Caul, have fond recollections of their own encounters with nature during their childhood.
Brian Wright, another participant who came to the Jan. 21 gathering together with his wife Mitzi Noma and their 10-year-old son Jack Noma, said he grew up in Michigan and was no stranger to both nature and craft.
“When I was growing up, my father was always doing something out of a pickup truck, he was always tying up something,” Wright said. “My dad would say, ‘Go get me a length of rope.’ How much is that? But what he meant was, you should know what I’m gonna do with it, so you should know how much rope you’re going to need.”
“We’ve [gone on] a few other nature walks for our son, and it’s always been a positive experience,” Wright said.
With scores of public tours held in the city’s parks every week, urban rangers know many of the regular participants by name—and seem to enjoy the gatherings as much as their participants do.
“Thank you, I had a great time,” Duran Ruiz told her class on Jan. 21 before saying goodbye until next time.
For a listing of public events in New York City parks, visit www.nycgovparks.org/events.