Nature in our Vocabulary

Originally submitted as research as part of Grad Program at MSU Mankato, 2019

Shifting Perspectives:
Giving Nature a Platform in Our Vocabulary




My first real experience with Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving known for extreme retail sales) came when I was a sophomore in college. I was working part-time as a sales associate at Macy’s. Until this particular year, I had spent almost all big American holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Fourth of July) traveling or camping or playing on the lake with family and friends. I was very fortunate to grow up in an environment where travel and experiences were a priority. As I stepped onto the Macy’s floor at four o’clock in the morning on the day after Thanksgiving, I realized a monumental shift in my understanding of our culture. A day where most people had valuable time off of work was being spent inside of large shopping malls and department stores with no other purpose than to engage in frivolous spending. Mundane discounts and one-day-only specials were reason enough to spend an entire day inside surrounded by thousands of other hungry deal chasers. As a naive 19-year old from the Northwoods, I was appalled by the display of hedonism and materialistic obsession. While the self-serving interactions with customers were enough to send me running to another part-time job, I couldn’t help but focus on the kids being exposed to such a toxic display of free time utilization. How could these children, being involuntarily schlepped around from store to store for hours, grow up to be anything more than overindulgent, intolerant citizens?

While it might seem overdramatic that a day of shopping can have such a profound effect on a child’s development, it is highly likely, in my opinion, that experiences of these caliber are detrimental to impressionable minds. It is my belief that consistent experiences in nature as well as everyday nature-themed vernacular can provide society with objective, inquisitive, and future-focused citizens.

In 2015, major outdoor retailer REI began their #OptOutside campaign, in which they promised to close all of their stores on the biggest shopping day of the year (Black Friday) encouraging consumers and employees alike to spend the day outside instead of inside, shopping (Nudd, 2017). The campaign, which spurred a flurry of social media postings featuring people pledging to “opt outside,” essentially encouraged people to stop and reevaluate what their time is worth and where it is best spent. REI sparked an interest (or re-interest) in nature with a simple shift in language, snowballing into a movement of prioritizing time spent outside that is still prominent today. According to Ben Steele, Chief Creative Officer of REI, the campaign spoke even more to a change in overall consumer behavior, and as the momentum grew, he witnessed people proclaiming that they were inspired to “...protect public lands, because they’re a place [they] care about” (Nudd, 2017). Because of being exposed to this nature-themed content, consumers rekindled their love for nature and in turn became advocates for preserving natural areas.

This example of a shift in language and a nature-inspired call to action is an incredibly compelling testament to the power of content in our society. A research study by Kesebir & Kesebir (2017) showed evidence of a drastic drop in nature activities in conjunction with the growing omittance of nature-themed subject matter in popular culture. Their research suggests that the “disappearance of nature vocabulary from cultural conversation reflects an actual distancing from nature” (p.260). With this shift in behavior and perspective, they found that these findings suggested “...unrealized gains to human health and well-being, as well as lost opportunities to nurture pro-environmental attitudes and stewardship behaviors” (p.260).

Moreover, their research suggests disconnection from nature is a growing result of urbanization factors and technological advances, particularly within indoors and virtual recreation options (Pergams & Zaradic, 2008). This research also speaks eloquently to the premise that, if creators do not interact with nature regularly, it is unlikely their work will reflect any sort of nature theme. If children are raised without exposure to nature-themed content, who will take on the responsibility of advocating for protection and advancement of natural parks and vulnerable ecosystems in future generations?

In researching a prominent shift away from nature-based recreation, Pergams & Zaradic (2008) argue that it has been found that “environmentally responsible behavior results from direct contact with the environment and that people must be exposed to natural areas as children if they are to care about them as adults” (p. 2295).  The absence of nature-based language and nature-based activities almost ensures that future generations are unlikely to seek out natural environments, affecting everything from their physical health to mental health and more.

The deterioration of biodiversity understanding and advocacy is best represented by the term ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ (Pauly, 1995). Pauly describes this phenomenon as a sort-of reset on part by each generation who, when presented with data from the previous generation, does not take into account the starting baseline of the data, thus skewing the reference points resulting in inaccurate targets for economic development. As generations continue to precede the next, proper referencing of the effects of nature on humans is the only way to continue the lineage of making nature a prioritized value. Without proper research collection and understanding of these shifting baselines, future generations are threatened by misinformation resulting in inaccurate data samples. In his article, Pauly (1995) establishes a call for the development of frameworks for including prior research in reference to global fisheries, or as he recounts, “Frameworks that maximise the use of fisheries history would help us understand and to overcome - in part at least - the shifting baseline syndrome, and hence to evaluate the true social and ecological cost of fisheries” (p. 430). This example represents a larger framework that can be implemented across various natural resource research, inevitably pushing the continuum of activism throughout future generations.

While REI’s #OptOutside campaign didn’t necessarily change the world overnight, the shift in perspective and promoted language had a significant trickle-down effect on consumers in terms of returning to prioritizing time in nature based on the millions of media being posted from the outdoors. This year, REI has committed to partnering with the University of Washington for new “Nature for Health” initiative. According to Justin Housman of Adventure Journal, the goal of the initiative is “ to build a mountain of data surrounding the health benefits of living a life outside, while also digging deeper into the demographics of the outside community to figure out how to increase access to green spaces and public lands to people who don’t traditionally make a lot of use of those spaces” (Housman, 2018). With research like this coming from a popular outdoor retailer, consumer loyalty is able go hand-in-hand with nature-based activism and time spent outdoors. Instead of being lured by marketing tactics to spend holidays inside or online shopping, we as consumers have the opportunity to embrace nature-themed content while simultaneously becoming advocates for environmental progress and sustainability.

“Opting Outside” is continuously popular all over the world including here at The Leadership Center, where we fully embrace the ideology that outside is where your big AHA moments are waiting. Let’s go.


Housman, J. (2018, October 23). REI Gives $1 Million to Study Benefits of Nature, Boost #OutsideForAll. Retrieved from

Kesebir, S., & Kesebir, P. (2017). A Growing Disconnection From Nature Is Evident in Cultural Products. Perspectives on Psychological Science,12(2), 258-269. doi:10.1177/1745691616662473

Nudd. (2017, November 20). Inside Year Three of #OptOutside With REI's Chief Creative Officer. Retrieved from

Pauly, D. (1995). Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries. Trends in Ecology & Evolution,10(10), 430. doi:10.1016/s0169-5347(00)89171-5

Pergams, O. R., & Zaradic, P. A. (2008). Evidence for a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,105(7), 2295-2300. doi:10.1073/pnas.0709893105

Dealing with Change

Somewhere between St. Jean Pied de Port, France & Roncesvalles, Spain

Somewhere between St. Jean Pied de Port, France & Roncesvalles, Spain


If you had told me…

How many times have you heard someone start a sentence like that? “If you had told me two years ago that I would be making a billion dollars per minute just for eating cheese with a wooden spoon, I would’ve laughed in your face!”

You’re right, Karen, two-years-ago-you definitely could not have predicted that outcome. Despite our desire to believe that someone can predict the future, lifestyle changes and career 180s are inevitable. We can’t always plan for the exact future we want, but we can at least mitigate the stigma around changing your mind.

Why is it often considered a bad thing to change your mind? Change your career? Change your plans? Change your life?

To put it simply, change is a form of uncertainty, and uncertainty breeds fear. When things are not constant, we find ourselves becoming wary and suspicious of its merit. As someone who has willingly changed their life in a myriad of ways, I am of the belief that change is an opportunity for growth and discovery.

Of course, I didn’t wake up with this mentality; I had to learn it. And, because I’m a human person, I still struggle with it.

About two years ago, I set out on a month-long trek across Northern Spain with my mom. We were following the Francés route of El Camino de Santiago - an infamous pilgrimage from the border of France heading west to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. When you start the 500 mile trek along El Camino de Santiago, it is tradition to set an intention for the journey. Along the way, you ask/answer others about “the call to walk.” Everyone’s reasoning is different and a large part of the intrigue of this trek is being exposed to their unique purpose. I found this part of the journey the most satisfying - the instant camaraderie and unwavering support of everyone’s personal goals made walking in blisters much more tolerable. Also, wine.

My intention for the Camino - along with spending time with my soulmate mother - was to find meaning in something I’m very good at but often unsure of how to manage properly: listening

I have the tendency to use my skills as a “good listener” to better myself and the situations I’m in. I listened to myself when I wanted to work for a magazine. I listened when I felt unappreciated as a young entry-level employee at a startup company. I listened when I felt burnt out, overworked, underpaid, and unhappy. I did all of this “listening” to make a change for the better, but I still felt empty. My listening skills were useful but seemingly unfulfilling.

On the Camino, we found ourselves constantly walking through different types of weather and terrain, and every time something would change, we would adapt. We circumnavigated parts of the trail that were too muddy to trek; we put up and took down umbrellas; we rushed to escape wind at the peak of a mountain and slowed down on the steady inclines. The most daunting, however, was the fog. The thick, daunting fog engulfed us in the early mornings making it impossible to see even 5-10 feet ahead. We were blindly following a trail with no real idea of what was ahead of us.

Do you see where I’m going with this?!

The Camino forced us to listen - to ourselves, our surroundings, and to each other. We relied on our most basic senses to stay safe, motivated, and on track. Despite the fog clouding our vision of the impending destination, we found clarity in listening to our instincts.

I LOVE this metaphor because I have not always been a catalyst for change. I didn’t always treat “change” with the appreciation that I do today. This came as a life lesson after traveling for a living and being forced to adapt to unfamiliar scenarios. The ways in which I came to accept this detour-filled lifestyle are best represented in these four categories: understanding, acceptance, planning, and opportunity. Also, wine.


There is nothing worse than someone telling you to calm down in a stressful situation. I often refer to my time as a Marketing Coordinator at a law firm as The Wildfire Years. Things were constantly changing for no comprehensible reason. Lawyers like to change their mind…and those of us on the receiving end are forced to adapt quickly. This made for a very toxic work environment at times - because opinions and capabilities differ greatly across a department and not everything is as easy as a “can you do this yesterday?” email. Communication, as usual, is key. Gaining a solid understanding of the what, who, when, where, why, and how massively decreases the possibility of confusion, frustration, and the tendency to react instead of respond.

The understanding of possibility makes a huge difference as well. Sometimes things just can’t be done, but perhaps there is another way. A previous manager I had was amazing at seeing the possibilities - nothing was impossible, we just had to change course.

When a major shift presents itself, ask questions. Ask all the questions. Pepper the room with questions - I guarantee there’s a new hire sitting near to you just dying to hear the answer.


Change is inevitable. The sooner you accept it, the sooner you are able to control your reaction to it. In the many times I’ve had to switch to plan B after a flight has been cancelled or an apartment stay didn’t pan out properly, I found that accepting the situation as it was in that moment helped me calmly make other plans. Quitting my job and moving to Thailand was a giant “wtf” in every capacity, but I made the decision and the only way for me to thrive was to accept the change and get started.

Acceptance is a fickle thing due to our minds being able to rapid-fire panic in the form of “easy ways out.” You know how it is - your heart is beating fast, you feel hot and sweaty, and all of a sudden you realize you’re on WebMD and positive you’re having a heart attack. You’re probably not (fingers crossed?) but your brain has the ability to lead you straight into Panic City. I’m not lying when I say I’ve found myself sitting on a metal folding chair at 3am in the Riyadh airport audibly coaching myself into accepting the rerouted flight plan that turned a 12 hour travel day into a 36 hour travel day. Acceptance goes a long way in calming you down and preparing you for action.


Here is something I am not an absolute expert in…planning. I have a need to have a plan, but I am often overwhelmed when it comes to details and itineraries and logistics and on and on and on. To me, this can feel suffocating. But one thing that stands out in my first few weeks of the Experiential Education program at MSU Mankato is the theory behind Project Based Learning (PBL). Essentially, PBL demonstrates the benefits of enabling students to observe, interact, experiment and discover solutions through critical thinking. Learning to utilize resources (or thinking creatively with what you have available) is invaluable knowledge that comes from experience and exposure to unique problems.

Kaija the Kangaroo

Kaija the Kangaroo

My niece, who is five years old, couldn’t understand a small 3D puzzle she received recently. There were a few parts that she just couldn’t fit together to create this multi-colored foam kangaroo she so desperately wanted to build before her dad got home (she wanted to give it to him). When you’re five, trying to sequence things to complete a finished project is a new adventure in itself, so I helped her (sparingly) by sorting the pieces and giving her the opportunity to envision the end result. After multiple tries, failing, a little bit of crying and possibly a swear word, she made a plan to build it multiple ways until it made sense. Trial and error? At five? Let’s send her Harvard.

Planning is essential in easing your mind of being overwhelmed with thoughts and endless possibilities. Planning, in the face of a problem, controls your chaos.


Halfway through our trek along El Camino de Santiago, my mom started to experience debilitating pain in her left heel. We made our way into Burgos and took a few days to let her rest up and (hopefully) heal. After a lot of downtime and pain meds, it was clear that walking another 250 miles was, quite simply, out. We had spent three days honing in on the past few steps - understanding the issue, accepting our fate, planning an alternate route. Now came time for opportunity, whether we were ready or not.

We made it to Santiago de Compostela (in a very roundabout way) and while we didn’t think we would be there for another two weeks, we found that the timing was impeccable. Up until this point, the entire trail was overcrowded and we never had a chance to slow down and take in the experience, even though we were walking 8-10 hours per day. Once we arrived in Santiago, time seemed to stop. We ate paella, mingled with locals, stumbled upon a classically-trained opera singer in an underpass after a soul-reviving mass at the cathedral. I suppose you could say we made lemonade out of lemons but, most importantly, we took what we had available and really listened to what it was we hoped to accomplish.

Creating opportunity isn’t always going to be as easy as taking a quick detour, and while each circumstance is different, acknowledging the process of dealing with change will at least make things a little easier on you and those around you.

In the words of Peter Bailey, President of The Prouty Project, “It’s not that people don’t like change, they don’t want to be changed.” It’s all about the value of that change.

So, if you had told me two years ago that I would be sitting in a coffee shop reading Ex Ed textbooks and writing about ways to best deal with change, I like to think I would’ve said “Honestly, I believe it.”


Photos from El Camino de Santiago, 2017