The keynote speaker at the Outdoor Industry Association breakfast, Larry Selzer, no doubt gave a fine enough speech at the annual event the first morning of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market: The president and CEO of the Conservation Fund drew on the words of Emily Dickinson and other inspirational figures to deliver his stirring message. In sum, nature is becoming a “foreign country” to today’s youth, he said, but there is still hope that our industry can foster a world of “free-range children.”
Like a well-practiced musical performance, Selzer hit his points precisely, hit the perfect tone, in all the right places, with well-timed and exacting pauses, and spoke in a steady, well-tuned rhythm. It was exactly the type of high-quality talk we’ve come to expect from the OIA breakfast. But it was so practiced – in fact, very similar to a talk he gave a year earlier at the show – that it failed to fire up the crowd as much as a short, less-scripted speech given minutes earlier at the same lectern:
OIA President Frank Hugelmeyer had taken the stage per custom prior to the keynote to welcome the large crowd and announce the breakfast sponsors. When the applause died, he lowered his voice and said “I’d like everyone to close their eyes and imagine the first time you were introduced to the outdoors.” He led the crowd through a short visualization, and then moved on with a stirring message laced with personal experiences that awakened memories for many in the audience. He hit a solemn tone, saying that many children these days are not connecting with outdoor recreation partly because they have no adult to take them hiking, biking or fishing. He urged that getting kids outside is the most important issue that our industry faces, and each of us must take the time and energy to pass along our passion for the outdoors. Hugelmeyer said that huge obstacles stand between children and the outdoors, and just when it seemed that his message would be just a dire warning he said, “I do have hope. And let me tell you why.”
In an effort to affect change in his own son, Cole, Hugelmeyer took the 12-year-old on a three-day backpacking trip into Colorado’s Holy Cross Wilderness. “We went to the first two or three lakes, and he caught trout right away,” said Hugelmeyer. Then, Cole told his dad, “Hey, this is just like Survivor Man, and we can roast these over a campfire.” As the audience chuckled, Hugelmeyer said they did indeed make a fire and cook the fish. Then, on the third day of their journey, he asked his son, “So, how do you like this?”
The boy’s reply: “This is one of the greatest experiences of my life.”
It was a simple moment between a father and son, but Hugelmeyer relayed it with a raw honesty that it put lumps in 500 throats. The Marriott ballroom fell silent, the murmurs and clanging of china simply stopped, and forks were held suspended over plates.
“So,” Hugelmeyer continued, “I’m hopeful,”
Oh, you have a job….
He then talked about how he decided to introduce his son to fly fishing this year. “I set him up over the course of three weeks with gear, and he’s had a major shift—at the age of 12 to 13—that I’ve never seen. He insists everyday on going fishing, and my wife drops him off at the local pond, and he fishes all day—all day, every day.”
Cole has now taken to kayak fishing. “This year we finally took a paddling vacation—took the kayaks and fishing gear,” said Hugelmeyer. “We were at the Outer Banks, and got up at five every morning to fish in the sound. We had porpoises all around us, and were catching all kids of fish, and on the last day, I looked at Cole and asked him, ‘How do you like this?’
“Dad, I’ve got a great idea,” Cole said, “Right after school next year, we come out here to Ocracoke right away… and spend the whole summer right here.”
Hugelmeyer’s words seemed to hang in the air as he paused. No one within earshot of this reporter actually said “wow,” but the word was written on a hundred faces. It was a disarming moment, made even richer by Cole’s next comment to his speechless father.
“Oh, you have a job,” the boy suddenly remembered. “That’s an issue.”
The audience dissolved in laughter and Hugelmeyer said he has considered making a T-shirt that says, “I have a job, and it’s an issue.”
“But it need not be,” Hugelmeyer said emphatically. “We have the power to say ‘I will’ to these kids. We have the power to take them to the pond and let them be there the whole day.” He said that, in one year, his son had started to talk about the beauty of the nature around him, and had become a steward of the environment.
“And that’s why I’m hopeful,” he concluded.
Nature a foreign country
Hugelmeyer’s message dovetailed nicely into Selzer’s speech, although it seemed almost a let-down after Hugelmeyer’s emotional story. Selzer implored members of the outdoor industry not to sit on the sidelines as we lose an entire generation to TV screens and obesity. Today’s over protected children no longer develop their own character and constitution through exploration, and Selzer said they longer go through the rite of passage of comparing broken bones, but get treated for repetitive motion disorders.
One of Selzer’s main points is that nature has become a “foreign country” to kids. Rather than taking children to Yellowstone, we must first bring nature to kids and create greenways near neighborhoods where children can get that first taste of the outdoors.
He said our failure to foster an appreciation for nature would have far-reaching ramifications. “We are losing the landscapes that have shaped us as a nation and defined us as a people,” he said, noting that tomorrow’s leaders may be less likely to support conservation. “Twenty to 30 years from now, we will have leaders who have never been in a forest.”
But Selzer also spoke of a string of initiatives throughout the country that will connect kids with outdoor play, and he said that he is hopeful that progress will be made. “Hope is a thing with feathers,” he said, quoting Emily Dickinson.
That was one of many powerful lines in Selzer’s speech and, together with Hugelmeyer’s messages, brought a standing ovation. On this morning, you could argue that the most moving words were not those of a poet or a keynote speaker; they came from a father and his first-hand account of watching his boy fall in love with fishing and the outdoors. It was a remarkably personal moment for an industry breakfast, and it was perfect.