The Real Housewives of Benton County: Sara Egbert “Mother Nature”

I am so excited to be back doing this interview series! Although this is a project that I simply did not have time to continue as my schedule got busier, it never left my heart. With so much focus these days on what is wrong with the world, I want to show evidence of all of the good that still exists. I am honored to know so many inspiring women who make me want to be a little better, and I hope that you will leave each week feeling a little more inspired and uplifted as well. Look for a new featured woman each Monday. If you know someone in the area who should be featured in this series, please contact me and let me know what inspires you about your nomination!

This week, I chose to interview my friend Sara. Though Sara currently lives in Berkeley with her family, she was raised in Corvallis and comes back for large portions of each summer to stay with her parents (Mark and Alice Rampton) and to let her children experience the bliss of an Oregon summer. We look forward to her visits and know that there will be fun adventures and conversations had when she is here.

I knew that Sara was a kindred spirit right when I met her. She is fun, caring, and so down to earth. She is one of those people where you feel like you can be your complete crazy/quirky self when you are with her, and she really values who you are and sees the good in whoever she is with. She is such a loving mama and has so much fun with her kids. She is a deep thinker and a great listener.  I immediately was also impressed with her passion for the outdoors and how she makes it a top priority to help her children experience the beauty of this world. This is something that I am trying to do a better job of myself, so I thought that it would be fun to hear more about Sara’s story and some of her tips. Enjoy the interview and the beautiful pictures that Chris took on our recent walk at Finley Wildlife Refuge.

K:It is so obvious that you are so content and in your element when you are outdoors. At what point in your life do you first remember feeling a deep connection with nature?

S:It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment this happened for me. My earliest memories from childhood are of playing in the creek that ran next to our property and through our neighborhood. Creeks are magical habitats brimming with life; frogs, snakes, tadpoles, water striders, ducks, the cold running water, cattails, algae, and rocks. I knew that creek like the back of my hand. I knew every deep and shallow spot, the places where I could catch tadpoles, the part where the current was swift, the best spot for jumping over that wasn’t too wide or swampy. Having that creek at my fingertips every single day was where my connection to nature began. In addition, our family vacations each summer were always camping, hiking, and fishing. I don’t ever remember hearing my parents say “don’t get dirty!”. On the contrary, I explicitly remember my mother telling me to “go play outside!”. My parents also had my siblings and I helping with outdoor chores from a very young age. Nature was a place of fun, but also a place of work- helping in the garden, raking leaves, spreading mulch, digging holes, watering plants, pulling dandelions.

I do have a distinct memory when I was filled with an awe and amazement of the world around me. I was lying in the grass, staring up at the clouds and I was only 4 or 5. It was spring or summer because I remember thinking that I would be going to Kindergarten soon. I was watching the clouds go by and became completely mesmerized by the experience; the gentle breeze on my face, the brilliant contrast of the blue sky and white clouds, the shapes of the cotton ball clouds, the different shades of white and grey, the speed at which they were floating by, and the sound of the wind through the maple tree nearby. I became lost in thought, feeling so small in the hugeness and majesty of the earth. That was a special moment for me and I reflect back on it often.

Unstructured outdoor time was the key in my development of love and respect for nature. No one was telling me to look up at the clouds and notice them, or play in the creek and find tadpoles. There was definitely a good sized gang of neighborhood kids that I played with constantly but I believe that it was those times, as a child, or quiet, inward reflection that helped me connect on a personal level to the world around me.

K:Even though you are a major nature lover, you have always lived with your children in urban areas (D.C, Seattle, and Berkley). How do you get outside and make that connection even living in areas where it might not be as convenient?

S:I made a very deliberate decision when my oldest son was three. I decided that outdoor play was going to be a priority, no matter the obstacles we might face. Living in an apartment in an urban area you have to set aside specific days of the week or times of the day as “outdoor exploration time”. I’ve never been able to just shove me kids out the back door and say, “Come back for dinner!”. There is much more planning and prep involved in an outdoor excursion and it can feel exhausting and daunting. Once I made it a priority, it became a habit, and once it became a habit, it became easy and something we all look forward to.  As a mom, my heart and mind have to be in it too. Kids are not going to relax and connect to nature if you, as the parent, aren’t excited and connecting also. I see so many parents tensing up the minute they see their kid going for the mud puddle. Why fight it? Just let go and let your child touch, feel, taste, smell the world around them. Stop buying expensive clothes for your kid that you don’t want them to “get dirty”! Every child needs to have a pile of filthy clothes at the end of the day. The essence of childhood is unkemptness- grass stains, dirt streaked faces, berry juice dribbles, scrapes and bruises, and dirty toenails.

K:When you lived in Seattle, you started a Nature School. Tell me more about this project and what your motivation was behind it.

S:Like I said in my previous answer, the shift happened when my oldest son, Jasper, was three. Before having Jasper, I was an outdoor educator for the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle. School groups would come to the arboretum on field trips. I was one of the field trip instructors- teaching the kids about about how plants grow, wetland ecology, native plants and their history in the Northwest, the food web, and forest ecology to name a few. We incorporated hiking, movement, games, music, hands-on science experiments, listening to the sounds of the natural world, and quiet, personal reflection into our field trips. I became so excited and passionate about outdoor learning. I’d see these kids, most of whom were so plugged in and disconnected from the outdoors, come to the arboretum literally starving for nature. I personally saw the difference that an outdoor classroom had on their spirit. At that point, I realized that one of my great missions in life was to help bridge the gap between children and nature. I saw more and more parents and adults turning children over to technology rather than opening the door to outdoor time.

So, back to Jasper. When he was three, I enrolled him in a regular, 5 days a week preschool.  I thought I was doing what was best for him because the preschool came very well recommended and there was a long waiting list. I took him to preschool the first day and just cried and cried after I dropped him off. I knew in my soul that I wasn’t making the right choice of my child. The preschool was beautiful and inviting with quaint tables and chairs for sitting and doing art projects, a little reading nook, and other cute features. The thing that was absolutely killing me was the outdoor playspace- a large square of blacktop with a tiny strip of vegetation and dirt.

I knew in my heart that what my three year old child needed was dirt, sticks, bugs, fallen over logs, trails that he could explore, friends to explore with him, wetland marshes, the sun on his back, rain puddles, mud puddles, trees to climb, sand between his toes, birds overhead, and the gentle breeze on his cheeks. He would have a lifetime of sitting at tables with chairs. I was absolutely going against what I felt so passionately about- outdoor education.

So, I sent an email to a group of friends. I asked if they would be interested in joining me and my two boys (I had newborn baby boy, Gideon, too) in an outdoor preschool. It would be fairly unstructured with a theme each week and a hike. Parent involvement was an absolutely must and anyone was welcome to join. The response was awesome! I wasn’t alone! I had friends who wanted to venture out with their little ones too. The outdoor preschool evolved and grew over the five years that I taught it in Seattle. Not only was it fun to be outdoors with my kids, I also forged some of my strongest, fondest friendships through it too.

K:Why do you think it is so important for kids to explore and connect with nature at an early age?

S:I’ve read many books and articles about the outdoor connection and the way it shapes a child’s mental, emotional and physical health. An early connection with nature has been shown to decrease childhood depression, anxiety, and obesity. Unstructured outdoor play and exploration is a powerful tool in helping foster creativity and self awareness in young children. When a child studies a small insect they are engaging many of their senses and their brain is focusing in a way that cannot be substituted by technology. When a child stares up at the clouds, their brain is open to creative thought process and meditation.

The childhood connection to nature also instills a sense of love, respect, and ownership over their natural world. I had a strong sense of ownership over my little creek as a child. As I child, I would have done anything to protect and care for it, and if I heard that was going to be destroyed today, I’d do all in my power to keep it alive and protected.

 

K:You grew up in Corvallis and come back often with your children. What are some of your favorite areas to explore in or around Corvallis?

S:We have many favorite places. We love McDonald forest. There are endless trails to explore with kids. My favorites are Dan’s Trail and the Horse Trails off of Jackson Creek Road. In Peavy Arboretum, we love the Woodland Trail, Calloway Creek Trail, and the Intensive Management trail. We always take our bikes out to Bald Hill and the covered bridges bike paths. Jackson Frazier Wetland is another favorite, especially when it is wet and flooded! A little further out is Beazell Memorial Forest, Wood’s Creek, Mary’s Peak, Alsea Falls, and Finley Wildlife Refuge. The options are endless!

K:Do you have any advice for other families who want to prioritize outside time and exploration more but don’t know where to get started?

S:First of all, you don’t need to “know” anything about insects, plants, biology, birds, or ecology to teach your kids to love nature! Kids don’t learn by you spewing facts and information at them. They learn by watching you. When you stop and point up at the “v” of birds overhead, your children do the same. When you take time to get down on all fours to get a closer look at the snail crawling by, your children will also. When you jump into the mud puddle and let yourself go, your children feel the confidence and excitement to do the same. When you take time to observe the world around you, just by seeing, feeling, smelling, touching and being, your children will too.

Second of all, make it fun. Turn your hike into a scavenger hunt. Sing songs like the birds, act like hibernating bears, buzz around like dragonflies, play a game of the food chain by trying to eat one another up.

Thirdly, if you live in the Northwest or another rainy area, get yourself and your child a raincoat and rain boots. With a coat and boots, you have no excuse not to get outside.

Fourthly, ask friends to join you! It really is much more fun with a couple of friends, for you and for your kids. My nature school was always Monday morning and I knew I had people counting on me. Peer motivation is a powerful tool. I had more confidence to try out new hikes and places to explore when I had friends with me, too.

Fifth, TURN OFF YOUR PHONE!! Please! When you get outside with your kids, just unplug for a few hours. It feels so freeing. We are a society of addicts. If we want our children to know limits and set healthy boundaries, we have to set the example. Who else are they going to learn it from if we cannot do it ourselves. If you want to take pictures of your kids while they swing from a tree branch, by all means take that photo, but them put the phone away, out of sight. If this comes off sounding harsh and offensive,, then I apologize but it just has to be said.

 K:What else are you passionate about?

S:I feel passionate about my family and friends. I have the most amazing family. My parents are two of the most inspirational, kind, generous people I know on this earth. They truly make the world a better place by spreading love and friendship everywhere they go. I have incredible siblings who doing such unique, interesting things with their lives. They are always there for me and I’m always learning new things from them. I married into an incredible family with so much love and goodness. My father in law and sisters and brothers in law are all so strong, kind, smart, and accepting people. I owe a debt of gratitude to my mother in law, Rob’s mom, Yvonne, who I never got to meet on this earth. From the bottom of my heart and honor and thank her because she raised the most kind-hearted, open, patient, selfless, intelligent, adventurous, nature-loving man on this earth. We share the same basic human values, spiritual beliefs, and we are best friends. I feel so blessed and grateful for him. I’m passionate about my three children. Oh my goodness… I just feel so lucky to get to be “mom” to these three fantastic humans. I am totally and completely in love with each of them. What an honor to get to spend each day, helping them grow and learn. I love being the one to help them see the good in the world, noticing the details, extending a helping hand and a forgiving heart.

I also feel passionate about the human connection outside of family. I have some of the dearest friends a person could ever hope for. I feel so lucky. People dear to me from childhood and teenage years, college years, and my adult life. I feel passionately about trying to keep the connection with these people, who are dear to me for so many different reasons, alive and healthy.

 

K:What brings you peace and happiness?

S:That’s a big question and I could write a whole book about the things that bring me peace and happiness. I love being alive! I love the fact that I get to be part of this huge living machine we call life, even though my individual part is miniscule. I am so happy that I’ve been blessed with a healthy body that can climb mountains and ride a bike. I was thinking today that the thing that brings we the highest level of happiness is when I see my three children playing together. Sometimes they will all be laughing hysterically over some silly little thing. Other times they will rush to lend a hand or share a hug when another is sad. There is nothing that fills my heart with more happiness than seeing my children happy.

Peace comes when I take time to stop, be quiet and still, ponder, and meditate. I feel the most peace when I’m on mountain top and I’movercome with the incredible love that my creator has for me and every human being on this earth. Peace comes at unexpected times, being the mother of three young children. I truly believe that my level of peace and happiness is greatly impacted by spending time out in nature with my kids. Being outside helps me be more patient with my children. A brisk walk or hike in the morning provides me with balance and calmness to face the world with positivity and perspective.

Marie Palmer - August 11, 2014 - 1:49 pm

Thanks for the interview, Kara. I’m glad I met this great mama while she was here this summer. She does exude that comfortable feel toward nature, her kids and other people that you can sense in this interview. I’m excited to read more interviews in the future!

Sara - August 11, 2014 - 3:16 pm

Kara and Chris- Thank you so much for capturing my kiddos and I in word and pictures. You two are such a dynamic duo with your love of people and beauty.

Elisabeth - August 11, 2014 - 4:01 pm

When Sara and I were friends as high schoolers, we got to spend a week traveling in Italy with our choir. During that week Sara taught me to embrace silliness, and just to enjoy life and to take myself much less seriously. As a mother, there is so much more she could teach me about lightening up and embracing the dirt :) Wish you lived in Corvallis full time, Sara! Thank you for making such a positive impact on my life when we were kids…and for continuing to inspire me!