Dr. Reese Nelson, Professor of Horticulture at Brigham Young University was awarded a Second Prize for the conversation he had with his teaching assistant. Darcie Smart talked with Professor Nelson about his experience as a boy playing made-up games with his friends and taking day-trip adventures on his own through the poplar trees of his hometown. His childhood adventures have shaped the trajectory of his life in a very fundamental way. As he puts it, “Most of my time is spent teaching the good word of horticulture to others, but I also like to garden and landscape. And I have also discovered the human connection with plants and the restorative affect that it has on people. And I think the scholarly literature bears that out as well. “
Darcie Smart: Where was your favorite place to be outside when you were a child?
Resse Nelson: I would go on day hikes. So, I would get up in the morning, and my mom would make me a sandwich. Then, I would go off into my small town and walk around exploring places. So, in my town, there were three parallel lines of Lombardy Poplar Trees, Populus nigra ‘Italica’. They were planted by the sod-busting pioneers to delineate the roads that were parallel to each other, and so that gave kind of a skeleton to my hikes.
These poplar trees were planted along the ditch banks. I think that’s how the pioneers propagated them. They would just stick a cutting in the mud in the ditch bank for irrigating purposes. In the spring time, these farmers would burn the ditches to free them up from the weeds and other debris that had built up over the growing season. Because the Lombarby Poplars is not a very hard wood, in fact, it’s a soft wood tree, sometimes the flames of these ditch-burning rituals would hollow out the centers of these poplar trees. So, I would explore all these poplar trees and found caverns and it was almost cave like in some of those trees where the fire had burned them out and it was rotten inside.
Much like the mountain men trappers who helped settle the west would cache their furs in a place, I had caches of treats that I would put in Pringles potato chip cans. I would have candy bars and beef jerky, and these other things that would sustain me [on my hikes]. And then there were also a couple of Artesian wells that had just pristine, lovely water to drink from. So, I would pace myself; I would make swings; I would make teeter-totters; I would climb [the trees]. And, all of that helped generate this love of nature when I was young.
Darcie: That’s wonderful. You mentioned some games [you used to play], such as Bat Ball. What kinds of games did you used to play outside?
Reese: Bat Ball was one that we made up on our own, in which we would use a half deflated basketball and a baseball bat. Then we would hit it on the ground and run the bases like a traditional baseball game. And, Mountain Cricket was [a game we invented] based loosely on the cricket game that’s played in the commonwealth countries today. [The one] where you have a wicket and a bat. But, [Mountain Cricket] was played on uneven terrain and mountainous conditions and all over the place. We would just do a pick-up game.
Darcie: You used your imagination to use the terrain to your advantage with these games. You said your mom made you a sandwich [for your day-hikes] before, but how did your parents interact with you outdoors when you were young?
Reese Nelson: First of all, my parents really didn’t like us to watch TV and we didn’t have a lot of technology options. We were always in productive mode. We were caring for the animals, hauling hay, irrigating, caring for the large family vegetable garden, caring for the landscape. My mother would always do washing and hang it on the line. So, there was a lot of interaction between caring for the animals, caring for the property, and caring for the home, but there was a larger theme of being outside during all of this.
Darcie: What do you like doing now to spend time outdoors?
Reese Nelson: Most of my time is spent teaching the good word of horticulture to others, but I also like to garden and landscape. And, I have also discovered the human connection between plants and the restorative affect that it has on people. And, I think the scholarly literature bears that out as well. I think we all intuitively know that we feel better in nature and in fact, that is part of the scholarly literature. [Research] suggests that when people have a choice between spending their time in a built or natural environment, they will choose a natural environment. And, from the scholarly literature, I have also learned that [spending time outdoors] relieves stress and increases productivity; makes us better neighbors socially; and has some other benefits as well. So the scholarly literature bears out what I feel intuitively as well. And, it doesn’t have to be a pristine landscape. A couple of researchers call it “nearby nature”. So, it doesn’t have to be a well-manicured park. [Nature] can be anything that God created that is outside.