MY 15-YEAR-OLD found me on all fours in the dirt, and he shook his head in resigned disapproval.
"You're gar- dening again, aren't you?" he said.
"What powers of observation," I said.
He ignored my sarcasm and asked why I put so much energy into my flowers as opposed to, say, his dinner. I told him I wasn't sure why, but that gardening seemed to drain me and recharge me at the same time.
"Kind of like, 'Out with the bad, in with the good,' " I said.
"You should wait until Jessie and I are out of the house," Joe said. "Then you'd have plenty of time to garden."
"You don't understand, Joe," I said, patiently. "When you and your sister are gone, I won't need to garden."
I suspect this conver- sation was meant to provoke me, and it did. But not in the way Joe intended. He wandered off to annoy his sister, and I was left to ponder what drove me out- doors to garden when a perfectly good book waited for me in my climate-controlled bedroom.
I found my answer not in the leafy chapel in which I worshiped, but in the world of advertising and consumer research. This is what I learned: I am nature's target audience.
"Women find a way to get what they need, and they need nature in their lives," says Chuck Donofrio, president of Richardson, Myers & Donofrio, a Baltimore marketing and communications agency.
"It's amazing. There are 10 million ways to do it, and women find a way. Maybe just little snips of nature. But they make little, daily, conscious decisions to get it into their lives," he says.
"I contrast that with men, who don't seem to have nature integrated into their lives. Women are much more resourceful."
Donofrio can say this not because he held a focus group of nature lovers in a clearing in the woods, but because his researchers observed women in their natural habitat, as it were.
"When you watch people, you see them doing things they don't think to tell you about when you ask them," says Donofrio.
Because the consumer population has been Nielsen- boxed and focus-grouped to a mind-numbing degree, Donofrio, who has a pretty off-road sensibility for an ad guy, decided to try to get at buying habits from another angle.
He recruited anthropologists and asked them to use their techniques -- observation, photo and video diaries and detailed interviews -- to find how people live and why they buy what they buy. "People are so aware of media and of themselves as consumers, the traditional ways of doing market research weren't working," he says. "People were acting weird, like they knew they were advisers."
Donofrio formed a new company, Context, around this approach, and the first project was a study of women and the outdoors for outerwear companies. Donofrio and his anthropologists recruited 40 women in four cities, handed them disposable cameras, sat back, watched and listened.
The diaries and the interviews were so intense Donofrio found himself invested in these women's lives. He started to care about them. He was astonished by some and grew to admire others. "It sure beats a survey phone call in the middle of dinner," he says.
What he found will no doubt help the folks at Gore-tex or Patagonia make better marketing and advertising decisions, but I was more interested in what Donofrio learned about women and the outdoors.
And what he found was need. Many women, maybe most women, need the outdoors in their lives, even if it is no more than walking the dog or visiting a farmers' market or going out of their way to pass a fountain.
Donofrio met the woman for whom back-of-the mountain skiing, which puts her very survival in doubt, is a personal test that gives her life not just thrills, but meaning. When she had to choose between high-risk back surgery and never skiing again, she easily chose the surgery.
There was the woman who carried a field guide in her back pocket even if she was only going to the mailbox. "She felt like the more she learned about nature, the more she would understand her place in the world," he says.
There was the gardener, performing a ritual passed down from her mother. "She said she felt like she was honoring her mother," says Donofrio. "That, and there were great stretches of time when she wasn't thinking about anything. She'd look up, and hours would have passed."
For some women, the outdoors is just a place to burn calories. Others are hooked on the "endor- phin rush" of outdoor exercise. They felt they were oxygenating their bodies, purging toxins and lubricating their joints and organs. "They felt being outdoors was healthy in a holistic way."
And there are the women for whom the outdoors is a place to meet a friend to walk and talk, where they take toddlers to escape the confines of the house. Women for whom nature is a place to vent, a place to burn off negative feelings in a healthy way. "They saw the outdoors as a place to exhale."
Most often, Donofrio said, the women described the outdoors as a place where they felt alive but calm. Energized yet restored. And they told Donofrio's researchers that they never thought they had to justify their time outdoors. "For them, the outdoors was intrinsically good. It is good because it was good. Period."
The outdoors, he found, is the perfect environment for a woman's interior life.
"The women who were most dissatisfied were people who saw themselves as engaged in the outdoors, but unable to get to it. A woman who moved from Seattle to New York was going nuts," he says.
"But most of them are getting the outdoors that they need. Even if it is just on the sidelines of a soccer field."