“The human spirit needs places where nature has not been rearranged by the hand of man.”
– Author Unknown
For as long as human beings have been on the earth, we have enjoyed a close relationship with nature. Indeed, we can’t help it as we are a part of nature and cannot exist without it, although nature can certainly exist without us. Recent decades, however, have shown that we can withdraw from nature to an extent that our interaction with it is so minimal that it becomes only the food we eat, and even that is suspect because these days food can be so processed that it really doesn’t resemble anything found in the natural world.
There was a time when nature was a major part of everyone’s life. It couldn’t be helped. We lived off the land, or even better, in harmony with it. Even if we resided in cities, we went outside to get to work or to the market for supplies and food, real food. Even if we didn’t engage with nature, we were at least influenced by it by simply being outside.
Nowadays, we can exist entirely without going outside at all. We can sit inside looking at our TVs, tablets, computers, and phones, order processed food to be delivered (thereby avoiding any sunlight exposure like a vampire), and try to be a human being through interacting online with our games, shows, and other computerized simulations that attempt to replace interacting with others and nature. Is that actually living?
We have had anywhere from 200,000 years to 6 million years of evolution of our physical forms, depending on how we define human beings. Virtually all of that time has been subject to the evolutionary pressures that caused us, as a species, to adapt to nature. In other words, we evolved based on our ability to survive in and with nature. Since we now can, for the most part, control our environment despite nature, we are not subject to the same natural evolutionary stresses as before.
However, we are human beings. We are built from the building blocks of the natural world and need sustenance from the natural world to survive. Much of modern living insulates us from exactly what our many of years of evolution has wired us to interact with and survive in.
Study upon study has shown how beneficial it is for us to be out in nature. The Japanese even have a word for it: shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” and it is a recognized therapy with official “Forest Therapy” trails in Japan. Even just a 15-minute walk in the woods shows beneficial effects on the body, including reduced stress and blood pressure, improved mood, higher energy, greater ability to focus, and accelerated healing, to name a few. Reduced stress has so many beneficial effects on the body that that alone would make it worthwhile. And sustained time in the natural world has another effect; three days of wilderness backpacking has shown a 50% increase in creative problem-solving abilities. If you want to be more effective at your job, or your life for that matter, then get yourself outside.
John Muir, the American naturalist and pioneer of wilderness preservation once wrote, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home. Wilderness is a necessity.”
In our American “supersize it,” instant gratification culture, we demand what we want and when we want it, complaining when it doesn’t come immediately and in a package that does everything and costs nothing. Well, nature costs nothing but our time and its effects lessen precisely what we complain about—feeling stressed, sluggish, being in poor shape, fuzzy thinking, claustrophobic, too much time at the office or at home. Instead of spending time outside, we run to the doctor to get prescription drugs to mask these symptoms of our beleaguered life when a prescription of nature time might be better, certainly cheaper, and have no adverse side effects.
So why do only 10% of American kids spend time outside every day? Why do we, as adults, feel the pressures of needing to do so much that we don’t have time for nature? The accumulation of prolonged stress then makes us sick and we run to pills or a doctor for a remedy. But the remedy is there. It is freely available and just asks us for our time. Until we actively choose to want to be less stressed, we will continue on the demanding, hectic merry-go-round of our crazy lives to the point of our bodies manifesting exhaustion and illness, just to lay us flat on our back for our physical forms to recover. Unfortunately, however, some manifested illnesses cannot be overcome.
Standing Bear, a Ponca Native American chief, once said, “Man’s heart away from nature becomes hard.” Is this who we are now as a culture? Have we become hardened by, among other things, our lack of exposure to nature? It appears that way for many in America.
The philosopher and spiritual teacher Alan Watts once wrote, “As to meaning itself, it cannot be described; it can only be experienced, and only experienced when there is such love between oneself and the world that what each makes together is more than either, just as to husband and wife the child is more than themselves.”
We need to experience the world, which includes the natural world, and through our connection with it, find meaning. Life is not about going at top speed being in constant action or experiencing a filtered shadow of existence reflected through a computer screen; it’s about experiencing and balancing all aspects of who we are. However, all too often the ancient, evolutionary desire to be in the natural world is omitted from the equation and we are left subject to the winds of social media and the material world, which suck us in and blind us to anything else. When our environment excludes nature, we are going against hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary changes that helped us adapt to and live with the natural world. That’s enough to stress anybody out.
So, we seem to have entered the age of the denatured human being. Besides the alcohol-related definition of “denatured”, the meaning of the word includes “to deprive of natural qualities,” “to change the nature or natural qualities of,” and “to deprive (something) of its natural character, properties, etc.”
It is in connecting to others and to nature that the human spirit soars, so let us not deprive ourselves of what it means to be human any longer. Let us go for a walk in the woods together, for as William Shakespeare put it, “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”