Nature is much on my mind these days. Actually, always. But right now especially, because where I live winter is trying to give way to springtime, and that always stirs me.
Eager for sunshine and color, I love watching the first snowdrop flowers open their droopy, white bells; silvery and reddish buds begin to decorate tips of tree branches; and dark green daffodil shoots break through sleepy soil reaching for the sky. Just in time to be buried under 14 inches of fresh snow…
While observing the erratic pattern of our winter-spring-winter-not-yet-spring weather, I’m also thinking about why nature matters, for me, you, and every other person you know.
Each of us has a relationship of some sort with nature. We breathe as one of its creatures, whether we live in a large apartment complex in downtown Manhattan, in a log-cabin in the Berkshire Mountains, or in a single-family house in a town like Northampton, MA.
Whether we actively seek out natural surroundings and outdoor activities, or prefer to pass our days inside, with electronic devices or other preoccupations, our lives are impacted by the degree of nature – or lack of it – that we experience.
I’m not just referring to artists who derive their inspirations for poetry, photography, and painting from spectacular scenes; avid sailors who thrill at the prospect of a steady, strong wind; or expert mountain climbers who cannot resist the lure of the highest, most feared peaks.
I’m thinking especially about the average person, like me, and perhaps you, for whom regular contact with nature cannot be taken for granted.
Our lives are busy and complex. Our responsibilities to work and family often keep us indoors more than we’d like. Illness or simply lack of energy may curb our desire or ability to venture outside.
As well, we’ve lost track of the fundamental need to experience nature, too often replaced by the Internet, television, video games and other indoor activities.
Nearly daily, we’re barraged by stress, constantly on alert — not for lions and tigers but for automobiles, the latest text or tweet, and a steady stream of unsettling images from news and movies.
Children, and even adults — especially women, rarely feel the freedom to roam across fields and woods alone. We feel too busy to take the time, or too concerned about safety and difficult public access. For some, seeking out nature simply is not a priority.
On a national scale, in the United States we’ve romanticized nature, exploited it, tried to protect it, and too often destroyed it. We’ve abandoned family farms and nearby woods to development. More than ever, as a society we’re disconnected from nature and our innate drive to connect with it.
As a health care professional, I can’t help thinking about the health implications of our choices, for ourselves, our families, and our communities. Trading off nature for convenience, computers, and commercial development is costing us dearly. Our health is at stake as individuals, communities, and a nation.
Some experts claim that we’re experiencing a type of “nature deficit disorder” that impacts our senses, our psyches, and our physical ability to function well. In fact, according to experts, this is the most pervasive of all current separation disorders.(1)
Research about the effects of nature on human health reveals some interesting findings. I found these really compelling! See if they inspire you, too.
1) Time spent experiencing nature can profoundly affect one’s sense of spirituality, one’s experience of wonder, joy, and humility. This is certainly true for me.
Have you ever, like me, felt awe-struck by the brilliant force of a huge, perfectly round moon on a clear night?
Have you closely observed a small spider weave an astoundingly large, intricate web between tree limbs, barn beams, or the corner walls of a room in your house?
2) Nature can influence our mental health in powerfully positive ways.
Apparently, for many children, playing in woods and climbing trees can be more effective than Ritalin in helping a child experience calm and focus.(2)
Moreover, nature can also be a healing balm for emotional hardships. A child benefits from the freedom to explore and express herself as she gives meaning to a piece of landscape, while sorting through her life’s challenges with natural materials found in a field or a stand of trees at the end of the block.
The process of using a natural setting to create little imaginary worlds, according to her needs, settles a child’s nervous system and enhances healthy development of her interior life.
Natural landscapes and gardens are known to have therapeutic effects for adults as well as children.
For example, consider patients in a hospital. Those who get to look out of a window, with a view that includes nature, tend to recover more quickly than those who can only see from their bed a brick wall or concrete slab.
Similarly, prison inmates whose cells face farmland experience less illness than those with only a prison courtyard view.
3) Direct experience of nature, such as digging in soil, caring for plants or an animal, even simply watching fish in an aquarium, has measurable physiological benefits,(3) as well, such as:
- Decreased blood pressure.
- Increased post-heart-attack survival rates.
- Accelerated speed of healing from an injury.
- Improved metabolism and weight, with physical activity.
4) Finally, spending time in nature is a great way to release stress.
Somehow, in the context of trees, grass, grasshoppers, birds, and flowers, our day-to-day stressors lose power. That’s definitely my experience, every time I go for a walk. What about you?
Each of those benefits of nature ring true for me. Writing the list reminds me why I always feel better after working in the yard, walking in fields and woods, swimming in a lake, or riding a bike. Spending time in nature with plant and animal life, rocks, water, wind, rain or snow, and especially sunshine, restores my mood and sense of well-being.
Easy Ways to Bring More Nature into Your Busy Life
Knowing that nature impacts our health in a variety of beneficial ways, what can you do to bring more of it into your days?
~ Send the children outside to play.
~ Find ways to inhabit more fully whatever nature is available to you, both outside and inside your home. There are, of course, many options for that. Start with one or two of these:
- Bring house-plants into your home.
- Pay attention to the wonder of even the most common natural events, like a flower blossom opening, a bird building a nest, or fog rising from a valley floor.
- Grow a few vegetables or herbs, in a small garden outside, in pots on a deck, or inside near a window. Start with one most used kitchen herb, such as rosemary or thyme, or one vegetable treat such as fresh lettuce or cherry tomatoes.
- Spend time with a dog, cat, rabbit or other domestic pet.
- Visit a farm.
- Frequent a local farmer’s market, where the rainbow colors of locally grown vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers may well pick up your spirits.
- Find out where there are the natural areas nearby in which you and your children can walk, run, explore, play in a creek, or simply sit quietly.
~ The next time you walk across a field, through woods, or even along a road, take deep breaths. What do you notice around you? What about inside you?
If you can find ways to bring more nature into your life, your body, heart, and soul will thank you!
Now it’s time I step away from the computer to head outside for a few deep, fulfilling breaths of fresh air and a glimpse of whatever additional delights nature offers today.
References:(1) p. 44, Louv, Richard, Last Child in the Woods, 2005; (2) p. 34, 48, 103-107, Louv, R., Last Child in the Woods; (3) p. 45-47, Louv, R., Last Child in the Woods.