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How to Turn Your Nature Deficit Into a Nature Surplus

This summer I got an unmistakable itch. A yearning. A calling. It happens every summer. I start getting these admittedly ridiculous, unrealistic, impossible, and yet somehow still unavoidable and alluring thoughts about ditching civilization for a little cabin in the woods somewhere. Maybe a plot of land, some chickens [7], some livestock (not sure what, maybe cows [8], goats, and sheep, maybe a pig [9] or two). There’s a river running through it, too, or at least a babbling brook, leading up to a big blue lake that you can see right through to the bottom even though it’s hundreds of feet deep. And trees everywhere, towering green giants that cover the sky and leave just enough room for me to stargaze and spot oncoming storms.

Or maybe it’s the jungle, or the beach, or the desert. Point is: I get this powerful urge to leave civilization behind and strike out for the wild of nature [10].

This is just a fantasy for me. I’ve never seriously considered taking the plunge and striking out, off the grid. I love my life, I relish my work, I like the creature comforts afforded by modern society, and I love my friends and family [11]. Wouldn’t give that last one up for the world, especially. Why, then, do I still yearn for the wild?

We can’t live without nature. That’s why.

And I don’t mean in the sense that we obtain the very resources on which our lives depend from nature – food, water, shelter, fuel – although that’s true, too. What I mean is that without regular exposure to nature, even if “nature” is just going outside for some fresh air, a person can’t live a full, complete, happy life. It’s evident to me that for humans, like other animals, nature is the “default” environment. It’s the norm. It’s not that spending time in the woods reduces blood pressure [12], boosts immunity [13], and lowers stress, as seen in the forest bathing [14] studies. It’s that spending too much time in cities and suburbs [15] raises blood pressure, lowers our immune function, and increases stress [16]. Nature exposure simply restores the normal physiological functions impaired by exposure to civilization. The end result is the same either way – better health – but thinking of nature as the norm and civilization as the aberration underscores the importance of the connection between people and nature [17] and highlights just why nature is so vital for our health and well-being.

I’m not just listening to my gut here, either, nor am I basing my assertions entirely on a personal sentiment I might have. There exists a wide and growing body of scientific evidence supporting my position.

Some skeptics of the importance of the link between human health and nature have claimed that physical activity explains the association. In other words, the only reason green spaces are linked to improved health is that people who have access to green space are more likely to be active. It’s a compelling argument, but a recent study [18] just determined that while some of the cardiovascular health improvements associated with urban green space are due to increased physical activity, it can’t explain all of them.

In one of the coolest pieces of research, one recent study [19] measured the brain responses of people touching different things, including foliage from a plant, synthetic foliage made to feel like the real thing, a piece of fabric, and a piece of aluminum. They also asked the subjects to describe their feelings when touching the various objects. When people touched the metal, they evinced cerebral brain flows indicative of a stress response. When people touched the real leaf, they experienced a calming effect, but didn’t consciously realize it was occurring. The way they described how they felt didn’t change. So, it wasn’t just a subjective perception of relaxation [20]. An actual connection to nature was happening on a physiological, measurable level, showing that our bodies know the difference between manmade and natural. Almost like we’ve evolved some intrinsic interface with the great outdoors, eh?

So, today, I want you to start addressing the nature deficit in your lives. We all have one. Consider this a call to arms, and use this opportunity to make a statement of intent, a declaration of your plans to address the issue and turn your deficit into a surplus.

Remember that nature isn’t just “green.”  You don’t have to plumb the depths of the deep forest, necessarily. Nature is also blue – rivers, lakes, oceans, creeks. In fact, “urban blue” is an emerging focus for researchers [21] interested in the effects of nature exposure and human health. Nature is also brown – deserts, prairies, beaches. Nature can be wildly colorful, too – jungles, meadows full of wildflowers. Nature is darkness, as well. Some of my strongest memories come from simply looking up on a clear black night [22] to watch the universe unfold itself [23] before me. What’s important here is getting a respite from civilization, from steel and concrete and car horns and WiFi and emails. 

Explore less mainstream areas. A perfect example of this is Yosemite National Park in Northern California. Usually when I go, I make it a point to avoid Yosemite Valley. Sure, the valley is where all the big attractions are, like Half Dome, El Capitan, and the Mist Trail, but it’s also where all the tourists go. To most people, Yosemite is Yosemite Valley. But me? I like to go along Tioga Pass, which runs above the valley in the high country and has a ton of really cool stuff. Beautiful vistas, Lake Tenaya, Tuolumne Meadows, Lembert Dome, and several really great campgrounds that tend not to fill up, even in high season. The valley is certainly worth checking out, but sitting in a traffic jam is not my idea of “getting away.”

Try to incorporate a bit of nature into your life every single day. This doesn’t require moving out to the sticks. Luckily, we can fool ourselves with approximations or phantoms of the real thing. Do some gardening out back or on your windowsill [24]. Buy some houseplants [25]. Go for a walk [26] in the park. Take a nap [27] in the grass. Listen to some nature sounds as you work or try to sleep.

Spend the better part of a day in the outdoors at least once a week. You might have to drive an hour or two. You might have to settle for a local park, or even your backyard. Whatever you do, just try to fully immerse yourself in some natural setting for at least one day a week. You don’t lose or anything if you can’t make it happen, of course. Just think of this as a goal to shoot for.

Make time for extended nature-inspired trips several times a year. A few times a year, spend two or more days getting dirty, building fires, camping, hiking, swimming, fishing, hunting, snorkeling, climbing, surfing, snowboarding, or just generally roughing it in whatever manner the season, location, and climate allows. For some people, this will be a safari in South Africa [28]. For others, it’ll be a camping trip [29] to the local lake.

Just do it. We usually have the idea that diet and exercise are the ultimate arbiters of health. If you’re talking body composition [30], yes, I’d agree. But if you take mental and spiritual health into account, I don’t think we can think of nature exposure as extra-curricular or optional. It’s absolutely vital. Don’t skip this stuff. Make the effort, just like you make the effort to avoid grains [31], refined sugar [32], and vegetable oils [33].

Okay, that’s it for my spiel. As you can tell, I care about this issue, and I think you should, too.

Now, let’s hear from you. Where are you going to go? What steps are you going to take to get more nature in your life? Let me and everyone else know in the comment section! Thanks for reading!