A friend called this week after returning from a two week trip to the North Woods. An IT person who works in a large metropolitan city, he was grateful for the off-the-grid escape. “You forget how much the noise and traffic and technology and busyness get to you until you take a real break totally disconnected from it all,” he said. “I tell ya, by the end of the trip I felt totally realigned. I was sleeping better. I did a ton of hiking, but I rested a lot and just enjoyed socializing and watching the lake. I was calm and not fumbling every five minutes for my phone, which didn’t really work anyway, to distract me. I could focus and enjoy the silence. By the time we left, I felt like I was pared down to who I was again.” It’s amazing what two weeks can do – in the right environment, I think. As he described the trip’s setting and sounds, I couldn’t help but think about the elixir time in wilderness is – and how it’s the most obvious thing in the world but perhaps one of the least appreciated. He couldn’t wait to get back and was already planning the next trip, swearing he’d never again deprive himself of “needed time” in the middle of wilderness nowhere. I know exactly what he meant.
It’s a natural thing to pine for – the open sky, the huge expanses of water, the wild landscapes. Those of us who live in cities perhaps feel the pull more keenly, but I venture to say we all crave nature to some degree. For the more adventurous, it might be tapping into the wild of self and environment that hooks us. The power we witness in bodies of water or mountains shakes us out of agitation or ennui, tempting us toward challenge and even risk that stirs our life blood. For others of us, we might feel more drawn to the peace and constancy of nature. The immensity of it can bring us back to right size. Natural sound can drown out the mental chatter and help us find stillness again.
It’s a still relatively “young” field, but research into the human connection to nature spans theories as diverse as psychoevolutionary theory, indigenous consciousness, naturalistic intelligence, and biophilia. (PDF) We understand the mentally and physically healing power of nature, the spiritual dimension of time in wilderness, the cognitive benefits of time in green space.
What’s less understood is the importance of depth and directness. Children who take school breaks (a.k.a. “recess”) in schoolyards with woods and other “natural terrain” environments experience less stress and show longer attention spans than those who play outside on traditional paved play areas. (Rest assured we adults glean the same psychological and cognitive benefits.) Likewise, unfiltered sensory experience matters. Research has also shown genuine views of actual nature offers more “restorative” effects than do technological images. In the end, our brains crave the real deal. There’s no fooling basic biology. Seriously, why do we bother trying? There’s a certain nonsensical denial and intellectual grandiosity in the presumption that the cerebral inventions of the last hundred years could somehow erase or dupe hundreds of thousands of years of evolution.
The drive is built into each of us even if the felt impulse is experienced differently. For some of us, pining for time in the wild can register as an actual ache. We feel like a proverbial fish out of water – as, generally speaking, we are and literally yearn to drop ourselves in the middle of the woods. In certain times of life when grief or other emotional disorientation settle in, we may instinctively seek out the wild to feel a part of ourselves that’s still intact and capable of peace. Maybe we simply experience it as an overwhelment with nature being the central (and perhaps temporarily forgotten, as in my friend’s case) remedy to the jangled, burned out condition living without the wild eventually imposes. Finding our way to a wild space finally clears the mental debris of our modern existence and restores a certain homeostasis.
Peter Kahn, a well-known researcher into the human connection with nature, talks about the difference between “direct harms” and “harms of unfulfilled flourishing,” by which he means “physical, material, or psychological benefits that do not occur but could have and sometimes rightly should have” but we may forgo because of the set up of our environment. In other words, we’re harmed by not experiencing something that would’ve allowed us to further flourish in life. It’s the comparison between surviving and thriving. (That doesn’t at all sound familiar, does it?) Without nature, Kahn suggests provocatively, we can live as “biological meat,” but we forego something essential to fulfilling our humanity and living our full capacity.
I think that’s what my friend meant when he said he felt like he was “pared down” to who he was again. The extraneous static dissipated in those two weeks for him, and he was able to access a part of himself that lived untapped – unactualized. No wonder we get away into the wild somewhere and so many of us claim we can breathe again – literally and figuratively. For him, it was the North Woods, but we all have terrains in mind that have perhaps similarly brought us back to ourselves. Think about what those places have been for you. When’s the last time you were back there? What about this coming weekend?
Thanks for reading, everyone. What does this “pull” of nature feel like to you? How and when does the impulse to wilderness come to you? Share your thoughts and favorite spaces. Have a great end to the week.