Yearning for the Wild

WildA 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.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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57 thoughts on “Yearning for the Wild”

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  1. Being a lifetime city and suburb dweller I usually feel really disconnected from nature, which might have been a huge reason that running outdoors in the early morning became so appealing to me once I started. That is really the only time I have in daily life to unplug and take in what’s around me outdoors. I often feel conflicted about where I’ve chosen to raise my kids since we definitely have to seek out nature and it’s not an inherent part of our lives. Going forward though I would like to make it a priority for my family to experience a lot more unplugged outdoor time.

  2. I was raised in the country and never wanted to leave it. I always found it ironic that it cost so much more to live in a city and thought, “Who would want to live there anyway?”
    It’s a money trap. You move there to make more but then you spend it all to live there or suffer a terrible commute and pay for it in cortisol.

    1. Cities are only more expensive if you live beyond your means. Two-hour commutes are not mandatory. And for some of us, cultural amenities bring us the type of joy others get from nature.

      Live and let live!

    2. I could not stand to live in the “city”. It makes me uptight just thinking about all the people, constant noise and traffic. You are never alone. When I look at an aerial shot of new york city and see the little green spot of central park, I try to fathom how anyone could live there. And they advertise “spectacular views” from multi-million dollar condos. Views of what? The tops of thousands of other buildings? I know… each his/her own. I get that. And no, I don’t shun all material possessions and live in a hippie commune. (Not that there is anything wrong with that ;)) Just wondering/venting out loud, I guess.

      1. I have kind of a love-hate relationship with NYC. I’m a native and lived all of my life in or around the city so in part it feels like “home.” As I get older and have a family, however, I’m more and more ok with leaving it for good.

        On the one hand, I hate driving but absolutely love walking everywhere I need to go. You can’t beat NYC for that. On the other hand, just about everything else about the city is miserable. Such common things as trees, a patch of wildflowers, etc. are planted around the city like museum relics and there is about 1 tree for every 75,000 people it seems like. My kid goes to a public school there and while the teachers, instruction, parent community and all of that are excellent, I feel like the kids need more space to stretch out (literally), run around without cars nearby, make noise without disrupting neighbors and all of that being a kid stuff. It smells bad, especially in the summer. I could go on. In general, NYC is just too many people all stuffed into one tiny space.

        We are very fortunate to have a house in the exurbs with walls of windows, decks and a screened porch overlooking wooded areas. There are more deer walking by than cars driving past. I hear birds, insects and a waterfall in the background. This is a perfect amount of nature in my everyday life. Now I just need to get along with this driving thing!

    3. My commute is about 10 minutes, and I’m only 40 minutes away from the desert and canyons, and an hour from mountainous wilderness.

      Las Vegas is an awesome place to live (although I wouldn’t raise kids here).

  3. I have felt the occasional “crave” when my mind yearned for an experience like going out to nature or something to that effect. I’ve had moments where I needed to get out for a walk in the fresh air and sunshine so bad that it felt like all my nerves were screaming at me to go.

    1. I definitely get this! I’m suffocated if I’m inside for too long without some fresh air.

  4. I love posts like this – a great helping of motivation to go for a long walk in the woods. I’m heading off to a music festival in the woods next weekend up in the mountains of Europe. 5 days of waking up in the woods and going for a dip in the beautiful (and freezing cold) mountain lake – it’s impossible to stay hungover for long.

  5. Nature Deficit Disorder is an amazing book that talks about this effect on children. I grew up camping and hiking with my family and I do physically crave the outdoors regularly (especially when I’m stressed!) I think that’s a huge reason why I train for marathons so often – running regularly gets me outside and feeling connected to the world again.

  6. Great post! Can definitely relate to this pull towards nature, even though I live in a place that is fairly “green”. Also, I’ve been reading a lot of Graham Rook’s work lately. Excellent stuff. Besides the research you mention in the article, he’s published some great scientific articles where he focuses on the benefits of living close to the natural environment in terms of increasing biodiversity. Given how how up-to-date you are on everything you’ve probably read his stuff, but if you haven’t, then I highly recommend it.


  7. Many people have never experienced the “wild” and don’t know what it means. It is harder to find such quiet places today then when I was a kid. Now, such places are often populated with people on their phone!

    1. Truly wild places don’t have cell phone towers. I live in Colorado. People from out of state die in these mountains all the time. A few days ago the bodies of two people from Minn. were found just a mile and a half from a campground. They had gone missing months ago. The weather was bad, they had apparently gotten disoriented, and there was no cell phone coverage where they were.

      The big cities along the Front Range can create a false sense of security. People don’t realize the mountains are a whole different story. They come here to camp and climb the 14ers, and of course to get away from the crowds. But they are often totally unprepared. They lack appropriate clothing and survival gear, and phone coverage is still very limited once you leave the interstate and the major highways. It’s a mistake to think you can go into the wilderness and simply phone for help if things fall apart.

  8. “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.”

    Sadly, most schools here in California look like minimum security prisons.

  9. I live in the middle of a pretty big city (1 million people in the metropolitan area) but I am still surprised by the things I come into contact with, especially since I get up early every morning to walk my dogs. I have come face to face with coyotes several times; it was never particularly scary because they are smart enough not to mess with me. My dog looks a lot like a coyote but that doesn’t fool them, of course. But they will just stand there and look you in the eye until they are ready to leave, at least as long as you don’t do anything threatening.

    But I grew up in rural Oregon and many of the people I see here in the city did not; some of them get a little weird in such situations.

    Another thing I see all the time is crows. All day long you can see crows here, and while their noise is annoying, they are fascinating birds to watch. They are quite smart and their behavior is often interesting – and sometimes pretty nasty. Yeah, there are squirrels all over the place, but I find them kind of dull. I don’t understand how people who think they are cute can also find rats repulsive, but I guess I don’t have the right attitude.

    None of this is a satisfying substitute for a wilderness, but we humans seem to ruin all of those simply by going to them. I think if I were the Earth I might regard us as a virus.

    Oh, look! A new app for my iPhone!

  10. I have retained what I call my “vacation glow” since my 2 week solo camp in the forest over the 4th. The 2-weeker was the first one since 1997. It was good to “get bored” and force some lifestyle decisions too.

  11. This is why I wonder sometimes how people can honestly believe we could live in colonies on the moon or Mars.

  12. This post was so timely for me, thank you so much for writing it! My husband and I just recently decided to buy a house in the country outside of the city we currently live in. Although Winnipeg is still a small city (probably most outsiders would think it’s a town) I find that it just keeps expanding and industrializing and everything is just going in the opposite direction of where I think it should (more parks and farmer’s markets would be better than super targets!). Since closing our new house, I’ve gotten anxious about moving away from family and conveniences, and taking care of a lot more land (2 acres only, but still!) This post reminded me of the feeling I got when I saw the long treed property with rolling hills and little river… It’s going to be awesome!

  13. For me simply jumping in the ocean for 15-20 minutes (live in San Diego) can give my attitude and outlook a total reset!

    1. Walking the beach every morning here in South Carolina (barefoot, of course) does it for me. What is it about being near the water? Always so calming.

  14. I wonder if this is why I can’t stay in the house for an entire day? I physically need to get out of the house. Sometimes I just drive to a store and walk around. Sometimes a park or a trail, but everyday I have to do it- no matter how bad the weather is or whatever. Good post here. It makes me wonder also why I hate the idea of camping but love the idea of spending a day out hiking or whatever. My husband’s calming location in anything with water- he wants a standing paddle board now, as soon as we can afford a car large enough to carry one. I personally like forests and mountains. We were already going to go hiking this weekend, but now I will be paying more attention 🙂

  15. Just a note – is anybody else experiencing difficulties with this site? For the last two days it has taken many minutes to process comments, load pages, etc., and sometimes it just times out, having loaded nothing. I have tried with three different browsers (Firefox, Opera, Safari, and Sea Monkey, which makes four browsers, LOL) and checked my firewall settings with no luck. Other sites I visit are not doing this, just this one. Someone else had a similar problem yesterday so I am interested to see if it is just a small subset of people experiencing this problem or if it is more widespread than that. If it’s the small subset thing, then I think I’m in trouble.

    1. Yes, I have the same issues with this website! I think since Monday. Also, I notice more and more people leave double comments probably because of the long wait.
      Don’t think you’re in trouble…

    2. Same here!! VERY frustrating! I went to the Contact Us page yesterday and told them about it and it took 20 mins for that comment to get sent! Usually it times out. We have a new speedy Mac and a PC but both have the same experience even on different browsers as you noted. No problems with Amazon or any other large sites. Thanks for bringing this up! I thought it might be just me! It’s been getting worse over the past week or two. Hope someone fixes this SOON!

    3. Same problem here using Chrome browser so I don’t think the browser has anything to do with it. Could have been a server issue.

      1. Sorry, guys. We installed a new server over the weekend and everything was loading fine, but then it really bogged down yesterday when we sent out the newsletter. We are trying to resolve. It might be an updated plugin not playing nice with WordPress. Very frustrating for me, since I try to always have more capacity than I need. Thanks for hanging in there with me!

  16. Leaving for my first vacation in two years in about an hour to the black forest in Germany! My parents asked us to go with them, which is fun. But that also means tablets, smartphones and laptops are coming with (for 4 people), which is a bit less fun. My boyfriend and I got some books and we’ll just go into the wild by ourselves for a few days! Probably also shut off our very dumb phones.

  17. Nothing beats the restorative powers of the outdoors. All it takes is an overnight stay, for me to feel like I’ve been there for weeks. There’s a sense of tranquility that is unmatched…

    And yes, I too experienced connection issue and uploads….. I wonder if they changed servers

  18. I have recently started running and biking at lunchtimes instead of spinning and using the gym. I hated exercising indoors and am really enjoying being out in the woods or fields every day. Afterwards I feel calm and kind of at peace, a feeling I never get at the gym. And I’m sure my fitness is improving more than it ever did doing indoor classes.

  19. Last Tuesday I felt emotionally drained, so I asked a friend if I could sneak over and walk through her woods and around her lake. Wanted some alone time to pray and refocus.

    Even if I had never made it back to the lake, a few steps in to the woods would have been enough. The evening sunlight filtered through the trees and, well really there are no words to adequately describe the depth of beauty around me. My troubling thoughts went mute and I was in awe. The stillness my spirit needed came. And it is always this way in nature (oh you should have seen me crying at the top of Pike’s Peak!)

    So here, here to this article.

  20. Imagine being out for four months!! I just got home after thru hiking the Appalachian Trail. It is SO HARD to come back to “real life” after a thru hike. I go through a mini depression every time. I have no tolerance for travelling at high speeds or traffic. I miss the smells of the trail. I miss sleeping in the dirt. I miss the simplicity of living out of a backpack. I miss waking up to the birds singing. I miss the taste of the ice cold spring water coming straight out of the ground.

    I think about the trail every single day.

  21. Before I forget, I’m going to say it here.
    Rather than sending an email that there’s a good chance Mark won’t read. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s got people who sort out messages for him so he only gets the ones he’s likely to be willing to answer or interested or engaged in.
    I have a suggestion/request for this website. I think it’s a very good idea.
    I think that there should be posts about specific organs and systems, what they basically do, how to protect and enhance them, what not to do to avoid causing them any damage or do anything that would be deleterious to their operations.
    Sample post headings: Brain Health: How to Gain and Maintain It into Old Age
    Go with the Flow: Ensuring a Healthy Circulatory System
    How to Make your Liver Invincible
    See what I mean? These posts would be easy for Mark to write, though personally I’d be expecting some reasonably in-depth information and scientific biological facts embedded within them. They would be (start bold + underline Ctrl+B (I think) Ctrl+V) extremely (end underline and bold script) helpful to [at least a handful of] people. You know what? Probably most of us. Sure, there are likely enough tidbits and mini-essays and whatnot here for us to get a general idea of how to protect most of our organs and major systems, but posts specifically targeting those topics would be a tremendous boon (those last two words should be emboldened as well) to the apple demographic and their family, friends, acquaintances, and whoever else is out there that comes across the info.

  22. The term “grounded” means just that — being in contact with the ground. The wilder the better. I would lose my mind if I couldn’t get outside into a wild world that doesn’t care about me or my teeny tiny problems.

    1. Who knows? Maybe it does. Maybe if you are connected enough or care enough about it or are a good enough person or attempting to follow your intuition and do the basics of what you should do in the world to fulfill your place in it or the universe it does.
      That’s all half baked conjecture.
      Even Mark, the self-identified as skeptic as anyone guy, recently said in a post that “the secret” (the law of attraction) has a little bit of a basis in reality. Ok maybe we shouldn’t verify all our “unproved” theories by what he says.
      Some of you out there should be able to relate to the following though..
      Ever been thirsty out in the wilderness, and come across some fruit or a stream at a great time? Ever take a route through (mostly, as lots of territor we travel through is somewhat domesticated) wild territory you normally wouldn’t and found food or something useful? (I found a warm, dead squirrel on the road while taking a back route for the first time.. mmm it’s heart and liver were good raw).
      Those are just a couple examples of what may lie beneath the surface.. how we may be able to meld more with the universe/world in some sort of symbiotic or maybe even parasitic relationship to get what we want. It doesn’t mean any inanimate matter cares about us, but it can seem like it.

  23. Two weeks is nice, but sometimes it just takes a couple days. Last weekend my husband and I loaded up our motorcycles with tent and sleeping bags and spent an overnight in the National Forest up in Colorado. We got rained on in the tent, and woke up to chilly 42 degree temps the next morning, but enjoyed every minute of it!

  24. Come September I’ll be hiking into a cabin 4 miles off the road in Northern Maine to spend time alone by a large lake in a seemingly endless forest. No sound but the wind in the Pines and the echoing calls of loons and owls.

  25. I long to the open ocean under sail. The night sky over the open ocean feels like one could reach out and touch it. The stars of lowest magnitude are visible far from the lights of civilization. The sounds of wind and the waves acting in concert with the hull is a welcome change to the cacophony of urban life. The power of the ocean is awesome and presents the realization of how significant humans are when one is isolated in a floating cocoon of civilization out at sea. Modern humanity has lost its respect for spiritual grandeur of the natural world. Our ancestors treated marine mammals with the respect of gods. Today they are performing clowns adorning plastic refillable 22oz soft drink containers.

  26. I am so grateful that I live and work in buildings surrounded by beautiful gardens. The work one is taken care of by wonderful gardeners that keep it green and beautiful year round. I make it a practice to walk around and enjoy it on my way in, at lunch and on my way out. Touching the leaves, flowers and even walking barefoot in the grass. The gardens around my condo are not huge but it’s a big space and there are a lot of trees that block out much of the “city” views.

  27. I live in the city as well, but it is a ‘provincial’ city, meaning as soon as one gets on the JR and goes about 10 minutes in either direction, one basically is in the countryside (mountains, forest). 20 more minutes and one is in rice paddies and agricultural plots.

    In the winter especially I would feel the call of nature and get on the local train and ride out to the country, to one of the small villages where only farmers live, and spend the day ambling about, hiking up the mountains, eating in local restaurants with seats for maybe 5 people maximum. The best is soaking in the natural hot springs and picking citrus fruits – they grow just about everywhere in the country, of all sorts, from about February.

    In summer we have nature too, and the sea and islands to go to, mountains to hike up. But there are sooooo many people everywhere. One cannot really enjoy the nature while pushing around on an island with half of the city’s population and their mom. Also we have Giant Hornets that have a way of killing a person with a single sting in the summer, so the longing tends to be a seasonal thing for me.

  28. Thank you for this post! Growing up I always just assumed I wasnt the “outdoorsy” type. I hated getting dirty, bugs and the heat. Now that I’m older I literally crave being connected to the outdoors in ways I couldn’t explain until I read this. I don’t know if it’s because I never allowed myself to enjoy nature or just that I biologically need it now but I dream of being on deserted beaches and hiking in beautiful forests!

  29. What sense does it make to let nature heal yourself only to jump right back into a meaningless, stressful job? I think at least that’s the reason why he got disconnected from himself in the first place. Years ago I had a burnout because of a stressful IT-job, nature and animals healed me, too, it took about a year. Then I had to think of what brought me into this situation and changed my job and profession. I earn a lot less now, but work a lot less, have little stress and have more meaning and my work doesn’t haunt me. I haven’t had any signs of disconnection or burn out again. And I can spend time in nature every day now.

  30. I just spent a week in the upper half of the Grand Canyon with a group of people….off the grid, paddling down the Colorado River through rapids and all, hiking, playing, relaxing, camping….”living” on the river. Most AMAZING adventure of my life and boy did I feel more connected to nature than ever before. I live in Wisconsin, but I can’t wait to move out west someday (hopefully by the end of two years from now) to live around the mountains and be closer to the amazing natural wonders I fall in love with in that part of the country every time I travel out that way. I intend to go back to the Grand Canyon someday as well for a full two week trip to see the “whole” thing.
    I can’t help but leave a little plug for the company my friends and I used: Canyon Explorations ( They really added to the memories we took away from our trip and experience!!

  31. I’m lucky enough to live in a coastal city and have a small beach at the end of my road and a nature reserve opposite the house… And dumb enough to sometimes forget to remember it’s there and take advantage! These last few days though…spent most of my time barefoot on the beach and swimming in the sea with my family…it’s been absolutely lovely! Need to play more and work less I think…

  32. The adventure of true wilderness seems nearly unattainable–Anyone else feel this way?

    All the wonderful landscape around me is private property which I cannot access or is owned by the government (city/state parks), which has limiting trail and camping rules and comes with with manicured, tightly packed campsites.

    I practically live in these trails and parks, but the next level of wilderness immersion would be amazing. Does a place exist where a person can truly venture into the wilderness only limited by his own desire and capabilities?

    1. Yes. There are a number of wilderness areas in Colorado (where I live) and the other mountain states, including Alaska. Most of them have no roads, no cell phone capability, no formal campgrounds, no place to buy food, etc. Travel is done by “shank’s mare”; i.e., your feet.

      Do your homework before venturing into wilderness areas, and then prepare, prepare, prepare–and never, ever underestimate what you’re dealing with. People are always getting lost or stranded in Colorado’s mountains. Most are rescued (at the expense of the taxpayers), but some aren’t so lucky. They “winter over”, frozen under the snow, and their bodies aren’t found until the following spring.

      1. Looks like I need to head West! I’d love to find something similar, not necessarily mountains, of course, within a day’s drive (I’m in Ohio). The preparation warnings are well received. Thank you

    2. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota, US is a huge wilderness network of lakes lined with rocky shores, beautiful pine forests, populated with moose, wolves, loon, bald eagles, beaver and lots more. At night you push your canoe out a little ways into the water, lay down in your canoe, and look up at the magnificent field of stars. No city lights to dull the view. No motorboats allowed, just take your gear and canoe with you across portages between lakes. It also connects to more beauty and wilderness across the Canadian border in Quetico provincial park. In winter, dog sled from yurt to yurt and see the Northern lights. Amazing.

  33. Now I want to go camping. Any suggestions for good places in Northern California?

  34. I regularly (almost daily) spend time in nature and can go for hours without seeing anything relating to technology, modern living, etc. I have no problem leaving my phone in the car. But a few weeks ago I spent time in southern Africa and a few days in, I noticed something felt very different in a good way. I realized that I could stand still in nature and only hear nature. No highways, no planes. It was amazing. I didn’t realize how much that was seeping into my consciousness when I’m hiking at home. Is there ANYWHERE like that left in the US? No where I can get to regularly, I would imagine.

  35. Read this article just as I was planning to sell my piece of wilderniss and move to “civilization” …