After one of the coldest, snowiest winters on record, most of us will be plenty motivated to get outside this spring. But as increasingly wired, desk-bound creatures who spend way too much time living in our heads — or fingers, as our smartphones would have it — we could use a reminder of why spending time in the natural world is so essential for our well-being. Here, some big minds on the subject share their thoughts.
Nature helps us define our place in the cosmos, explains Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City.”When I look up in the universe, I know I’m small –but I’m also big. I’m big because I’m connected to the universe and the universe is connected to me. . . By the way, the atoms of our body are traceable to what stars do. And all you can do is sit back and bask in your relevance to the cosmos.”
Nature teaches us resilience. “Here’s what I find inspiring about nature: It’s stubbornness personified,” says Deborah Blum, editor of the Houghton Mifflin series, Best American Science and Nature Writing. “….Years ago, I was working on a story about California’s San Joaquin River, balancing on a slippery black rock high in the Sierra, watching the river blast its way downhill. In the middle of the river, the rocks were seamed with cracks. And in just one, where there was bare shelter from the pound of the water, a tiny plant grew. It caught my eye because it was so brilliantly green against the dark rock. Life in all its defiant insistence on survival. I think nature, if we really look at it, gives us hope. It shows us insistent life – spiders weaving their thread like homes amid the leaves, lichens plastering themselves against tree bark, ants building homes out of crumbles of dirt, the first bulbs of spring shoving up out of a frozen winter. It reminds us of the pure wonder of the way life adapts to this fragile, challenging, amazing planet. It reminds me of Charles Darwin’s famous description from on the Origin of Species, of evolution bringing us ‘endless forms most beautiful.’ To that I would add ‘most stubborn.’ Because that gives me hope every time I step outdoors.”
Nature teaches us humility. “When I am outdoors, I feel connected to something larger than myself,” Rabbi Jamie Korngold, who as the Adventure Rabbi leads groups on spiritual outdoor journeys and is author of nine books, including God in the Wilderness. “Perhaps it dates back to the chemistry of the Big Bang, but when I stand on top of a mountain, the wind blowing against my cheeks, the sun warming my back, the smell of ponderosa pine filling my soul, I feel a palpable connection to something bigger than myself – to everything. This is the closest I come to experiencing God. I should explain that I don’t believe there is a God out there to whom I can pray so He will make things happen. But I do believe in this feeling of connectivity, of being part of something larger than myself.
“This sense of connection, of belonging, makes me feel powerful and capable. I feel supported by the universe and therefore am inspired to make the world a better place…At the same time, in the vastness of nature I feel humbled. As Job said, ‘I am but dust and ashes.’ Unlike Job, I am comforted by this thought. I am but dust and ashes and so is the entire world. Therefore even when my life is done, I will continue in a way, because we are united in the eternity of dust and ashes.”
As a natural creatures, our health and well-being depends on being in nature, says Richard Louv author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” and “The Nature Principle”
“When the Twin Towers fell, my younger son, Matthew, was 13. That afternoon, I bundled him into the VW van. His brother was off at college by then, otherwise I would have done the same with him. We drove the six hours from San Diego to the Owens River, and parked next to the current that washed out all the sound and all the fury. That night, inside the van, we flipped down the table and ate granola bars and drank hot chocolate and watched the window screens grow opaque with a late hatch of insects. And all the next day and the day after that, we cut the electrical cord to the outside world, and found a sense of equilibrium.
“Not everyone has the ability to seek out nature in difficult times. But it’s there. Even in the most densely populated neighborhoods, in alleys and the cracks of sidewalks, on rooftops, we can find the insistent natural world. Still, one must acknowledge the inequity, and another reality: The people who lost their homes to Hurricane Sandy or the people of the drowned parishes of New Orleans or the irradiated mud fields of post-tsunami Japan found no solace in the natural world. Even so, in dark times, we can find kinship with other species and connections to elements beyond the headlines, where we feel larger forces at work, and know that all things must pass and life is reborn.
Today, our society exhibits the symptoms of nature-deficit disorder: a narrowing of the senses, greater rates of depression and myopia among children. Many physicians, especially pediatricians are beginning to make that connection, and some are even prescribing time in nature. Nature isn’t a panacea, but a growing body of research suggests that these experiences can improve the health and well-being of adults and children. For children, just a walk through trees in an urban park can reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder. New studies also indicate that standardized test scores improve when schools take their students into natural settings to learn; and that enriching our cities with natural habitat can reduce toxic stress and violence.
As a new nature movement grows, many of us have come to believe that improving the opportunities for children and adults to connect with and appreciate the natural world is essential to our health, to the future of conservation, to our survival as a species; and it is the key to moving beyond energy-efficiency as our primary goal, toward something larger and more beautiful: a nature-rich future.
Nature is transformative. “Spending a day in nature changes a person, ” explains Dean Karnazes, a renowned ultramarathoner and bestselling author. “I’ve seen this time over, in myself and with others as well. These days we’ve grown so far removed from the real human experience, glued to our screens and surrounded by manmade contrivances, we’ve nearly lost all sense of our true origins. Being outside in nature has the power to transform and reconnect us with our roots. Escaping to the mountains, desert, or seashore revitalizes the spirit and nurtures the soul.
“The first time I ran straight through the night I felt this magic. Rarely does one spend an entire day outside, watching the sunrise and the sunset, seeing the moon emerge and the stars twinkling in the heavens above, breathing in the fresh air, and touching the earth with every footfall. Spending a day outside in nature never fails to make me whole again, complete, and at one with my place in the universe….The more technology profoundly influences the way we live, the more I yearn for balance by venturing into the great outdoors. I have always told my kids, adventure happens the moment you step out the front door. Sure, spending a day at Disneyland is fun, but spending a day in nature is the true magic kingdom.”
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