“We need the tonic of wildness… We can never have enough of nature.” —Henry David Thoreau
Remember the good ol' days of climbing trees, catching salamanders and skipping rocks on the creek? Every day was Earth Day. Interacting with nature was once as integral to an American childhood as Kick The Can and Wheaties. And guess what? Exploring the outdoors not only makes you feel rad, it helps the planet, too!
The times, they are a’changin’. The question is: can we transform them in the right direction? Tykes today are a new breed. They no longer flock to the forest for fun. Instead, they seem perpetually entranced by screens, increasingly dependent upon mobile devices for entertainment. In fact, The Wilderness Society cites that between 2006 and 2011, youth participation in outdoor recreation decreased from 78% to 63%.
Experiences in the early years are pivotal and formative. They sculpt our character and lay the foundation for our adult selves. Spending time outside as a youngin’ establishes and nourishes environmental awareness and appreciation. Plus, it's fun. So, why the drift away from such beneficial interactions with Mother Nature?
Three primary phenomena are at play:
- Increasing urbanization: Now, for the first time ever, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. Kids who grow up in urban settings face huge challenges getting raw interface with the natural elements.
- Technological advancements: The addictive qualities of screen time can’t be ignored. We have grown accustomed to, even dependent on, an incessant flow of information. Many are addicted to the stimuli. Whether it’s playing a game on your cell phone to "pass the time," getting lost in a movie, or becoming engrossed with your news feed--there are endless, often-mindless, virtual pursuits. We can connect with anyone and find out anything at any time, faster than ever before. This makes the rest of the world (i.e. nature) seem sluggish and dull in comparison. How addicted are we? The average American spends at least 8 hours a day looking at some sort of electronic screen. Often times, we do this to relax or “zone out” after a tough day. It feels good--cathartic. But what damage is it doing?
- The demonization of nature: As we become more and more domesticated, the stuff outside of our controlled spaces seems increasingly foreign, even scary. To many, nature has morphed from the revered teacher it once was into an untamed beast. A variety of aversions have arisen: the natural elements (weather, plants, animals); uncleanliness (dirt, germs); open spaces (being out of touch, getting lost).
Hope lies in the belief that these trends are reversible. And what better occasion than Earth Day to ask: how can we stop ravaging our planet, or at least have a less negative impact? How can we rekindle a respect for nature?
The first step is simple: GET OUTSIDE.
Photo by Donnie Hedden
Yes, tons of work needs to be done in countless fields, from science to politics; but this is something you, the individual, can do right now. Just walk out that door! It’s great that you recycle (maybe even compost!) and that you take your reusable bags to the grocery store (most of the time…sometimes…if you remember), but this is a more holistic approach.
Being outdoors and communing with nature will foster compassion for it. You may not even notice it at first. Maybe it's happening on a subatomic level, but little by little, hanging out with Mother Nature will strengthen your bond with, and heighten your sensitivity to your natural surroundings. Whether you're bird watching from a park bench, combing the beach for seashells, or thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, you have planted and are nourishing the seeds of eco-consciousness.
Being outdoors offers oodles of benefits. Here are just a few:
- You tune into your surroundings! Try it. Turn off your gadgets, remove the headphones, and see (maybe even hear, touch, and smell) what happens. There's a whole sensual world out there, just waiting for you. Relish it.
- You’ll be fit as a fiddle! Recent studies suggest that spending time outdoors balances sleep patterns, improves concentration, heightens mental acuity, soothes nerves and even helps with depression. And if you’re gettin’ physical outside? Even better.
Photo by Donnie Hedden
- You feel more alive! The University of Rochester cites studies that link nature exposure with increased energy and an enhanced sense of well being. Being present in nature helps to ward off feelings of exhaustion; 90 percent of people report increased energy when engaged in outdoor activities. Not to mention all the vitamin D you’re soakin’ in and the feel-good endorphins activated by, say, a hike on a sunny day.
- You get to check out cool places! What better excuse is there for an adventure? Getting out and exploring some must-see natural wonders--say, a secluded waterfall—will boost your Motherly love. Looking for some cool places? Try these hip sites:
- You give a damn! It’s difficult to care about something until you’ve experienced it. We need people who care more than ever, so spread the word and pass on those righteously good vibes.
Daisy chains and drum circles aside, humans need to revive a deep and intrinsic relationship with nature. We may act like planetary hotshots, but we’re just as dependent on natural systems as the rest of Earth’s inhabitants. And the evidence is irrefutable: there’s a correspondence between humans’ psychological well being and the amount of quality time spent in nature. That groovy feeling could save the planet. Transformative outdoor experiences cultivate dedicated environmental stewards.
So do yourself and the earth a favor: turn off, tune in, get out.
About the author: Madeleine took her first backpacking trip in utero. She's been hooked ever since. When she's not hitting the trail (or writing about it), you can find her artin' around, mastering her high-heel bike riding skills and mapping out her next adventure.