In Through the Out Door: How Going Out Into Nature Leads Us In to Our Truest Selves

Why do people go outside?  I mean, besides the obvious, like having to go to work or move from the house to some other point in the world.  What draws those of us inspired by nature out?  Why do some people choose to suffer through freezing rain, sleet, sub-zero temperatures: or risk injuries that range from minor cuts and bruises to serious tears, strains, broken bones, etc.? Why would anyone choose to sleep on the hard ground instead of a warm, soft bed, not having showered for days or weeks while carrying forty or fifty pounds of gear and food on their back? Just, why

The simplest answer seems to be that, on the whole, being outside makes us feel good. If not in any given particular moment, certainly upon reflection.  Nature restores us to ourselves.  Even if we don’t know it, and even if those effects are, at first, only a feeling within us rather a conscious awareness of the positive benefits of being outside.  For one, recent studies have shown that simply stepping out into the woods lowers the heart rate and reduces cortisol levels—cortisol is a hormone associated with stress.  This actually precludes exercise; simply being in the forest is enough.  What’s more, “Among the things they’ve [Korea Forest Research] found are that coniferous essential oils fight atopic skin diseases (when applied to the skin in low concentrations), mitigate stress by lowering levels of cortisol (when inhaled), and reduce symptoms of asthma (ditto) (65).”  There are tons of surprising passages and facts like that in Florence Williams’ book The Nature Fix.

It doesn’t matter what the weather is; it’s better than being in the office.

Outdoor enthusiasts, or, as I sometimes like to refer to them, “Buddha-ballers”, find a sense of perspective in Nature’s raw majesty, her sheer power to inspire awe: to stand on a mountain: to be deep in the woods, or at the foot of the ocean: to gaze in wide-wonder at the starry night: to watch a sunrise, a sunset: to have any of these experiences and not feel small, not feel the sheer magnitude of the universe in relation to one’s self requires a remarkable degree of indifference.  The facts alone are mind-boggling.  Consider the Sun, a burning ball of gas 93,000,000 million miles away that contains so much matter that the pressures associated with its mass converts hydrogen into helium by fusing nuclei.  A body so massive that it dwarfs all other objects in our solar system—combined!  In fact, the sun contains over 99% of all the mass in our solar system.  Or, consider the very small.  Consider the scale of the number of microbes on Earth; in their book The Hidden Half of Nature, David R. Montgomery and Anne Bikle marvel: “Although each microbe is too small to be seen, link them all together in a chain and they would stretch 100,000,000 million light years: well beyond the farthest visible star in the night sky.”  The sheer magnitude of the natural world is beyond conception.  Yet, it is in encountering and contemplating the inconceivable that allows us to connect to it, each other, and ourselves.  In some way, going out leads us in.

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Time too, exists on a scale outside of our understanding.  Textbooks speak of millennia, ages and eons; but really, we have a hard time wrapping our minds around such vast quantities of time.  Imagine: Everest once lay beneath the ocean.  Continents inch their way westward and eastward, creating an ever-expanding Atlantic and an ever-shrinking Pacific.  Rivers of water and ice sculpt and scrape the land, carving canyons and valleys.  Farther from Earth, the light we see from stars represents those stars as they were many millions of years ago. 

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell Me, if you have understanding, who set its measurements?  Since you know.  Or who stretched the line on it?  On what were its bases sunk?  Or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?  Or who enclosed the sea with doors when, bursting forth, it went out from the womb.

(Job 38:4-8) 

Indeed, look upon Nature and wonder. 

Everyone needs to be connected—to the Earth, and each other.  There was a time, not so long ago as we measure in geological terms, that humans, or hominids more generally, were much more closely connected.  Some of these societies still exist: hunter-gatherers.  Contemporary hunter-gatherer societies include the Yupik, the Inuit and the Onge.  Their relationship with the natural world and each other varies greatly from our own Western, civilized ideals.  Take, for example, the structure and content of one Native American language: Potawatomi.  Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her instant classic Braiding Sweetgrass, informs readers that fully 70% of the words in her native tongue are verbs, whereas only 30% of the words in English are verbs.  For a culture (American, Western, modern) obsessed with stuff, it makes perfect sense that most of our words refer to things, not actions.  But how does having a verb-based language connect one with the Earth, and teach respect?  Like this: verbs need to be conjugated, which means they have different tenses and cases.  Thus, in Potawatomi, one may “be a bay”: ’To be a bay’, Kimmerer begins,

holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with Cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise— become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that, too. To be a hill, to be a Sandy beach, to be a Saturday, all are possible verbs in a world where everything is alive. (53-55)

Braiding Sweetgrass.

If we consider something as alive, rather than as a commodity, we are much less likely to abuse, mistreat, or take for granted. But seeing things through an indigenous lens requires a radical shift in the way we see the world, an immense act of will and an open mind.  It also requires a radical shift in behavior.  Maybe a radical shift is what we need; getting out there is a start. 

We are not merely mind or body, but both; if we are to change our minds, our mental perspectives, our bodies must have a new perspective too.  Nature provides the space for that shift.  In a world where obsolescence is measured in years, perhaps months, it is no wonder that we faculty have seen an explosion of students whose IEP’s include accommodations for anxiety.  We’ve sped everything up to the point where everyone feels like one of those cartoon characters from Dr. Katz, or Ed, Edd and Eddie: every molecule in our bodies over-stimulated to the point that we feel like a vibrating, quivering heap.  Wendell Berry was aware of this threat to our well-being decades ago.  In his classic essay, “An Entrance to the Woods”, he warns: “The faster one goes, the more strain there is on the senses, the more they fail to take in, the more confusion they must tolerate or gloss over—and the longer it takes to bring the mind to a stop in the presence of anything”.  We need to slow. Down.  And understand that this takes time and practice. It will take time to acclimate to a world that moves so slowly, that thinks and acts in eons rather than minutes, days, or weeks; but it will happen.  That is, after all, our natural state.  Nature is modernity’s panacea.

A typical birthday venue for kids. A complete assault upon the senses.

If there is one benefit that trumps all others, it is that participating in outdoors activities helps us achieve flow.  You’ve probably heard the term.  People also refer to this as getting in “the zone”, or sometimes achieving “flow state”.  My guess, though, is that most people haven’t read the book.  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote that book.  A Hungarian-American psychologist, Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as, “joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life”, and “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it” (xi, 4).  While it is true that that flow can be achieved performing any activity one completely invests one’s self in–from reading a book to working in a factory–outdoors enthusiasts, endurance athletes especially, seem to be especially adept at achieving flow state and remaining there.  This may explain the incredible success of programs such as Outward Bound, or why distance runners, rock climbers, hikers, persist in their pursuit of some unnamed goal over such extended periods of time.  In a recent interview on the Outside Podcast, Katie Arnold, a distance runner and freelance journalist, discusses how she achieved a state of flow and somehow managed to stay there for twenty hours.  I’ve never heard of anyone being in the zone for this long.  To me, two things seem to be consistent in many who achieve this state of being: being completely in the moment and being in the outdoors. 

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When the gym, the diets, the Yoga, the exercise equipment and smoothie fads have all failed, the outdoors is waiting.  You’ll wonder why you didn’t do this years ago, or, in my case, why you never stuck with it.  I still consider myself to be rediscovering this world.  My parents took us (me and my two younger brothers) mountain climbing, camping, skiing, nearly every summer and winter when I was a kid.  I lost sight of those things.  I became distracted, over-stimulated.  I thought I needed lots of friends—too many who were fake—drugs, alcohol, attention, when all I really needed was to take a hike.  So get out there and be well.

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