Over the past few decades, we’ve gotten clear that the essentials of a healthy life include a whole lot more than nutrition and exercise. We now know (and science has shown) that sleep, stress management, and satisfying human connections are all crucial to sustainable well-being.
But there’s one essential we still tend to overlook: time spent in nature.
There’s plenty of research that demonstrates the biochemical, neuro-logical, and psychological reasons why exposure to the outdoors matters so much (read on for more on that).
But perhaps the biggest evidence for nature’s importance in our lives is our appetite for it (dubbed “biophilia”), and how good it feels to be in its midst.
I often reflect on how my dad, a city kid raised in the tenement jungles of Gary, Ind., learned to love and appreciate the outdoors as an adult. This occurred thanks in good part to my mom, who had been raised on a farm and loved nothing more than being around living, growing things.
Shortly after they were married, my mom introduced my dad to north-woods camping, and once he got a taste for the natural world, he was smitten. For the next 50 years, trips to the Boundary Waters–area family cabin became one of his favorite experiences — and ours.
Although my father was never much of an outdoorsman (he was more inclined to sit on a rock and read than set out on a wilderness expedition), he reveled in being outdoors, especially up north.
I have so many mental images of him just gazing out at the water, or turning his face up to the sky, eyes closed, and listening for loon calls.
Both my parents also loved taking walks, and they would often remark on the pleasure they experienced in just being out in the weather, seeing the beauty of plants and trees, noticing birds and animals scurrying about.
There’s this thing called “undirected fascination” that happens to us in nature — the experience of having our attention naturally drawn from one thing to another without any clear plan, purpose, or agenda.
It turns out that undirected fascination does great things for our body and mind. So does sunshine, of course (see “Here Comes the Sun“). And water (see “Blue Mind“). And being in the richly oxygenated environments where many plants grow and give off health-promoting phytoncides. (For more on that, check out the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, or “Forest Bathing.”)
Basically, both our bodies and minds are hungry for nature. They soak it up like they absorb other essential nutrients, operating far better after much-needed infusions and throwing up warning flags whenever we aren’t getting enough.
Even if it weren’t for all of nature’s evident health benefits, though, I’d still be grateful to both my parents for instilling in me an early love and appreciation of the natural world.
Today, my mom and sisters, their partners and families, and I all live on the same organic farm. Until very recently, my dad lived close nearby, too. And it seems the sweetest times we’ve shared as a family have always been outdoors: coffee at the picnic table, wine in the garden, evening driveway walks, our hikes up the tractor road to see what’s growing, blooming, hatching.
The best part is just feeling a part of it all, feeling alive and right and connected to each other and our sense of place.
My father passed away this spring. Over the summer, we’ll distribute his ashes, per his request, in two locations: the farm and at our cabin up north. Dad was clear that he wanted to become one with the places he loved the most, and the places his loved ones loved and would always frequent.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We become what we take in and experience on this planet. And what we take in, we eventually give back so it can become something else again.
Plant, animal, mineral: We really are all one thing — carbon mixed with energy and mystery and dark matter. As Joni Mitchell wrote: “We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” Or, as the Bioneers motto goes: “It’s all alive; it’s all connected; it’s all intelligent.”
I think maybe that’s the most powerful thing about spending time in nature — that sense of returning again and again to a place we recognize and know that we belong. Here and now, today, perhaps forever.