Growing up in New England, I was exposed to the cyclical beauty of the four seasons. And to this day, as soon as I find myself getting bogged down by my natural surroundings, the season begins to shift again. In my life, this yearly transformation has occurred 124 times; it will happen 124 more, and 124 more after that. No matter what season we find ourselves in, nothing stays the same long enough for us to become attached. It is a constant reminder that nothing is permanent, and no one can stop time.
In the spring, the Fiddleheads push through the partially decomposed leaves from the previous fall, the Willow and Dogwood trees bud, and the rivers come back to life – rejuvenated by snowmelt from hundreds of miles away. The summer creates additional hours begging for exploration, the buzzing of animals fueled by an abundance of food, and the blanketing warmth of sunlight. The fall brings a sense of desperation to the sloping hills of my town. The trees set ablaze with infinite hues of yellows and reds; holding onto their leaves as though they would never grow another. The chipmunks and squirrels manically hoarding any food remaining on the forest floor. Winter brings stillness and time for reflection; it presses a giant pause button on everything. I am always amazed at how gentle yet fierce the snow can be as it encapsulates everything in sight. The natural world does such a great job of shoving this duality of quiet beauty and relentless power in our faces, forcing us to reconcile the two.
Though I cannot say for sure, some would argue that this connection that we feel with nature is innate and due to our 200,000-year history of living symbiotically with and within the outdoors. I believe in it and feel it every time I am sitting by a fire staring into the dancing flames – the same flames that our ancestors gazed into and turned to for much needed warmth and protection. Barring the more esoteric interpretation, there have been recent studies that point to actual physiological responses to spending more time in nature. In 2018, UCLA Craig Anderson found a connection between this sense of “awe” and participant’s ability to heal from trauma and PTSD. In 2013, an American Chemical Society study connected participant-reported happiness with the amount of green spaces in their environments. Numerous other studies looking at blood pressure, sleep, immune system function, and levels of prosocial behavior all point to the positive effects of spending time in the natural world.
To the best of my recollection, I cannot remember a time in my life where I did not spend a significant portion of my days outside. I have always been fascinated with the way that being outside has made me feel both larger than life and simultaneously infinitely small. Take the example of climbing a mountain one grueling step after another, a feat only possible through both physical and emotional strength, only to reach the summit and feel like an ant on a log.
Getting a taste of these benefits can look different to different people. For me, I take any opportunity I can to take my mountain bike out for a spin in the woods, explore a new body of water with my canoe, or go for a trail run. You may be saying to yourself, “Nope, that’s not me,” and that’s okay. These benefits can be found in the simplest of ways, from going for a walk to just setting up a lawn chair in your local park. John Muir, the Father of the National Parks, once said, “And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” And I couldn’t agree more.