I was nothing more than forest. Through wind, fog, and rain, I saw life more clearly than ever before.
Last Saturday was special because I spent most of my day outside. The adventure began in the early afternoon, with a trip to the University of California, Davis (UCD) arboretum.
This beautiful garden spot never fails to leave me feeling peaceful and calm, even though it’s within shouting distance of Interstate 80, that coast-to-coast freeway of commerce and commuters.
But once inside the arboretum all thoughts of traffic fall away. Then I’m content to walk the paths that meander along Putah Creek, and fill myself up with the abundance of native and mediterranean plants that grow there.
First stop, though, is always the horse paddock. In case you’re unfamiliar with it, UCD is affectionately known as “the farm,” harkening back to its early days as the farm school extension of UC Berkeley. And its agriculture programs are legendary.
Think acres of campus farmland. Viticulture and enology (a fancy way to say grape growing and wine making). Environmental horticulture. Animal Science.
And of course, the equestrian facilities.
So what better way to start the afternoon than pressing into a fence, wooing a group of horses over to you, and stroking those sturdy neck muscles? I mean, truly, is there anything better than holding out your flat palm for a horse’s warm kiss, and experiencing the sensation of that velvety muzzle?
But, I digress.
Once we got our fill of all things horsey, off we went to experience the arboretum’s gifts. A dreamy stroll. Then a vigorous walk. Capped with a timeout on a bench overlooking all of the arboretum’s beauty.
And then, back home. Reading outside. An early dinner on the patio. Puttering around the garden. A little pruning here. A little deadheading there. Soaking in the spa (or hot tub – I’m never sure what to call it) during that magic hour between day and night that filmmakers so prize. Watching the almost-full moon inch its way up behind the redwood trees, still burnished gold by the sun’s last rays. And finally, plopping in chairs, candles lit as darkness descends. Sitting quietly in the stillness, listening to the crickets practice their vocal warm ups.
All told, about seven hours spent outdoors. A wonderful day.
But I do have a point, beyond the play-by-play of this particular day.
In its simplest form, my point is about spending more time outside.
Although I had a glorious (and unusual for me) seven hours, did you know that it takes as little as five minutes to reap the emotional benefits of time spent outdoors? And those benefits are huge: enhanced self-esteem, elevated mood, stress relief, increased life expectancy, and protection from depression.
Consider what Jo Barton, co-author of a recent study on the subject, said:
Humans largely live inside, but because of our evolution as hunter-gatherers, we may feel more relaxed and connected moving out in nature.
The magic combination, it appears, is movement and a natural setting. Almost any kind of movement – walking, gardening, strolling, dancing, twirling, running, skipping, jumping, stretching – done in nature does the trick.
So get thee to a park. Or open space. Or simply walk around a tree a few times.
Anything that will let your inner hunter-gatherer roam a bit more.
OK. Now this is where I come to the more complicated point I want to make. (There always is one, right?)
I love parks and open spaces.
I’ve been lucky to live near some great ones: Central Park in New York, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Vilas Park in Madison, WI, American River Parkway in Sacramento, Sonoma Coast State Park in Northern California.
I even spent my 18th summer working in Yellowstone National Park.
Although I was just a waitress, I had a blast. Somehow, the challenges of aching feet and cheesy blue polyester uniforms disappeared when I walked out my door each day and discovered a land of geysers, waterfalls, wildflowers, lakes, mountains, and canyons. Not to mention bears, wolves, bison, and elk.
But now, years later, the parks and open spaces in my community are suffering.
The parks and open spaces in my state are suffering.
And although I haven’t visited one lately, I hear the National Parks in my country are suffering too.
This makes me sad, especially because I know it’s about more than a lack of funds.
Certainly, resources are scarce these days. But more to my point, interest in parks and open spaces is scarce.
In fact, a phrase has been coined to describe this lack of interest: nature-deficit disorder. It’s even been suggested that an entire generation has lost touch with the natural world.
How, I wonder, did we arrive at this place? And more important, why do we stay here?
I don’t have an answer. But I do know that the best thing for me to do right now is take a bit of my own advice and go walk around a tree or two.
There’s another thing I can do as well: keep reading Naked in Eden, by Robin Easton.
I’m about halfway through the book. I’ve discovered that not only is Robin a modern-day Dr. Dolittle, having deep soulful conversations with the wild creatures of the forest, but she’s a rip-roaring storyteller as well. And boy, does she have stories.
As a matter of fact, Robin’s journey to find herself in the depths of the Australian rainforest is a striking testament to the power of nature to heal and bring us back to ourselves.
If ever there was a woman to inspire us to reconnect with this essential part of our humanity, it’s Robin.
So yes, I’ll keep reading. And moving through nature as often as I can.
WHY NOT START NOW?
Sigh, “sensation of that velvety muzzle” I remember those times with horses fondly. Loved your description. Being out in nature is truly healing. Unfortunately, a lot of folk take this for granted. I was surprised to go on a hike here in BC with a group. They were so focused on the hike that their performance was more important than seeing the beautiful scenery around them. I chose to not renew my membership for that very reason.
Hi Davina – I’ve had that experience too! Where on a hike it was all about getting it done, rather than savoring our surroundings. When we do that, though, we miss so much. Thanks for reminding us of that.
Patty — Thanks for this reminder!!!!It sounds like you had a marvelous day and I agree that being out in nature puts everything into perspective. I find that outdoors is the one place where I never have to work at being “in the now.” It just happens.
I loved what you said about the horses. I have a great of love of horses, but I don’t ride. I simply love to be around them. It doesn’t happen very much anymore since my daughter stopped riding and her horse moved back to the barn of Carrie’s trainer. The horse, Bryon or Mr. B., as I call him is now almost 16-years-old, but still showing occasionally as he loves it:~)
I know about Robin’s book…it sounds fantastic! What an adventure she experienced.
Hi Sara – I love that – “never have to work at being in the now.” And it’s funny about horses, isn’t it? I used to ride, don’t really anymore, but it doesn’t matter. Just being around them is perfect.
I can’t imagine a day going by without time spent outside. I know that they happen, but they are few and far between. I used to, kind of, joke that I had to take my daughter for a walk at least once a day… but in actuality… it was true. Her energy is such that she needs to move – but it is also about being outside, in nature. She grew up watching the Canada geese and their life cycle – from egg to adult goose. She loves to look and see how the creek changes each morning or note the tracks and scat that she finds on our walks. She is aware of her part of the world at large.
In order to make a new soccer field with artificial grass and a parking lot for our new metro line, the county was prepared to take out some of the wooded county land behind our house. Not only does this wooded area provide a barrio between “city” and residential… it is also a natural classroom and home to fox, deer, raccoons, squirrels, and birds beyond number. The neighborhood put their foot down… and the woods will stay for a bit longer at least.
Progress and making it more “livable” isn’t about taking out nature but returning to balance and harmony with nature. We need to look to history and learn from those who lived with nature in the past.
Hi M – Thank goodness those woods will stay! And I love how you write of the outdoor adventures you share with your daughter. Beautiful!
I am so glad you are writing about the connection between Nature and our well being, especially as you are a counselor and can influence others lives in a powerful way. You have written this so well by sharing your own beautiful story here. I love it. Although I’ve not ridden in years, I too love horses and have astounding dreams of riding bareback across a wide open prairie. It is a sense of total freedom and bond with the horse.
I think so many of us have forgotten our connection to nature and other species. It is hard for people to relate to, let alone revere what they’ve never experienced. Sadly many in the world today have no experience of nature. And I don’t mean wilderness survival, but just basic hiking or camping or “being with” nature (sitting in the woods by a stream).
I once did a post titled “Is Nature Real to us?” It was amazing the replies, and how it started people assessing how aware/unaware they are of nature. I know several people who have told me that until sitting down and really talking about Nature with me, that they previously only saw nature as beautiful scenery. Which it is, but it is SO much more. It’s WHO we are.
I know several young kids; about half get into nature a LOT and the other half don’t much at all…or none at all. Something I’ve noticed is that the ones that have spent much time in nature since they were babies seem more confident, calm and somehow plugged in. I strongly relate to that “plugged in” feeling. It’s what saved my life. It’s what gave me a strong sense of self and “place” in the world. I was no longer adrift after my time in the wild. I talk more about this in my second book, a sequel to “Naked in Eden”.
I’m very happy by this whole post because you are inviting us all to rethink our relationship with nature. You are suggesting that it may be far more important than any of imagined. RE: this line: “It’s even been suggested that an entire generation has lost touch with the natural world.” I have had these same thoughts Patty, almost every single day, since I came out of the forest. I have been thinking a lot about what to do to help us all rediscover our irrevocable connection to nature. I think there are basic things like simply going for a hike (without cell phones), getting into nature without speed boats, jet skis, mountain bikes, ipods, etc. Get into nature and just sit under a tree until our body lets go. Take our kids camping, hiking, swimming. Plant a garden in the backyard or container garden on the deck or back steps.
I’d love to see a nationwide program that put gardening back into schools, all the way from kindergarten to college level. It would make a huge difference. I grew up gardening with Mom and 5 of my siblings, and as adults we all are natural gardeners. We love it.
Another thing that I would encourage parents to do is get rid of the TV, at the very least unplug it, put it away, and make it an only “once-in-a-rare-while” thing. In the absence of TV we can REALLY give our kids a living heritage: time spent in nature. It will completely transform their lives and ours as well. I know this to be true from firsthand experience. My dad got rid of our TV and took us into nature. It’s the biggest gift anyone ever gave me.
Well, dearest Patty, you really got me going. I am just in awe of you and this beautiful post. It is a gift the world badly needs, and also a precious gift to me. I am deeply touched and honored by your words, and more importantly to be seen by you. Your heart is open and THAT will allow you heal so many.
Thank you so much for sharing these thoughtful, beautiful words, Robin. I really resonant with what you say about nature helping kids (and all of us) feel confident, calm, and plugged in. When we don’t have it, the opposite is true too. We check out. Your recipe to get kids out in nature is spot on. The only thing I would add is to get away from the computer. I hear again and again from clients that it really keeps them checked out and not participating in life and nature. I know it’s ironic, because all of us bloggers spend a lot of time at the computer, but I know when I limit my time online it makes a huge difference in my life.
I often feel like you know me so well when I read your posts, Patty. There’s so much magic in the air, in the water, in the trees, in the sky. The way little kids enjoy being outside makes me think that we’re born nature-lovers and open-space worshippers.
I join you in your appeal to restore our parks. Many are free for us to enjoy for now, but this will not always be the case. I had no idea about the strife that builds around parks controversies until a dear friend became a parks commissioner. So many people have trouble paying a small fee to enter a park, but we need to be open to the reasoning behind it. We have to do our part to take care of our surroundings; I don’t know why this is a mystery for so many. And right about now, I can feel myself about to launch into a tirade so I will stop and instead, wish you a wonderful weekend outdoors.
PS. I have seen much praise about Robin’s book. It sounds like a literary gem.
I think you’re absolutely right, Belinda. We’re born that way, and then all the other stuff gets in the way. And as far as our beautiful parks in California go, I am so keeping my fingers crossed that Prop ??? passes (can’t remember the number). As a life-long state park appreciator, I know that $18 a year is a small price to pay for unlimited access. Who, in their right mind, could pass that up?
Sounds like a wonderful day. We tend to spend a lot of time outside. Folks often mention how tan my daughter is, and the reason is quite simple. We spend a lot of time outside. She recently started riding her bike (with training wheels) and we’ve been riding to some of the local parks to play on the playground.
We have a small butterfly garden in front of our house, and we all have fun tending to the flowers and plants. We had a milkweed plant stripped bare by all the caterpillars on it. We found that 8 of those had cacooned, and this morning my wife and daughter got to see two of them emerge from their cacoons. I can’t wait to get home and see the video.
Wow, a butterfly garden! I’ve got plants that attract butterflies, but not a whole concentrated area of them. That must be wonderful. Thanks, Eric.
Gorgeous writing here. I can see some of it in gardening magazines! You keep talking about nature, makes me think it’s something you need more of in your life. We all need more of it, frankly. I walk every day and try to get in the woods more on the weekends.
Last Child in The Woods is such a great book! We grow our imaginations in the woods. Inside, looking at a computer screen or playing video games seems to stunt that. I get most of my best ideas outside on my walks or bike rides.
Did you read my AC essay? It alludes to some of what you’re saying. It’s on my web site on the stories page.
And I’m so with you on getting gardening back in schools and work places. There’s no reason for folks to starve. We all ought to know how to grow a garden – flower or veggie. More learned helplessness that doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Why not have gardens at work or school? How does keeping folks locked inside going to mindless meetings and shuffling emails around or chained to desks make for a brilliant work or school force? Most everything we do seems to have little logic when you scratch away the surface dirt.
Nature is the best teacher …
Why thank you, G. You’re so right that I need more of it. Lately it’s like I’m hungry for it. I wish I could spend many hours each day outside. Thanks too for all the great ideas and things to read. I will check the book and your essay out!
Oh, how I love your words singing in my ear. I’m a kindred spirit — I’m so glad you wrote this post. Good for you — seven hours! I love it.
I love the scent of horses, so earthy and full of energy. My sister still has horses on the farm. I love their wild hearts and tails.
Thanks for sharing this, I’ll keep this comment brief since you’ve already covered everything so well, and since that darling Ms. Easton come to say hello and expand the topic with her thoughts along with all the other lovely comments. I finished Robin’s book and I’m in awe and wonder at not only the story, but with her writing prowess.
Have a great day!
You’re so kind, Lori. I’m loving that you’re a kindred spirit, and it’s always such a delight to have your energy and enthusiasm show up here in my little corner of the world. xox
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I love this! It sounds like MI State’s campus except no horses…cows! I would rather be outdoors than in every second of everyday. I loved Robin’s book as well. Growing up and working on a farm was so much work. I didn’t see the gifts as a kid but oh how I recognize them now. I am who I am because of the farm.
No NDD for me!
Me too, Tess! I read this article about a woman who spends almost every minute of her day outdoors. She’s set it up so she can work, eat, sleep out there, plus tend her garden, socialize with her friends, all of it. It was inspiring!
A beautiful reminder. I have been so appreciating nature and I thought of Robin’s book as I read your post and then smiled at the end when you talked about the book.
I read the book and I was amazed at the depth and beauty of it – and Robin. I didn’t want it to end.
Your description of your day was so lovely I almost felt as if I’d accompanied you. I love so many aspects of nature (especially the ocean), but as I read the part about the redwoods my heart longed to be back among those blessed trees.
Thank you so much for this great post about a basic part of ourselves that I cannot imagine losing.
Thanks for you very kind comment, Lauren. I love the ocean too. It allows me to get closer to the deep unknown, within and without myself.
I loved Robin’s book..absolutely amazing and life affirming for me..
Your day outdoors sounds fantastic! I think I would love UC Davis campus..
I live on my boat so lots of my time is spent outdoors..I love the ocean, the local hills, local gardens, local farms..just sitting under a tree looking at the sky..or the cockpit of the boat looking at the sky does wonders for my soul..And my children think the marine animals around us are their pets:)
I tend to find not only solace and rejuvenation in nature, but also gratitude and wisdom..this morning I went for a long beach walk at water’s edge and felt blessed by the entire experience..
Hi Joy – It must be pure bliss to live where you do, right in the arms of nature. Thanks so much for sharing that.
Is it even possible to get one’s fill of all things horsey? 😉
We forget how wonderful it is to be outside. Natural sunlight is so good for us. I also spend way too much time sitting at a desk and computer. I think I will make an extra effort to get out and enjoy some nice Colorado fall weather this week. Thanks.
Ah, a lovely thought to get outside this week. And so true that we need sunlight! Thanks, Erin.
A wonderful book that touches on some of these same concepts from the lens of how indigenous cultures looked at nature is The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram. I spend a lot of time outside, starting in the spring and going well into the fall. Earlier this summer, we had a bad spell of mosquitos and couldn’t spend as much time as usual in the garden or doing other outside activities. It was terrible! I got a taste of what it is like in other parts of the country that routinely deal with such problems. Thanks for the great post.
Hi Charlotte – So nice to see you, and thanks for stopping by. I’m gonna have to get that book! And I’ve always experienced your writing as full of a certain zest for life, so I’m not surprised to hear that you spend a lot of time outdoors.
I’m lucky that my job requires me to go outside and play for 30 minutes every morning…two-year-olds need lots of exercise to keep from spontaneously combusting with pent-up energy! I always feel better after our morning outside time. I’m quite dreading the rain & winter yuck that’s coming…those poor kids will be looney tunes, and so will I!
I just wish I could ice skate outside more, I can’t wait for the Downtown Sac Holiday Ice Rink to open this year, and maybe I’ll even brave the drive up the hill to go skate at Squaw Valley. There’s nothing like doing a layback spin and seeing sky blur by rather than ugly silver ceiling and light bars! (The first time I tried a layback on an outside rink I nearly crashed, I wasn’t prepared to see sky and it threw me off my center!!)
My son’s Kindergarten class is going to the UCD Arboretum with their 6th grade buddies on a field trip in a few weeks. I haven’t been there since I was a student in 1993, and now, with your descriptions, I can’t wait to go!
Have a great week!!
Hi Debi – I’m not an ice skater, as you know, but I adore your description of what it’s like to skate outdoors! Hope your trip to the arboretum was wonderful. It’s such a great time of year for it.
I cannot begin to tell you how much this post stirs my spirit. I totally get what you’re saying. I love the way you tied in our past as hunters/gatherers…a people very connected to the earth. I really believe Robin is right in her view that healing comes from that connection. nm Perhaps that is where we must all begin our journey in to ourselves…into the Universe and the knowledge of of our place in it.
Thank you Patty. I mean that.
Aw, thanks Keith. Your words are so kind. And I think if we all did begin that journey inward by going out into nature and the universe, we would have a much easier time of it.
Healing comes from within us, from touching that place that is ‘beyond’ everything as we know it. That’s why natures brings healing: it’s the shortest path to FEELING beyond all that we know, to bowing to the miracle of it all. Man has been set on conquering nature and now we’ve come full circle: we’re becoming more and more aware that this relationship must grow in love. We’ve got a long way to go but posts like yours help us stay focused. Thank you!
Brilliantly said, Maryse. I love how you get right to the core of things!
I’m glad to hear that the garden is a place where your heaaaaart . . . can lie peaceful and calm . . . . . I’m imagining you were thinking of “The Impossible Dream” when you were writing those words, whether consciously or otherwise, because you share my love of musicals. I’m really just trying to goad you into singing it on your blog. 🙂
OK, Chris, did you know how much I LOVE that song? The whole musical, in fact. I wrote a post about it last year (back before anyone was reading my blog). So you’ve really nailed it. That song is the perfect accompaniment all journeys, as far as I’m concerned!