ONE DAY LAST SUMMER my wife and I jumped
in the car and took off with no destination in mind. We just
turned where we felt like turning and wound up on a beach we'd
never seen before. It was the middle of a weekday in an out-of-the-way
place, so the beach was deserted. Just us. The sun was beaming
down. The beach was protected by lots of islands offshore, so
there were only tiny ripples for waves. It was very quiet except
for the sound of some insects.
At one point I stopped and stood there
feeling a strange pleasure. I felt good all over for no reason.
I felt relaxed down to my bones. I felt so good, and so suddenly,
it was dramatic and noticeable. It was like I was buzzed on something,
but I wasn't. I just felt good.
I live in a fairly big city. I don't often
spend much time in natural settings. And simply hearing insects
rather than the rumbling sounds of a freeway made me kind of
I'm not the only one to experience this,
of course. Michael Cohen, an educator who runs Project NatureConnect in Roche Harbor, Washington,
takes people on "therapeutic vacations" where he tries
to recreate the conditions of a hunter-gatherer tribe. He reports
that many psychological problems anxiety, chronic tension,
eating disorders disappear under these conditions. He
postulates that many of our psychological dysfunctions are caused
by our isolation from natural settings. We spend too much time
indoors in artificial, man-made environments. It's unnatural
Edward O. Wilson, a Pulitzer-Prize winning
sociobiologist from Harvard, wrote something similar. He said
people actually have a physical, genetically-driven need to experience
natural environments. He called it "biophilia," the
love of life.
At first these ideas may seem farfetched,
but some scientific evidence supports the idea. A team of researchers,
for example, gave a blood test to a small village in Samoa. These
were people living very close to nature. The researchers found
an unusually low level of cortisol (a stress hormone) in these
people. At least it was low by our standards. In fact, that low
level should probably be "normal."
An anthropologist was going to do a study
on depression in New Guinea. He chose the Kaluli people. The
problem is, he couldn't find any depression. They didn't
have such a thing. Again, the Kaluli lived in a natural setting.
No cars. No machines. No clocks. No leaf blowers.
Even pictures of natural settings make
a difference. In an experiment in Sweden, heart surgery patients
in hospital rooms had either a blank wall, an abstract painting,
or a photograph of a natural scene involving water (a picture
of a waterfall, for example). Those with the natural scene had
less anxiety after the surgery, needed less pain medication,
and spent fewer days in the hospital.
So here's a method to relax tense muscles
that might not have occurred to you. When you feel overdosed
on stress chemicals, get outdoors not in a paved, manicured
park, although that would be better than nothing, but in an actual
natural setting, with no people around, except maybe someone
you know and love. Or by yourself. Or with your dog. It doesn't
matter what you do there. Take a walk. Find a comfortable place
just to sit. Go fishing. Paddle a canoe. Have something to eat.
Take a day every once in awhile and experience the natural world.
I think you might be surprised at how relaxing and rejuvenating
Spend time in a natural environment.