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Dan McCaslin: The Nature Fix — Get Outdoors, and Your Body Will Thank You

We all need a respite from our hyper-digital age; here are five suggestions for taking the first step toward expanding your horizons

San Rafael Wilderness Click to view larger
Alcove Falls in the San Rafael Wilderness is one of many spots within driving distance of Santa Barbara that provide ample opportunity for reconnecting with nature. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Florence Williams’ book, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, fits into a spate of recent books like All the Wild That Remains, by David Gessner, and The Nature Principle, by Richard Louv.

What they all have in common is an increasing amount of hard data verifying what many of us already intuit about the homo sapien species: Our cities and on-screen realities prevent us from the experiences of awe and wonder that nature provides. These outdoor episodes have a critical function for our mental and physical health.

My interest, despite the pathetic marketing title, is how those segments of outdoor time — our “nature fixes” — foster creativity and a playful juvenescence in the human mind, young or old.

My second interest in Williams’ well-written tome is really about the central question she poses: Given the epidemic dislocation from the outdoors and the distortions we experience from it, “why don’t we do more of what makes our brains happy?”

A seasoned journalist and heady thinker, Williams writes fluently and doesn’t overburden the text with statistics and hard scientific data (20 pages of small-print Notes at the end supply this crucial understructure).

She investigates the research behind the fact that “nature” immersion has decidedly positive impacts on the brain and the spirit.

In South Korea — very heavily urbanized today — and in Finland, we discover new ideas about how to use the powers of nature to improve health, strengthen our relationships (yes), and inspire innovation and reflection in people.

The chapters on “forest bathing” (shinyin roku in Korean) and the Finnish people’s outdoor obsession make for fascinating reading. Williams writes:

For the Finnish, nature is about expressing a close-knit collective identity ...
where they can exult in their nationalistic obsessions of berry-picking,
mushrooming, fishing, lake swimming and Nordic skiing. (page 134)

Seventy percent of Finns hike regularly (versus 30 percent of Americans), and half ride bikes frequently.

Williams, an outdoor enthusiast who followed her partner to Washington, D.C., from Colorado, wanted to check on her belief that she got outdoors a lot. Using the “mappiness” app on her smartphone, she was disappointed to learn that in a calendar year she actually spent only 7 percent of her time outdoors, and the app with a GPS locator does count walking around the block and some in-city experiences as “time outdoors.”

Since I imagine that most readers — and most Americans — actually do want to get outside more, hike or bike or do something in nature, it’s also likely that most of us are not out-of-doors in nature nearly as much as we tell ourselves. Like Williams, we forget the super-obvious truism that “how we spend our days is how we spend our lives” (Annie Dillard).

There is little point in beating this dead horse. We just have to acknowledge openly that digital creep and a mass generational amnesia about wild nature have deprived humanity, especially children, of a free and effective playtime and creative space near us.

Almost everyone I know is rueful about missing out on outdoor time. When I ask about their children — I am a middle-school teacher after all — their eyes dart around and they usually feel bad.

The physical spaces outside can include the pocket park down the street, walks to the Santa Barbara Mission, or strolling in Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden or at Shoreline Park — the intense backpacking treks I’ve described in these columns are not necessary (but try Rattlesnake Canyon). Most of my 115 outdoor columns simply showcase an exciting natural area near us in order to inspire readers to find the ignition to go there.

Here are five rubrics I use to motivate myself, to find the “ignition” energy to leap out of my small, comfortable home on the highly urban Westside:

» Schedule outdoor periods in your planner, making them equal to dental visits, other medical appointments and other commitments.

» Plan to visit spots you have been to before so you can plunge directly into the outside activity (hiking, biking, surfing, swimming, organized sports). Do occasional exploration, but ritual regularity in hiking is best.

» Set up an area with all the gear you need for your favorite outdoor activity, located in one handy place. Be ready to go out there and begin hiking at a moment’s notice.

» When you can, arrange to meet outdoor friends at the starting point and get going immediately.

» Have some treats or satisfying rewards ready for the end of the activity, particularly with children (e.g., delicious apples).

The urban world, alone with all its screens that dominate us, is not “bad” — rather, we feel stressed when it controls us most the time. We’ve become organism as algorithm.

Take a look at hearing and hearing loss. Williams writes about the evil of too much time using earbuds and listening to one’s own music or podcasts. In the increasing tendency to wear earbuds more and more hours per day, “learned deafness” becomes damaging as some of us tune out the real world in favor of our own chosen “soundscapes.”

British philosopher Edmund Burke taught the materialistic West how to separate the reality of awe from religious mumbo-jumbo (Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, 1757). Albert Einstein declared “the mysterious” as the most beautiful emotion we can have, and Williams quotes contemporary scientists who present data that “awe” is a mighty force and quite “real.”

For some adults suffering terrible stress, going into nature to find awe-inducing spectacles and experiences has a strong healing function.

When we can go back in time and live for a few hours in nature like in our dimly remembered childhoods, our older brains experience juvenescence and we revert to play, adolescent goofiness, new ideas — and these periods reduce stress and reward creativity. My theory is that this revivifies the aging brain by bringing the reptilian side forward, or as a scientist in Williams’ book says, “The cerebellum overpowers the prefrontal cortex!”

While many of the so-called distractions of our hyper-digital age are likely reasonable trade-offs for what our limited brains gain (more memory storage and access to gigabytes of additional information), at the same time this trade limits our ability to absorb and enjoy our natural surroundings.

We forget to go there, we’re so consumed. Hearing loss among children is authentic when they live in over-noisy urban areas. The antidote is to find some periods of relative silence in nature. There are many other examples in Williams’ provocative book.

Read this book. Take the family, walk or drive to a natural area, and spend time there. Make yourself a schedule, and if you cannot do this for yourself, then realize by reading The Nature Fix how much your children do need the respite and inspiration of playing in local nature.

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» Florence Williams, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative (Norton 2017); David Gessner, All the Wild That Remains (2015); M. Amos Clifford, Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature (2018); Richard Louv, Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life (2016) and The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Nature in the Digital Age (2012); Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, 1757.

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at [email protected]. Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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