“Over the past two decades, the evidence that nature serves us well in mind and body has accumulated to a degree that approaches natural law. ‘The benefits of nature that have been intuited and written about through the ages have withstood rigorous scientific scrutiny,’ notes Frances Kuo, director of the Landscape and Human Healthy Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign… ‘In the face of the tremendously diverse and rigorous tests to which the nature-human healthy hypothesis has been subjected, the strength, consistency, and convergence of the findings are remarkable.’
You have probably heard of some of these studies by now, maybe learning that a window with a view of trees can help you heal after a surgery, or make you less likely to commit or be the victim of a violent crime. Recent research found that even a photograph of nature in the main room of a small psychiatric hospital could result in a $30,000 annual reduction in medication to reduce patient agitation…
The going theory, probably impossible to prove, is that our baseline appreciation of nature is a paleo-phenomenon, hard-wired into our genes and grounded in the fact that the natural world is our ancestral home, where our species evolved over millions of years. Our minds, as much as our bodies, were formed in the presence of the wild.
Much of this falls under the rubric of science telling us what we already know, but it also illuminates an overlooked point. When we walk the waterfront in our sorrow, when we lie down in a sunlit meadow in purest delight, we typically think of our actions as choices; in the words of one environmental psychologist, we have come to see nature as a ‘sentimental luxury.’ We tell ourselves we preferred to seek the shore or the meadow; we might have also played Assassin’s Creed IV or gone shopping for a new peacoat. But what stands out in the research is that nothing else is as effective as nature -- a can of Red Bull cannot restore focus as effectively as a few minutes in a grove of trees; a weekend jaunt to New Orleans will not inspire wonder as effectively as time spent in the desert. Nature offers us respite from the worlds we create for ourselves. It’s not a preference. It’s a need.
-- J. B. MacKinnon, “Facing Fear -- How nature cured one man’s anxious mind,” Orion magazine, May/June 2016.
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Many people treat nature like it’s nice scenery to enjoy when we can, often as a backdrop to our activities, and as a place to “get away from it all” on vacation.
Do we really need nature? That’s almost certainly an absurd question, like asking if we really need air to breathe, or food to eat, or other people to socialize with.
Yet how many of the things we concern ourselves with, or that occupy our minds each day, involve the natural world? Certainly our media isn’t very interested.
Aside from natural disasters, “dangerous wild animals” and other sensational subjects, nature is rarely considered newsworthy and remains mostly off the map.
That’s a reflection of the fact that we live in a culture that couldn’t be more obsessed with human concerns, accomplishments, dramas, and countless pathologies (from political extremism to perverse crimes), while paying relatively little attention to the countless other life forms that occupy this amazing planet.
Those of us who are hikers or otherwise avid outdoorspeople, however, are less oblivious to nature. Some of us have thoughts about the natural world every day.
When we spend time in nature regularly it’s easier to appreciate the incredible beauty and richness of life on earth. And to know how good nature is for us. Not to mention how good and beautiful many of the elements and processes of life can be.
The frequently-forgotten reality is that our “civilized” lives are utterly dependent on the natural world. We’re part of nature and couldn’t possibly survive without it.
We and our living planet would surely benefit greatly if more people paid attention to “the rest of life” that lies beyond our narrow human concerns and distractions.
And while we obviously have a right to meet our personal needs, there’s also an urgent need for more of us to take responsibility for the well-being of the Earth.
-- Charlie Cook