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Orion Magazine

Aug 18, 2023

This essay was commissioned in partnership with L.L.Bean in recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, and in support of L.L. Bean's purpose: to inspire and enable people to experience the restorative power of being outside. Supporting research was provided by Dr. Paul Piff. For more news and updates from L.L.Bean that explore the connection of the outdoors and mental wellbeing, visit Inside L.L.Bean.

It dawned on me last week that I had not touched the earth in days. When I say the earth I mean the ground, or really, anything in nature, unmade. The grass. A river. A tree branch.

Perhaps you haven't either. Let me paint the picture of my typical day:

I wake up in my bed on the second floor of my house. I put on socks and shoes. I walk out of my house across a brick sidewalk to the concrete parking pad and get in my car. I drive downtown to a coffee shop and walk on the sidewalk to the door and go inside. Then to the gym. Then back home. I never, in the course of an entire day, actually touch the ground or soil or the bark of a tree with my skin. This is the vast majority of days. I move floating above the soil, through buildings and pavement, on rubber soles and rubber tires.

I’m not woowoo enough to believe that I need the energy of the soil on my bare feet to help regulate my chi. Maybe that's real. Maybe it's not. But it is alarming to me to think that I exist in a manmade world built on top of the ground.

I live in a sanitized and dead environment. If a weed grows too tall, it is cut away. Healthy trees are chopped down in my neighborhood because a branch might fall on the deck.

Since the pandemic, my screen time has been horrific. Hours and hours a day. The algorithms did their thing and got me addicted. So now, I walk on concrete and my eyes look at a glowing screen of pixels imitating the world. I have almost succeeded in becoming a synthetic being.

Sometimes I’ll notice my eyes hurt from too much screen time. The joint in my thumb hurts from scrolling. I’m a grown man with a real job and a busy life, and I’ll look up from my phone and realize an hour has been vaporized. And it leaves me feeling gross.

Dinner with friends can be helpful. A game night perhaps. But even still, the phone is there. A work email is waiting behind the dark screen. I’m glancing to see if I’ve got any messages.

Healthy trees are chopped down in my neighborhood because a branch might fall on the deck.

Nature, somehow, cuts through this noise. It overwhelms my city brain and forces it into calm submission. If I’m lucky, my phone won't even work.

I’ve had a personal rule for some time: get into nature once a month. This became a rule when I observed that every time I went camping, something deep in my spirit was satiated. Soothed. I’d come back from even one night under the stars refreshed. Like the buzzing anxiety of life was quieted, sorted and put in its proper drawers. So now, I make it a priority. At least once a month. Go camping. Or, at minimum, go on a half-day hike in the mountains around Los Angeles.

And when I don't get it, it has the insidious effect of dampening my mood. When I’m surrounded by human made things and human made problems and human drama and discourse and screens for weeks on end, my spirit quietly withers. It doesn't shout in pain, it coils up and shrinks. So slowly that I might not even notice.

I got to researching why I find nature beautiful. Why it calls to almost all of us. Well, certain types of nature. Not wading through a murky swamp of crocodiles and pythons. Not swimming in the churning waters of a hurricane. But the bucolic pleasantness of certain places. The soothing soul balm offers the best of sitting under a tree on a hill, with a creek just below.

Research conducted by Dr. Paul Piff, Associate Professor of Psychological Science at UC Irvine, has found that experiencing "awe" in nature reduces anxiety and stress, and increases resilience. By a lot. Specifically – "those who reported experiencing the greatest levels of awe in the outdoors scored 42% higher when responding to the statement: ‘I know better that I can handle difficulties.’"

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I asked him if there is something special about nature itself, and he said, "The way people relate to nature is, in part, socially and culturally constructed. In Namibia, when we studied awe and relations to nature among the Himba (a remote nomadic group residing in the north), nature was not a source of much awe and wonder; it was just a fact of life, their surroundings at all times. If anything, it would have been a treat to get out of nature… In the West, it's very different, as people have gotten more and more removed from the natural environment, through technological advancements and a shifting of priorities and residential needs."

So maybe we like nature because it is the opposite of our urban life. It is our psyche seeking balance. We crave nature because it is an escape from the brain-taxing work of engaging with people, responding to emails, paying bills, and getting kids to eat their dinner.

Dr. Piff goes on to explain, "part of what makes nature so awe-inspiring is that it is so powerful, massive, complex, fear evoking (that can be a big part of awe), but the other part is that nature is also wondrous, mesmerizing and beautiful. It makes us feel content and small and connected to things much larger than ourselves – all things humans long for and spend lives looking for conduits of. Nature allows us to explore the delicate tension between uncontrollability and threat on the one hand and the sense of mastery and wonder on the other."

Want another reason? Dr. Piff's research also shows that social connections are deepened when time in nature is spent together. Go camping with friends. Go hiking with friends. These seem to provide stronger and deeper memories than most any other activities. Experiencing awe and mystery and beauty together, while moving our bodies and breathing fresh air – it bonds us together.

Why? Maybe because we’re removed from the tethering of city life. The emails can wait, we’re too far into the canyon. Whoever needs me, they can reach me later. Whoever is with me now, I am present with them, responding to curves in the trail together. We don't have separate lives grabbing at us through our phones. We are fully together in an experience, undisturbed.

Nature allows us to explore the delicate tension between uncontrollabilityand threat on the one hand and the sense of mastery and wonder on the other."

What if we need to explore an unknown trail to feel whole? What if we need to notice the flowers popping in spring to know we’re alive?

Last weekend I invited some friends to a spot I know in the desert east of the San Jacinto Mountains. You need a 4×4 vehicle to get there, because it requires driving through a creek bed made of soft deep sand. It's three hours from my house in Los Angeles. I only had time to go for one night. But we got out there and set up camp in the shadow of a giant granite boulder. We set up our camp chairs around the fire circle. We put up our tents as golden hour approached. Then we grabbed a beer and headed across the valley floor to another dry creek bed lined with giant rocks. It was March, so desert flowers had begun to bloom. Buds were bulging on cacti. I wanted to summit every boulder and see what was behind it. I crouched to notice tiny flowers, invisible from even 10 feet of distance, carpeting the ground. The sun set and we drank around the fire and told stories and shouted at the crystal clear stars in the sky.

The next day, as we were driving home, I said to my friends, "wow, just one night out there completely rejuvenated me. I feel different."

I asked Dr. Piff about this – how much nature do we actually need? "The benefits of nature exposure can be pretty quick to emerge. Even sixty seconds of focused nature time …can make people feel happier, more content, and even kinder and more compassionate toward others. We just completed a pretty long immersive study of different kinds of nature – your backyard vs, say, the giant sequoias. Pretty surprisingly, we find that it doesn't matter so much what kind of nature you get out into, but rather that you get out into it."

So there you go.

Get out into it. Amen to that.

Jedidiah Jenkins has written two New York Times bestselling memoirs, To Shake the Sleeping Self, about cycling 14,000 from Oregon to Patagonia, and Like Streams to the Ocean. He is the co-founder of Byta, travel mugs designed to promote a reusable economy.

Healthy trees are chopped down in my neighborhood because a branch might fall on the deck. Nature allows us to explore the delicate tension between uncontrollabilityand threat on the one hand and the sense of mastery and wonder on the other."