By Dave Santillo
I need everyday sustenance from nature. I know that about myself. I can literally watch my stress and anxiety levels dissipate and feel my immune system supercharge whether I’m sneaking in a short walk along a groomed tree-lined urban park path or pushing my limits on an extended wilderness trek or paddle.
These days, looking around me when I’m outside it’s becoming more and more obvious that I’m not alone in finding sanctuary in nature. This past “Covid Year” has been difficult for everyone and one way that many people have found relief from the isolation of the pandemic is to get outdoors. The record use during 2020 of natural areas ranging from neighborhood parks and bike paths through to National Parks suggests that more people than ever have discovered much the same thing that I have: nature makes them feel good and it’s good for them.
The claim that nature provides legitimate health benefits is no longer regarded as “woo-woo” heresay reserved for out-of-their-time flower-children. Many medical researchers have investigated and reported in mainstream medical journals that time in nature reduces stress hormones, enhances immune system function, lowers blood pressure and anxiety, and improves mood*. Mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual….there is plenty of well being to go around in natural surrounds.
Nature simply is flat-out healing.
Beyond the documented medical benefits, we have to admit that an association with nature makes us appear cooler than we really are. Our social media pages are overflowing with posts of us mugging in front of rainbow sunsets, on mountain tops, on the edge of crashing surf, and countless other settings that convey our life experiences as being “epic, extreme, or sublime.” We don’t even have to experience the epic-ness of nature firsthand for it to make us feel good. What would you rather see, selfies of people from their living room or office desk, or from the top of the latest peak they bagged?
In response to the larger number of people than ever nature has, as it always has, greeted us with open arms. Regardless of our motives, our baggage, and our often-blatant disregard, it accepts whatever we bring to the party, and it doesn’t pass judgement. It doesn’t judge us for how many Netflix programs we binged over the last week or how many drinks we had at our last virtual happy hour. Nature just seems content that we showed up to share time with it.
Nature doesn’t judge us even though we don’t reciprocate like we should, or how badly we hurt it. And there is no reasonable debate possible about that fact at this point in time – we have hurt nature pretty badly.
We seek out our friends in times of need but it’s usually best for the friendship if its not just a one-way street, at least if we want the friendship to last. If we only seek out a friend when we need help moving, when we need consoling after a breakup, or when we need something picked up from the supermarket, then it’s only a matter of time until that friend stops answering our texts. There needs to be some degree of mutual benefit.
Nature hasn’t yet stopped being there for us, even though we haven’t come close to equity in our relationship. Let’s face it, if we were in a legally recognized civil union with nature, nature long ago should have served us with divorce papers at a minimum, and more justifiably sued us and had us thrown in jail for physical and emotional abuse and assault for attempted murder.
Humans have always been kind of a “you only hurt the one you love” kind of beast. Not only have we always done this to nature, but the overall trend seems to be to hurt it more – we continue to exploit, degrade, clearcut, and pollute in increasing volumes, rates, and locations. As long as the earth’s population continues to increase, and that population is aspiring to have more stuff and ever-increasing profits, then nature will continue to draw further into the background.
It doesn’t take a PhD in ecological therapy to evaluate our 2-way relationship with nature and conclude that we are doing way too much the wrong thing if we want the benefits of our relationship to continue.
And that’s perplexing as hell to me, because in the face of all this recognition of the benefits of nature, we essentially are hurting ourselves by hurting nature. No one can dispute that humans are selfish creatures so, if nothing else, this awareness that we are hurting ourselves by hurting nature on a level on par with self-flagellation should at least give us pause. We need to take a 5-minute break from our destruction to turn off the ignitions on our bulldozers and skidders, maybe just to look around and think……”What am I doing?” This internal reflection is way past overdue.
Our collective failure to turn things around on natures’ behalf has to stop, because nature can’t take much more of this. It may put on a brave face and continue to be there for us even as there is less and less of it, even as the vivid green of its forests and mountainsides turns paler and yellower, and even as its waters warm and drown in plastics.
The signs of the weakening and destruction of nature are everywhere. It’s been going on since the start of the industrial revolution, although it recently only became apparent to some when the veil was pulled back on the truth of environmental exploitation by a federal administration that didn’t bother even trying to hide its belief that the dollar always ‘trumps’ the environment.
Too many of us in the United States seem to be all too anxious to return to collective slumber after a 4-year assault on environmental regulations, content that things once again are in benevolent hands of “people with our best interests in mind.” Our continuous human history makes it clear that no government or other entity concerned with profit will consistently work on behalf of the interests of the general public no matter how rosy the appearances and lofty the rhetoric.
The big and dramatic picture depicting the steady degradation of nature and the environment is showing no signs that its going to do anything but get even bigger and more dramatic, regardless which political party is running things. Annual average temperatures continue their terrifying upward climb, while fossil fuels continue to be consumed at rates that will cook us long before promised conversion-to-renewables targets are reached. More forests are being cleared for ever more palm oil and cattle, more rare earth minerals are being toxically mined for our soaring demand for more and more electronics, more species are becoming extinct, worldwide use of pesticides and fertilizers is increasing, more coral reefs are dying in warming oceans….and on and on.
Our own back yard in the U.S. may seem momentarily more tidy with a new administration, but the broader environmental mayhem around the earth will only get worse on our current path. This is all going to end somewhere, and things apparently are going to end badly unless we change.
But change is hard, huh?
I have friends that like to joke (as if it was beyond comprehension) about how much they would have to change or give up in their life if they did everything that ‘greenies’ say need to be done in order to save the earth. “My God, they tell us we need to eat fewer steaks, turn off lights, use a clothesline, use less plastic, have smaller lawns….it’s ridiculous!! Let someone else do without a real Christmas tree. Let someone else use their old phone for another year.”
Yeah, well so there is just SO MUCH!! But that absolutely is not a valid excuse to do nothing.
The whole list may understandably seem pretty imposing, but scary lists can be tamed by concentrating on one line at a time. Take a first step and do one thing that will help to contribute to helping nature. Like anything, a first step is a start.
The next time you seek out solace in nature to escape the stress of quarantining, or you just feel the need to post an exhilarating picture of you hugging a big tree or in front of a beautiful sunset, or after conquering a particularly rad mountain bike trail….stop and think. Then ask yourself “What first step, what small thing can I do…to start down the path of being a better friend…to nature?”
Then act and watch how spending time in nature feels even better because you worked to even up the relationship.
The Terratrek website has what we call the Terratrek Pledge (https://terratrek.org/terratrek-pledge/). We’ve provided a list of just some of the things each of us can do to make changes that will benefit the earth.