After two more shootings last week, there’ve been 47 school shootings this year and 144 since 2013.
I’m glad to have removed myself from the outer world.
I first came to this conclusion in my park-making days when I realized that separation of human beings from the natural world inflicts real damage to the whole person—physically, psychologically, and spiritually. I resolved that I must adopt a new lifestyle in which I was surrounded by, and a part of, the natural world.
I think I was clinically depressed before I got here. But within minutes of being in the bright West Texas sunlight, it was as if someone had flipped a switch. I’ve been here for nearly 15 years, and I have never been happier, never looked back.
The thought of escaping the insanity of the outer world is certainly not original to me, but unlike most others, I have done something about it. Although statistics on Americans who choose to take this route are impossible to come by, I have the impression that the purported trends of people doing the same thing are overstated. Sure, lots of people move into the Big Bend seeking the life of their dreams and fantasies, but after a few years and reality sets in, just as many move out. I personally think this “churn” is a good thing, except that the desert is becoming more littered as these people leave their abandoned dreams behind.
Very few people are looking for the same things as I, and have found in abundance. I don’t mean to put other folks down, but too many people are addicted to the trappings and conveniences of modern life. Not just having a Wal-Mart on a nearby corner, but things like access to the electrical grid, air conditioning, screened windows, cable TV, smartphones. Modern life is so unnatural, living off-the-grid requires a radical readjustment of one’s most basic expectations.
“As we spend fewer hours in natural surroundings, we pay a price physically and psychologically,“ says journalist and child advocate Richard Louv in his bestselling book Last Child in the Woods (2005), which sparked an international movement to reconnect kids with nature. He coined the term nature-deficit disorder; influenced national policy; and helped inspire campaigns in over eighty cities, states, and provinces throughout North America. In The Nature Principle (2011), Louv delivers another powerful call to action—this time for adults.
Louv links the absence of nature in the lives of today’s wired generation directly to some of the most disturbing childhood trends: attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, stress, depression and anxiety disorders, childhood obesity. This is the first book to bring together a body of research indicating that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children and adults.
Boys and girls now live a “denatured childhood,” Louv says. He cites multiple causes for why children spend less time outdoors and why they have less access to nature: our growing addiction to electronic media, the relinquishment of green spaces to development, parents’ exaggerated fears of natural and human predators, and the threat of lawsuits and vandalism that has prompted community officials to forbid access to their land.
According to Louv, the replacement of open meadows, woods and wetlands by manicured lawns, golf courses, and housing developments has led children away from the natural world. What little time they spend outside is on designer playgrounds or fenced yards and is structured, safe, and isolating. Such antiseptic spaces provide little opportunity for exploration, imagination, or peaceful contemplation.
Louv seems to think that periodic exposure to nature can have a restorative or prophylactic effect, and I will be the last to disagree with him. Recent academic studies have shown that, after just looking at nature scenes, people are kinder and more charitable. They’ve suggested that children with ADHD have an easier time concentrating when they spend time outdoors. A 2008 study even found that, for office workers, a mere glimpse of green through a window or a live plant on their desk were, on the whole, associated with lower stress levels and higher job satisfaction.
A study published in Environmental Science & Technology underscores just how important green spaces are for our long-term well-being. When a group of researchers from the UK’s University of Exeter looked at five years’ worth of mental health data for 1064 participants who moved their residence during the study period, they found that those who moved to urban areas with more surrounding green space showed higher overall mental health scores—meaning that they were happier and had lower levels of anxiety and depression—for the very first year after their relocation compared to the years prior to moving.
Yet as one who has lived in nature for many years, I cannot imagine how the most compelling and truly life-changing benefits can be achieved through such “quick fix” activities. Two weeks in the woods may save you from slashing your wrists, but it takes more time to achieve real transformation, redemption, enlightenment, or whatever meaningful growth or change you desire.
Admittedly, not everyone can take the total-immersion route. It is practical for only an extreme minority of people. But what you cannot achieve for yourself and your kids by devoting large blocs of time to nature can be approximated by a greater frequency of nature experiences.
Louv recommends getting outside frequently, leaving the city if you can, playing sports or other games, gardening, hiking, fishing, bird-watching, re-connecting to the natural rhythms of the earth and the plant and animal kingdoms, and experiencing disorganized, creative play. By doing so, he argues, we may lessen the severity of emotional and mental ailments and come to recognize the importance of preserving nature.
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