During a pandemic, the outdoors is the safest place you can be. But what if you hate nature?
By Liz Langley,
The Washington Post illustration; iStock
A few years ago, I won a pair of very good plastic binoculars at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland, Fla., for identifying the most types of animal poop. (I’ll be handing out autographs later.) My point is, you can’t sweep a contest like that and be a nature-phobe.
I was starting to feel like one, though. Like most people, I had a multi-pack of trauma in 2020, and in October, I hit a major depression that included not wanting to go outside my Central Florida home at all, when outside was the only safe place to go. In 2020, the United States minted 8.1 million more hikers and 7.9 million more campers than in 2019, according to an Outdoor Foundation study, and it had nearly 3 million new tennis players, according to the Physical Activity Council. I wasn’t among them.
Nature has been shown to reduce stress, increase cognitive function and improve our health. Just watching nature documentaries has been linked to better body image.
But what if you’re no good at nature?
Not everyone wants to skydive or climb mountains before they die, especially not right before, with no segue between “Woohoo!” and “Uh-oh . . . ”
If you’ve had a bad experience at the beach or in a blizzard, that could put you off that aspect of the natural world. Some people didn’t grow up with mountains, trees, lakes, snow or other natural phenomena, and they can find them unnerving, no matter how much they would like to enjoy them. I never went into the woods as a kid, and, as an adult, I’ve seen too many horror movies to find them calming. Also, when narrators of true-crime shows start a sentence with, “In a wooded area . . . ,” it doesn’t mean they’re going to picnic.
I’m also pretty sure the best way to pitch a tent is into a metal donation box.
“Most people live in cities and don’t grow up with an abundance of nature,” says Children & Nature Network co-founder Richard Louv. The journalist and author created the concept of “nature-deficit disorder” to describe kids’ lack of connection with the natural world. It isn’t a formal medical diagnosis, but doctors are now prescribing time in nature for patients of all ages, and there’s even a website, Park RX America, for finding the closest park to your house.
If you want to enjoy our glorious national parks, purple mountains’ majesty and other outdoor areas you feel disconnected from, how do you do it? I decided I would be extra brave and go on a hike with an experienced hiker friend at Moss Park, a popular spot in the Orlando area that connects with the Florida’s trail system. We were given a map and decided on Split Oak Trail, only about a mile long. What could go wrong?
In brief, we got lost, an unexpected rain on a 91-degree day turned me into a steamed dumpling and a I got enough bug bites to look like a walking connect-the-dots game. Then, finally, joy! I saw the parking lot!
It was the wrong parking lot.
We got so turned around that we ended up on the opposite side of the park. There was a long stretch of road leading to who knows where as the Florida storm clouds, which can produce a catastrophe in moments, gathered like a mob with evil on its mind.
I got on the phone with the park office, and it sent someone in an ATV to save me from the woods and the experienced hiker from me. Just as we got back to where we were meant to be, I saw a deer — a big, gorgeous doe — staring at us from just feet away. It was sublime, even magical. Then I got the hell out of there.
Visitors take in a sunset at Treasure Island, one of Florida’s gulf beaches.
A couple of days after the Moss Park debacle, for which I take the blame, I received an unexpected invite to spend the afternoon at Treasure Island, one of Florida’s gulf beaches. This is the outdoor milieu in which I really thrive, and it seems as if finding your nature, out of all the types of nature there are, is one way to unlock its magic. Sure enough, while floating on the warm water, with my ears under it so I could listen to the ocean, I felt a lot of the darkness of the past few months lift.
I realize now that I was trying to run before I could hike. Here’s how indoorsy people can make the nature connection they hunger for, but a bit more sensibly.
Listen. In 2021, Rachel Buxton, a conservation scientist at Carleton University in Ottawa, headed a team that reported on how the sounds of nature improve our mental health in many ways, even when mixed with human-created sounds, such as those from traffic or aircraft.
Being outdoors or even at a window where you get more sensory input, such as wind or a grass scent, is better, but Buxton says most people in the studies were in labs listening through headphones, meaning that indoors works, too. YouTube, SoundCloud and Xeno-canto are great sources for natural soundscapes.
Sit. Stay. In his book “Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life,” Louv recommends finding a “sit spot” — a place that you return to often to just be still, listen, observe and get to know the patterns of that small patch of earth and the life that inhabits it. Doing so can make us feel less isolated, he says, something we’ve all needed in the last 18 months.
Look out. In a 2019 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, MaryCarol Hunter, associate professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, found that a “nature pill” — 20 to 30 minutes of exposure to nature, several times a week — lowers our stress hormones. At first, you don’t even have to leave the house: An open window is a good start.
“You might feel a nature connection by simply looking at the sky, a nearby tree, branches swaying in the wind, or ice crystals on the stem of a nearby winter shrub,” Hunter wrote in an email. “Opening the window, even a crack, lets you engage the other senses: smell the air, feel its movement on your skin, listen to birds calling or rain falling.”
Journalist and author Richard Louv recommends a dose of “vitamin N” for families suffering from social isolation.
The outdoors belongs to everyone. Buxton and Louv both note the extreme racial and financial inequities of U.S. green spaces. Everyone is part of the natural world. Last year it was discovered that humans, and probably other animals, share genetic mechanisms with prehistoric sea sponges — sea sponges! We’re all in this together, even though many people have been made to feel as if the outdoorsy mantle isn’t theirs.
Indoor plants. Hunter says houseplants are a great entree to the natural world — plus, they bring literal life into your home. “Experiencing their cycle of life and providing care is known to be an effective therapeutic tool for healing mind and body,” she says.
Wildlife cams. Per a suggestion from Louv, I spent quite a while observing owls, monitoring monkeys and watching walruses — some in zoos, some in their natural habitats — and got a bit hypnotized. It’s like reality TV but with reality and it’s very soothing. There’s a reason cats dominate the Internet.
Animal magnetism. “As a species, we’re desperate to not feel alone in the universe. Why else would we look for Bigfoot or intelligent life on other planets?” Louv says. But we’re not alone. During the pandemic, Louv says, people’s backyard animals, such as birds or raccoons, often made them feel less lonely.
Several years after I won the binoculars, I ran into a couple on the beach who were nervously wondering what kind of bird could have left such massive droppings. I looked.
“Pelican,” I volunteered.
Once an expert, always an expert.
Langley is a writer based in Orlando. Find her on Twitter: @LizLangley.
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