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In the woods, we return to reason and faith.
Nothing can befall me there.
No disgrace, no calamity that nature cannot repair.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
In his essay “Landscape as Narrative” Barry Lopez talks about the need to reconcile our inner and outer landscapes. Many of us working to build community, restore local ecosystems or foster social change engage in this work in some way on a daily basis. But it’s also important being deliberate and taking some time away to truly investigate and embrace this idea. I’ve always believed that fostering a more sustainable society and a more humane culture starts with being more sustainable and humane ourselves, and time away—and outside—is vital in this regard.
I’ve recently returned from 10 days camping and kayaking in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. Beyond simply being “time away” from a regular routine and a familiar landscape, many of us know the healing qualities that nature can have. Particularly if we dwell in urban and suburban areas, a chance to escape to be deep within the green of a forest or to spend time on the water is not just a break, but essential for our physical and mental well-being. In a recent issue of Orion magazine, an article discusses research that has shown ways in which humans—and other species, both animals and plants—are affected by loud noise. And a recent book by Richard Louv describes what he calls “nature deficit” among children, and accompanying research shows how time outside can actually help kids with ADD and ADHD.
It’s no surprise that time outside can benefit all of us—and that we can all probably use a bit more. Not only does time in nature offer a break from the industrial soundtrack so many of us are accustomed to, but the experience of a slower rhythm, different scents and sights and the feel of earth as opposed to pavement underfoot can connect us more deeply to what is meaningful for each of us, how to dwell on this earth responsibly and be a part of a thriving community.
If you can find the space this summer, or even on a regular—daily, weekly or monthly— basis, take some time to get outside, beyond the confines of home, neighborhood or workplace. Even a regional park, a creek or a beach that is somewhat hidden can be a small reward. Granted, this is easier in some places—such as here in the SF Bay Area—than others. And even if you are a fan of the city and consider yourself blissfully urban, the experiment of being outside can still be powerful, transformative and important. As Mary Oliver writes in her poem “Sleeping in the Forest”:
I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts,
her pockets full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before,
a stone on the riverbed,
nothing between me
and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts,
and they floated light as moths
among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms
breathing around me, the insects, and the birds
who do their work in the darkness.
All night I rose and fell, as if in water,
grappling with a luminous doom.
By morning I had vanished
at least a dozen times
into something better.