What makes someone rise early to watch the sun slowly ascend toward the horizon from a nearby hill? Why would anyone spend their annual vacation wandering about in Canyonlands National Park’s remote Maze District year after year? What sane person would decide to spend weeks riding a bike across Southeast Asia after her internship was up?
I’ll do my best to explain, but first you should know that I’m biased. I think the daft ones are the people that find none of these appealing. All of them are actual examples, though only getting up early to watch a beautiful sunrise is likely to be the one most people can identify with. To experience nature’s capacity to calm and heal, that’s often enough.
But before you dismiss the people for whom the occasional sunrise or sunset isn’t quite adequate— the ones that will drop everything for the chance to spend a day, a long weekend, or even weeks in a dusty remote wilderness — it’s worth noting that science and more than a little anecdotal evidence is, with the exception of few asterisks, on their side. This is even true if you include weeks long treks across distant continents where human contact is more common, even if it is limited to people speaking other languages and engaging in practices that, from an outsider’s perspective, range from exotic to downright disgusting.
First, let’s get the asterisks out of the way. Scientists do not suggest that individuals seeking to reap the emotional and physical benefits nature has to offer should disappear into the backcountry Christopher McCandless style. That kind of extreme adventure requires skill and, as McCandless learned too late, a good working knowledge of local edible plants. And of course, before you get a passport and venture out into the world on whatever great expedition you may have on your bucket list, a good scientist will always advise you to visit your doctor to receive the appropriate shots first.
With that out of the way, let’s go over some of nature’s benefits.
Dirt is good for you
So you’re not all that fond of hiking, and find the idea of a night under the stars, or even in a tent, unappealing. Then gardening may be the thing for you. Dirt, it turns out, may have some antidepressant qualities. Well, not the dirt so much as some common bacteria found in dirt.
Scientific studies often fail to demonstrate what they set out to, but sometimes in the process they uncover something else we didn’t know. Research into the soil bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae is just such a case. As the environmental reporter Zoë Schlanger tells it in a May 2017 article on the unexpected benefits of some common dirt bacteria for human health, “Mary O’Brien, an oncologist at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London” injected some of her lung cancer patients with M. vaccae. The bacteria had shown earlier promise fighting drug resistant tuberculosis and as an immune system booster, so she thought maybe it would help enhance her own patients’ ability to fight their cancer.
Unfortunately, the injections failed as a treatment for lung cancer. However, Schlanger writes, “it succeeded elsewhere: the bacteria injection ‘significantly improved patient quality of life,’ O’Brien wrote in the paper detailing her findings. Her patients were happier, expressed more vitality, and better cognitive functioning — in short, it reduced the emotional toll of advanced cancer.”
It sounds counter intuitive, but a little exposure to dirt, bacteria, and pet dander also reduces the chances a child will develop allergies or asthma later in life. Time Magazine, reporting on a study performed by Johns Hopkins researchers, perhaps went a little over the top when it entitled its article Why You Should Let Your Kids Eat Dirt. Kids will stick dirty hands in their mouth all on their own, and that sort of behavior is more than adequate to deliver the key bacteria to the gut. All you really need to do is let them play outside more often.
But slightly hyperbolic headlines aside, according to Time, researchers examined and visited the homes of 467 infants in Boston, New York, and St. Louise. These infants’ health was then tracked for the following three years including home visits to evaluate exposure to potential allergens. The article states, “The kids who lived in homes with mouse and cat dander as well as cockroach droppings during their first year had lower rates of wheezing by age 3.” In addition, “kids with a greater amount of bacteria in their homes were also less likely to wheeze and were less likely to have environmental allergies.”
By now many of us have heard of the “hygiene hypothesis,” which put simply is the premise that the reason findings like those described above keep popping up is that our obsession with cleanliness is denying children needed exposure to germs that would enable their young immune systems to build up resistance. The resulting stronger immune system makes them healthier, on average, in the long run.
Schlanger, in her article regarding the dirt biome’s possible capacity to ease depression, describes what is dubbed “the old friends hypothesis.” This goes a step further, arguing that modern indoor living and working, excessive antibiotic use, and over sterilization deny our bodies access to friendly bacteria that our bodies use to enhance health and ward off illness.
The “hygiene hypothesis” and the “old friends hypothesis” are are not mutually exclusive. Both are likely correct in their claims regarding the probable effects of all our excessive scrubbing and spraying. Odds are that our immune systems benefit from the work out a little exposure provides and that we aren’t receiving the dose of beneficial bacteria we once did.
So, mom and dad, instead of feeling guilty because the house isn’t perfectly clean give yourself a break and send your kids out to play in the dirt for a while. Maybe do a little gardening while you’re at it to ease your guilty conscience.
Putting things in perspective
In his book Rest, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang offers us a rather active outdoorsy image of rest that seems, at first, inconsistent with our typical view on the subject. “For a surprising number of creative people — including people in professions we usually think of as dominated by nerdy, bookish people who don’t see the sun for weeks — strenuous, physically challenging, even life-threatening exercise is an essential part of their routine.” Kim Pang continues, “Some walk miles every day or spend weekends working in their gardens. Some are always in training for the next marathon; others rock climb or scale mountains. Their idea of rest is more vigorous than our idea of exercise.”
In addition to the benefits of a little exposure to life’s dirtier side discussed above, there are other reasons these kind of activities may play a critical role for creative individuals. One of these is the opportunity they provide to gain and maintain some perspective. In a 2014 article for The Guardian on ecotherapy, Oliver James puts the impact of intense wilderness experiences this way:
The egocentricity of [wilderness therapy] clients is often reduced by awareness of something much bigger than them, whether it be mountains, wide open plains or huge skies. The feeling that the client is the centre of the universe is called into question by the sheer scale and complexity of nature. For many clients, hell has been other people in their normal lives. The solitude and lack of pressure to satisfy the demands of peers and family lead to significant improvements in such self-attributes as esteem, efficacy and control.
It’s hardly necessary to undergo intensive eco-therapy to have this experience. Those of us who have spent any significant amount of time in nature can confirm that it is indeed difficult to maintain the illusion of an objective self in a wilderness setting. This kind of falling away of the ego, and the greater feelings of connectedness that come with it, does invigorate and stimulate productivity and creativity in ways that typical work/urban routines can rarely, if ever, replicate.
Annie Dillard describes the kind of contextual and relational mode nature brings us into in her short essay Living Like Weasels. She describes the brief encounter with a weasel that inspired her essay in the first person plural, indicating to us that the line between Dillard and the weasel was, at that moment, blurred.
Our look was as if two lovers, or deadly enemies, met unexpectedly on an overgrown path when each had been thinking of something else: a clearing blow to the gut. It was also a bright blow to the brain, or a sudden beating of brains, with all the charge and intimate grate of rubbed balloons. It emptied our lungs. It felled the forest, moved the fields, and drained the pond; the world dismantled and tumbled into that black hole of eyes. If you and I looked at each other that way, our skulls would split and drop to our shoulders. But we don’t. We keep our skulls. So.
I really don’t understand people who don’t crave experiences like this; who don’t want to dedicate every warm sunny weekend they can to having them.
Dillard concludes in her final paragraph, “I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part.”
There’s been a lot of talk lately about our addiction to electronic devices and the longing to be accepted that social media likes and shares feed upon. It is difficult to escape this fixation when we’re constantly surfing a sea of microwaves, radio waves, and local wifi signals that occupy the wavelengths in between.
I don’t know whether addiction is the appropriate diagnosis for what people are experiencing, but I do know that I personally am more productive when I can escape the pull of news alerts, text messages, and email. Rare is the message that provides me with information I can act upon in some constructive way. Rarer still one that requires my immediate attention.
But being connected makes us feel important. If nothing else, it means we’re in the know. If we can tell our friends either directly or via social media that another mass shooting just occurred before they get the chance to tell us, and, better yet, immediately share our feelings regarding it, then for a few moments at least we actually feel better about ourselves. That this endorphin rush is brought to us, if indirectly, via a tragedy doesn’t seem to give many of us pause.
During the week of the September 11th attacks, some acquaintances of mine were canoeing a remote canyon on the Green River in Utah. I heard second hand about their perspective on the events of that horrible day and its immediate aftermath. People in their group noticed that the jets and associated contrails that had regularly criss-crossed the sky during the first days of their trip had vanished. There was speculation about what this could mean as they sat around the campfire each night, speculation which only grew in intensity as days continued to pass without any sign of aircraft. One can easily imagine some contemplation of end of the world scenarios going on by that point.
Between those red rock cliffs, stained dark here and there with rusty streaks of desert varnish, there is no radio or cell phone reception. Even if a signal could be picked up now and then, it is unlikely anyone would have brought either a phone or radio with them nearly 20 years ago. This was 2001, after all, when flip phones were the new trendy gadget. There was nothing to do but accept that the answer, if there was one, would have to wait until everyone got back to their cars and drove up out of the canyon into radio range.
How many of us, in retrospect, might envy being able to enjoy that kind of ignorance during that awful week? Yet it is also difficult to imagine a greater reminder of our powerlessness than to be observing troubling clues that the world may have changed dramatically from a sandbar at the bottom of canyon without any means of confirming the possibility.
But we need to unplug now and then. We need to be reminded of our ultimate powerlessness. Going somewhere we can’t be reached and risking extreme uncertainty from time-to-time is the best way I can think of to confront our impotence and mortality in this great big cosmos of ours. Regardless, allowing ourselves an escape from the steady bombardment of information that contemporary life exposes us to is essential to maintaining some degree of mental equilibrium. The longer we go without breaking that connection, the more difficult it becomes to imagine living without it. The inability to imagine that is the definition of addiction.
So go get your hands dirty, swim in some unchlorinated water if you can find any, and turn your cell phone off for a couple of days. You’ll probably feel a lot better if you do.
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