As a species, we’ve become laughably disconnected from the world around us. As we evolved from our apish ancestors, our growing intelligence and sense of self increasingly contributed to a burgeoning arrogance. Simply put, humans began to think that they were better than all other life.
With our slow progression through the ages, new discoveries and innovations enabled us to further seclude ourselves from what we came to call “nature”. Nature was this thing separate from ourselves, filled with untamed beasts and untrustworthy variables outside of our control. To announce that you were going outside into nature was to announce your potential impending doom.
Even today, with our increasing awareness of ecological connections and the intricacies that join everyone and everything on this planet, we still divide our world in two. There’s the human or anthropocentric world, and then there’s just “nature”. We might plan the occasional weekend excursion out into nature, armed with bug repellants, synthetic camping equipment, and perhaps a can of bear spray, but for the most part we live within this insulated world and pretend nature doesn’t exist.
Personally, I think this mentality is killing us. With an increasing disassociation from the outside world over the course of our species’ history, our collective health has plummeted. Coincidence? I think not.
You see, at the end of the day, we’re still just animals. And we can only truly thrive when we step outside of our anthropocentric bubble and into the real world…the world that isn’t encased in concrete and glass.
My experience with nature
I grew up in the small town of Queenstown, New Zealand. In hindsight, I was unbelievably lucky – Queenstown is widely accepted as the adventure capital of the world, offering almost any outdoor pursuit one can imagine – skiing, skydiving, bungy jumping, mountain biking, boating, fishing, ziplining…few thrillseekers could ever manage to get bored in Queenstown.
Beyond the thrills and spills, however, was an underlying drive that governed my developmental years – get outside as much as humanly possible. At that time, mobile phones were the size of watermelons and I could only play Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego so many times on our tiny Apple Mac.
Outside, then, was a world of possibilities that would keep me and my buddies entertained for hours. We’d race around on our bikes, float down the river on air mattresses, go fishing or swimming, foolishly play around with the patches of quicksand around the river margins, hunt for lizards and bugs, and generally just do stupid boyish things. It was fantastic.
But then, as my life shifted to adulthood, the urban environment became my proving grounds. As a young professional, cities were the only places where I could make a decent living and enjoy the cultured high life I thought I wanted to live. I spent 2 years in London, England and another 4 in Toronto, Canada, and eventually discovered that a pattern was emerging: I was unhappy.
With a growing sense of discontent came new health issues. I had trouble sleeping, was constantly tired, my joints began to ache even though I was still in my 20s, and my immune system went away on vacation and never came back.
Realizing that I was becoming increasingly disconnected from the natural world that had nurtured me as a kid, I did what everyone else in the city did on weekends – I went camping, hiking, or visited the cottage. These excursions were fun, but they always ended the same way: on Sunday afternoon we’d have to pile back into the car and join the queues of other weekenders heading back into the city. My fling with nature was over once again, and the discontent seeped right back in.
It wasn’t until my girlfriend and I quit our jobs and began traveling that I realized just how much I had been missing immersing myself in the outside world. I don’t mean occasional “walk in the park” immersion, I mean spending days, perhaps weeks at a time surrounded by trees, lakes, rivers and mountains. We drove a beat-up old motorhome through the Canadian Rockies, stopping whenever we pleased and in no particular hurry, and my long-lost happiness returned.
The health benefits of getting outside
At the end of that amazing 16 month-long road trip, I had a decision to make: head back to city life, where the money flows and the nightlife is second-to-none…or return to my semi-rural roots. The decision was an easy one. My girlfriend and I are now happily settled in Wanaka, New Zealand, just a stone’s throw from my childhood home of Queenstown and within walking distance of lakes, mountains, rivers and forests. Our home has a large yard filled with native trees and shrubs, and our property backs onto a semi-wild park. Compared to our tiny inner-city apartment, it’s utter heaven.
These days, I work from home as a freelance writer and have a 180 degree view of trees, mountains and the endless sky at all times. When I feel myself getting frustrated or stressed, I simply take a step outside into my yard, stroll through the adjacent reserve, or jump on my bike and head down to the lake. I always come back refreshed, relaxed, and with a focused mind ready for the tasks ahead. I sleep better, I have less health problems, and my thoughts are largely on the positive side (the same can’t be said for 2 years-previous me living in Toronto).
And while this physical and psychological transformation was a dramatic one, it was also no great surprise. As a health writer, I’d been stumbling across research for years touting the many health benefits of simply getting outside. There’s literally hundreds of studies showing that getting out into nature can treat depression, improve mental capacity and focus, lower stress and reduce inflammation.
And it makes sense. Most of the stress that’s present in our lives has its roots in our social circles and urban environments. But when you step outside, none of that stress matters – it’s just you and the elements. They don’t require anything of you, and this glorious indifference will see your troubles quickly seeping away. It puts things very nicely in perspective.
How to immerse yourself in nature, even in the city
Obviously, if you’re struggling in your current life and feel like the world is out to get you, my advice would be to pack it all in and find your own little piece of natural paradise. But family ties, financial limitations, or a deep-seated love of your homeland might prevent that move towards a rural way of life.
Luckily, there’s a little slice of paradise around every urban corner…if you know where to look. Here’s a few tips for finding natural settings within urban environments to get your daily dose of green:
- Join a community garden: these are small allotments inside urban areas that offer members the chance to grab a slice of the action and grow their own produce. Getting your hands dirty (literally) and working with plants is one of the best ways to get back with nature and rebuild your gut microbiome. Plus, you’ll have amazing, fresh, organic produce in no time!
- Seek out parks that are less intensively managed: don’t get me wrong – I like manicured lawns and stately oaks as much as the next person, but I kind of think thats cheating. To really get some serious outside factor, seek out those parks that are a bit more on the wild side.
- Find a water body: this might be a lake, river, sea, or even just a large pond. There’s almost always abundant wildlife growing around water, meaning it’s a great place to kick back with nature and get away from it all.
- Vacation somewhere wild: rather than spending your usual two-week getaway at a plush resort in the Caribbean, why not pack up the car and head for the hills? Not only will you save a whole lot of money, spending your vacation time in forests, mountains or national parks will help to alleviate all that pent up stress and remind you that your troubles aren’t as insurmountable as you think.
So next time you’re anxious, depressed, frustrated or tired, you know what to do: just take a step outside! Nature will take care of the rest.