Sometimes it takes a complicated effort to remember simple things.
In the decades following publication of E.O. Wilson’s "Biophilia" (1984), which proposed an inherent inclination to affiliate with other forms of life, a cascade of research was unleashed.
All of it examined the effects on people of contacts with nature. The areas studied were diverse, including stress, longevity, hospital recovery, work productivity, anxiety, depression, and more.
The studies varied in their methodological rigor, and not all of them showed salutary results. But overall it does appear that interacting with nature can have demonstrably positive effects on health and well-being. Even relatively brief exposures have yielded positive outcomes, and the effects do not appear to depend on physical immersion in the natural setting. Just visual exposure—for example, patients recovering from surgery having a view of greenery through the hospital window—has had apparent benefits.
So we’ve rediscovered, at last, what was obvious to our ancestors. In that venerable tradition of reinventing the wheel, I also want to sing the praises of “nature”. In particular, of a walk, alone, in the woods.
As those who went before us knew, there is much to recommend it. And the secret, I think, is more than just the pine scented breeze and the stretching of one’s legs. Part of the secret, I think, is consciousness.
How does that change in the woods? Well, most of the time, it doesn’t. Most of the time on the trail one walks in one’s head, dredging up a memory, spinning out a fantasy, grasping at a worry. But sometimes that changes. Sometimes there are just these trees, right here, right now. Thoughts still come, as always, but since you're not pushing them, they float away easily. The trail seems more spacious, more still. Your feet know the way.
The impact of things that grow, or just develop, is much different from that of things we build. Construction implies, suggests, a sequence of thought, a manipulation of thought toward some end. Just being in the presence of construction draws us, unconsciously, toward that linear frame of mind. But stepping away from that, stepping into a field of natural growth, can be freeing. It can, for a time at least, be a letting go of compulsive thought. A letting go and, if you will, a coming to one’s senses.
Release from a grasping at thought is supported by speechlessness. Hence, walking alone. Not all sounds are at issue here; rather, only the sound of words. Words are the scaffolding of thought. They draw the train of thought along ceaselessly, even when our lips are still. Actually moving those lips, in the form of speech to a companion, adds fuel to the fire. So for the purpose of changing consciousness, it’s just easier to stroll out solo.
It’s also easier, and more liberating, to stroll with no destination. Yes, there may be a trail ahead, but so what. A goal can be tyranny. Actually you’re free to do many things: stop, sit down, wander off the trail, go back the way you came. Refuse to cut a path through the world, and you find yourself settling into it.
Beware of props. Exhibit #1: the camera. As a landscape photographer myself, I know the temptation. Photography is rewarding, of course, but it’s a different experience than the one I’ve been discussing. It is a standing back from each scene, a viewing it through the lens as an object to be crafted. Furthermore, the entire process of the walk becomes colonized by the effort. As Annie Dillard explained in "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek", once you have a camera in your hand, you stop just walking; rather, you travel from shot to shot.
What about other settings? For those who prefer, say, the desert or the sea, let me stress that most of what I’ve said applies to these settings as well. They grow, or simply develop, and as such can be liberating. If your heart is with them, so be it.
But for me, well, there’s just something about the woods. The strength, and yet the sensitivity, of trees. Their sheer grandeur as partners on our planet. The way their branches take the breeze, pass along sounds of the morning.
More than most, the people of Japan know this well. There they have a practice called "shinrin-yoku", or "forest bathing". This refers simply to spending mindful time in the woods, immersing one's senses in the forest atmosphere. As you might also come to find, there is much to recommend it.
Setting out alone
Tall trees will do for shelter
Shadows point the way