HWW Life Practice #7: Nature Connection

“In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.”

Aristotle

On the beach near where I grew up (in Patchogue, on Long Island, New York) there lives a small shorebird called the piping plover. The piping plover forages for food right at the shore break. On spindly, stick-like legs it follows the waves, in and out, snapping up the invertebrates and other small animals as the waves recede and then running back up the beach as the next wave rolls in. They flow in and out with the water, as one, in perfect harmony with nature; they never get wet and they never hurry. They are seamlessly connected to their ecosystem. I could watch the piping plover forage for food for hours.

In her recent book The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative, Florence Williams makes the case for nature as a healing agent. Williams cites studies conducted in Korea and other Asian countries which demonstrate compelling evidence that nature can help us become better versions of ourselves. Among the findings:

  • immune-boosting killer T cells of women with breast cancer increased after a two week forest visit and stayed elevated for 14 days
  • people who exercised in nature achieved better fitness and were more likely to keep exercising than those that exercised in the city
  • unmarried pregnant women who attended prenatal classes in the forest significantly reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety

The World Health Organization reported that homo sapiens officially became an urban species in 2008; for the first time in human history more people worldwide were living in urban areas than rural ones. What are the psychological, social and cultural impacts of this dislocation from nature?

If you believe the research, we’re sicker and less resistant to illness. And one can’t help but conclude that our disregard for our planet and its resources originates from this dislocation. Perhaps most disturbing of all is our attitude toward the other species that we share this planet with. According to the Center for Biological Diversity:

  • although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we're now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens of species going extinct every day
  • as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species face possible extinction by the middle of the 21st century
  • 99 percent of currently threatened species are at risk from human activities, primarily those driving habitat loss, introduction of exotic species, and climate change

I lost what had been a strong connection to nature as a young adult. I moved to the city and focused first on my education and, later, my career and family. I became sophisticated, as they say, and was drawn to cultured, urbane things. Art and music and books and philosophy and technology. I got busy; my connection to nature faded.

Nature became, for me, something that was “out there,” beyond the classroom or office window. It was often an inconvenience; it was rain and snow and summer heat waves making for stifling, sweaty, subway rides; it was the flu in winter and seasonal allergies in the spring and fall; it was bee stings and mosquito bites and sunburn. I began to subscribe to the belief that nature was something that needed to be tamed, to be brought to heel.

But then: the ocean.

I would go months without seeing it. Would totally forget about it (even though it covers over 70% of the earth’s surface). And then it would appear again, stretching out to the horizon in its familiar mystery and majesty. I would feel the salt breeze on my face and in my nostrils and my heartbeat would slow to the cadence of the waves pounding the shore.

But come Monday morning I was once again sitting on the train in a suit and a tie, headed to my hermetically sealed cubicle in the sky, high above the streets of Manhattan. If I was lucky enough to get outside it wasn’t for the fresh air (buses and taxis?) or the view.

Then fate offered me an unexpected opportunity to reconnect with nature. In 2008 we moved our family 90 miles north of Manhattan, to Gardiner, a small town in the Hudson Valley, in upstate New York.

Gardiner, and its more well-known neighbor to the northeast, New Paltz, are at the foot of the Shawangunk Ridge, a spot renowned globally for its outstanding rock climbing. The Shawangunk Ridge runs right through two preserves – Minnewaska State Park and Mohonk – which, combined, cover over 30,000 acres, with hundreds of miles of trails for hiking, biking, horseback riding, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

The Gunks, this outdoor junkie’s paradise, is a little more than an hour-and-a-half drive from New York City, but it’s only a 6 mile bike ride from my front door.

Most everyone I met after I moved up to Gardiner was active, in all seasons, regardless of their age. But they didn’t go to the gym. They ran or hiked or biked outside during the spring, summer and fall, and they snowshoed or skied or snowboarded in the winter. I insinuated myself into this community, adopted its practices (which in some cases includes lycra), and was re-initiated into the wonders of the outdoors.

My new community took me out on the trails of the Mohonk and Minnewaska Preserves, where I rediscovered my long-lost Nature Connection. I tuned up my 20 year old mountain bike (a Mongoose Hilltopper), and then upgraded to a full-suspension Specialized Epic 29er after riding for a full season and rediscovering childlike joy by tearing through the woods on my bike.

I haven’t been a member of a gym since (full disclosure: I built a home gym in my basement, which I mostly use for strength training in winter).

I have my closest encounters with nature on those rides: bears and foxes and porcupines and deer and owls and bald eagles and hawks and pileated woodpeckers have all been my companions out on the trail.

The proximity of the Preserves has enabled me to fuse two of the HWW life practices into a complementary package – Nature Connection plus Movement (and, when I’m out on the trails with my crew, my Community, I’m triple-dipping Life Practices). The Preserves have spoiled me; exercising indoors (whether in my home gym or a hotel room or even just a walk or a run in the city) doesn’t fill me with the same joy as a bike ride or a hike or a snowshoe through the woods. Not even close. Sure, it checks the Movement box, but it doesn’t nourish my soul like being outside in the woods does.

I never want to take nature for granted again. We have a responsibility to be stewards of the natural world, caretakers of the planet for future generations. A deeper Nature Connection means more reverence and respect for nature. We need this now more than ever, both as individuals and as a species. This is why Nature Connection is its own Life Practice.

How to Get Started

Open the door and walk outside. Keep walking until you see something green. Then stop and breathe. Really breathe.

Cancel your gym membership and resolve to take your exercise outdoors.

Find a friend that knows his/her way around outside. Plan an afternoon or day-long or weekend adventure exploring.

Join a local hiking meet-up. Plan a family adventure to a national park (Yosemite is my personal favorite). Subscribe to National Geographic magazine.

Get busy with your own rescue. Start today. Not tomorrow, not next week, not as part of your next New Year’s resolutions. Today. There’s no time to waste.

The good news is you’re not alone. We’re here to help. Let us show you the Health Warrior Way.