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As the earth awakens, sending up tender green shoots and coming alive with birdsong, we, too, shake off our winter slumber and stretch our creaky limbs. It’s time to step outdoors and feel the sun on our faces, to climb hills and plunge deep into the woods. You can set your seasonal clock by the frog exodus, which takes place every April on wet, foggy nights. By the dozens, they will cross the rain-slicked country roads, heading to their preferred breeding grounds in the damp nether regions of the forest. Soon, the jellied masses of their eggs will be visible in the vernal pools, brooks and streams. Masses of violets, peeking out from banks of ferns, will light up the mossy edges of paths. Nettles and garlic mustard will offer themselves up for the first tonifying soups of the season. Spring is here!
If the invigorating and uplifting qualities of being outdoors are not proof enough of their benefit, recent scientific research has conclusive evidence. The sights, sounds and smells of nature are highly therapeutic—reducing stress, lowering blood sugar, promoting better concentration and boosting immunity. After all, humans lived in nature for five million years, and the noise, pollution and accelerated pace of cities do not constitute our natural environment. As naturalist John Muir said, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home.” A growing number of psychologists believe that our chronic levels of depression, anxiety and stress are partly due to our alienation from nature, something for which we have an innate affinity, described by biologist E.O. Wilson as “biophilia.”
In his 2005 book, “The Last Child in the Woods,” Richard Louv coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder” to explain a condition that afflicts children who spend so much time indoors (on computers and video games) that their ability to connect with nature has been disrupted. It seems that people of all ages benefit from getting outside more. In Japan, the practice of shinrin-yoku, “forest bathing,” has been a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing for decades. There is also the theory of “grounding,” or “earthing,” which contends that our bodies are meant to come into direct contact with the earth on a regular basis in order to remain in balance. The results of simply walking barefoot on dirt, rock, or water for about 30 minutes a day are said to be quite extraordinary: reduced inflammation and chronic pain, enhanced sleep (and elimination of snoring), increased energy and improved blood pressure, among others. I plan to try it this year, though it will mean being extra-vigilant for ticks.
Being outdoors connects us to something primal within. When I walk in the woods, every one of my senses is engaged. I feel the deep stillness of the trees; hear the melancholy song of the wood lark; smell the musk of ferns and mushrooms; follow old trails and trace new ones. A profound peace settles over me, and I am content just to be somewhere that beauty knows no bounds. Learning about plants, foraging for wild edibles and getting to know the tracks and patterns of wildlife keep me continually curious, alert and amazed. There’s a very particular satisfaction to be had from eating wild foods. A bold (if largely misguided) sense of self-sufficiency, powerful nutrition and the discovery of new flavors add up to a deeply enriching experience. If you’ve never ventured into the fields and forests in search of a delicious morsel—ramps! fiddleheads! oyster mushrooms!—you’re in for a real treat. Seek out the knowledge you need from a reliable field guide or trusted mentor and find your way back to the wilderness. We come from nature, and it is only there that we are truly in our element.
Even if you don’t want to go barefoot, do venture into the natural world as much as you can. For those of us who live in the Upper Delaware Valley, there is a glorious world of trails and waterways to explore. Walking, hiking, biking, gardening, canoeing, kayaking, camping, foraging and picnicking are all wonderful ways to get outside. For information on hiking trails and public lands in Sullivan County, NY, visit trailkeeper.org.
[Laura Silverman is the founder of The Outside Institute, whose mission is to help people connect with the healing and transformative powers of nature through guided hikes, plant walks, foraging and other outdoor activities. www.theoutsideintitute.org]