April 01, 2020 6 min read 0 Comments

It is a scientific fact that the occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character, particularly if this contemplation occurs in connection with relief from ordinary cares, change of air and change of habits, is favorable to the health and vigor of men and especially to the health and vigor of their intellect beyond any other conditions which can be offered them, that it not only gives pleasure for the time being but increases the subsequent capacity for happiness and the means of securing happiness. The want of such occasional recreation where men and women are habitually pressed by their business or household cares often results in a class of disorders the characteristic quality of which is mental disability, sometimes taking the severe forms of softening of the brain, paralysis, palsy, monomania, or insanity, but more frequently of mental and nervous excitability, moroseness, melancholy or irascibility, incapacitating the subject for the proper exercise of the intellectual and moral forces.....
Frederick Law Olmstead, 1865.

Never in our history have we needed more creative upstream solutions to the public health crisis than we do right now. Our environment and our health are interactive and interconnected. Nobody knew that better than Frederick Olmstead, as evidenced in his plea to the California legislature, urging them to protect Yosemite Valley. Due, in large part, to his work, two national parks were subsequently born: Yellowstone and Yosemite. Just 150 years later, Americans boast almost one-million square miles of the public land, including 130,000 miles of trails and roughly 58 million acres that are roadless. Most of it unutilized or underutilized by those in greatest need of a reprieve.

We have access to a panacea that could help cure a hurting and broken world, but disconnection, technology, busyness, ambition, pride and a whole host of other self-inflicted maladies have blinded us. We (literally) can no longer see the forest for the trees. The natural world that was enjoyed by our parents, grandparents and generations past is all but foreign to most folks today. We no longer know how to lean into the healing properties of nature as a means by which to manage stress. Our preoccupation with living the dream is filching the life right out of us. Those who were born and raised on fresh air have known intuitively what science has only begun to prove as of late. It’s taken 150+ years for Olmstead’s theories to take quantifiable root in the world of research.
No matter how you slice it, there’s healing in nature.

True and natural medical intervention has existed right in front of us since the dawn of the ages, but it took the written word of ‘educated experts’ to make believers out of a dysfunctional society. What hikers, anglers, kayakers, hunters, cyclists and other outdoor laypeople have proclaimed for years is now becoming the gospel. And not a moment too soon. Since the 1990’s, we’ve seen better than a 30% decrease in the per capita nature experiences among Americans and it caught up with us a long time ago.

As it turns out, “Nature Deficit Disorder” is a real thing. The collateral damage of our own choosing is staggering, and it makes victims out of the most vulnerable among us:

  • Roughly 64% of kids today play outside less than once per week.
  • Half of all children between the ages of 8-16 years old watch 3-5 hours of television per day.  
  • Children between the ages of 10-16 spend less than 15 minutes each day on a vigorous outdoor activity.
  • 20% of children have never climbed a tree and 28% have never been on a walk in the woods.
  • Unstructured play accounts for only 4-5 minutes of a child’s day.
  • 1-in-5 children are overweight, a number that has doubled in the last 20 years.

ADHD, obesity, anxiety and depression are increasingly prevalent in children today and their overall emotional well-being is under siege. Their cognitive function is impaired, they lack self-discipline and their mental health is at risk.

As the recreational gatekeepers for their children, grown-ups aren’t faring well enough in their own mental health management to help effectively mitigate the potential pitfalls for these kids that are holding the keys to tomorrow:

  • 1-in-6 adults take an anti-depressant and the numbers are growing.
  • In 2019, 40 million adults reported suffering from anxiety. Psychology Today reports that 75% of those people fail to get proper care.
  • According to the CDC, suicide is the leading cause of death in the US.

Biophilia is the deep, biological need for humans to connect with nature. It’s felt universally by humankind and it’s nearly impossible to explain to those that aren’t yet self-aware enough to recognize the need in themselves. There’s a reason that backwoods camping trips leave the adventurer physically exhausted but mentally, psychologically and spiritually restored, refreshed, recharged and rejuvenated. Our DNA demands it. What you don’t feed, starves.

Those deprived of contact with nature are at greater risk for anxiety, depression, diabetes, migraines and diabetes. Those closest to ‘green spaces’ generally live longer and significantly reduce their chances of a myriad of diseases ranging from high blood pressure to colon cancer. The internet is now replete with articles and research from some of science’s most reliable sources and, because the authors of such work are scientists first (not outdoorsmen), their words are finally starting to sink in. They’re saying what poets, writers, explorers and adventurers have been saying for years, but now they have statistical data to back it up.

Authors like Wadsworth, Emerson, Thoreau, Frost and Dickinson long waxed poetic about the spiritual and emotional basis for retreating to the woods, their words echoing from the annals of literary writ across time and space. Theirs weren’t just good poems and stories designed for the romantic. Their souls, untouched by modern chaos and technology, could hear the almost palpable invitation from the natural world to ‘come and dine.’ They were drawn to the elements that modern society considers an inconvenience.

Some of the data is so compelling that there are complete return-to-nature movements in many countries around the globe:

  • Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture coined the phrase ‘go to the woods, breathe deeply, be at peace’ as part of the country’s promotion of forest bathing.
  • Sweden, which consistently ranks high on the World Happiness Index, was one of the first countries to take learning to the outdoors, often substituting nature-play for structured sports.
  • The U.K. recently began YoGA, Year of Green Action, to get people across all demographics outdoors.
  • The U.S. has initiated the NationalParkRx, a collaboration between parks, public land agencies, health care providers and community partners that encourages patients to spend time in nature to improve their overall health and well-being.
  • South Korea, home to one of the most ambitious forest medicine programs in the world, just spent $14,000,000 as part of their plan to create a ‘green welfare state where forests bring happiness to everyone’ at all stages of life.

If you live in America, you probably don’t live at the base of one of Colorado’s 14’ers, ready to hike on a moment’s notice. Chances are that your new tent won’t get christened in a national park. Not everyone has access to blue ribbon water, where they can chase trout for days. You’re one of the lucky ones if you’ve spent a week white water rafting Snake River, exploring California’s Redwoods or the innumerable hot springs in Oregon. Odds are also good that ‘forest bathing’ isn’t a thing in your neck of the woods.

Just as the Swiss alchemist, Paracelsus, said, ‘The art of healing comes from nature, not the physician.’ And it’s up to each of us to drown ourselves in medicine. Afterall, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and the remedies we need can’t be found at the pharmacy.
Fill your kitchen with succulents. Skip the dryer and hang laundry on the line. Walk barefoot in the grass. Read a book on the porch. Eat your lunch in the park. Surround yourself with nature, even if you have to start small. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

The following words of John Muir have never resonated so loudly as they do amid this time of isolation and worry. If nothing else comes from the first pandemic that most of us have ever seen, let it be that we are each awakened to the fact that nature is magical, we’re all made from the same stardust and life is about experiences, not things.

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of rust and disease.  

– John Muir.

Words by Amber Leach

Amber is a freelance writer with roots in Appalachia and a passion for clean 
water conservation. She founded the Kentucky chapter of The Mayfly Project 
and represents the Bluegrass State as the 2nd District Director for Kentucky 
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. Connect with her on Instagram, @amberleachky