Updated: May 31, 2021
The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me down the rabbit hole in this recurring segment.
It was autumn when I first started reading Women Who Run With the Wolves by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes. For me, it is the most rejuvenating season to be hiking in the forest. I used to hike more regularly before my dog passed away a year before. Pulling up to the trailhead, it felt strangely indulgent to head out by myself, to not have the responsibility to care for another as my excuse. The guilt quickly and silently retreated as I walked further along the path. The temperature was too warm for a coat, yet cool enough that I could exert myself without breaking a sweat. The bugs were lazy and scant. A periodic breeze initiated a cascading shower of multicoloured leaves, carpeting the forest floor, a rhythmic rustling accompanied each step. Hiking in the fall instilled a sense of hypervigilance. I spied a ripe wild berry, one of the last of the season. It was sweet and tangy, triggering salivation so powerful it sent shivers down my spine. Birds and squirrels were chirping in the trees, gathering supplies for winter. My gaze was expanded, taking it all in, engrossed by the forest, careful not to bury my boot in a pile of bear scat, abundant as they fattened up for winter. The air smelled of earth, as the summer started to decompose before the frost.
Immersion in nature is the fastest and surest way for me to get out of my head. I’m reminded of a calming technique in the kid’s book Find Your Calm by Gabi Garcia that uses the five senses to help alleviate anxiety. Except it came effortlessly once in a natural space. Ironically, once I moved out of my head and into great wide somewhere, it is then that insights materialized. I realized something simple but true. Nature immersion is critical to my well-being. Whenever the stress of daily life reaches a tipping point, a voice inside me screams “I’ve got to get into the forest!” This is why I love living in the North with an abundance of forests, lakes, and green. I might wither in a city. Like Dracula, I need to rest in the soil of my homeland to regain strength.
That’s right, I just compared myself to Dracula. He may be an irredeemable monster, but even he understood the rejuvenating power of dirt.
The fact is, nature is good for us all. It reduces stress hormone levels, improves immune system functioning, reduces blood pressure, improves mental health, supports social connection, and so much more. This sounds almost too good to be true until you consider one thing: we are part of nature. The delusion that humans are somehow separate from nature is a fairly new one on the evolutionary timeline. If the natural world is so beneficial, why have we, collectively as humans, lost our connection with nature?
This is a great question to ponder as you hike through the forest in autumn. There is no simple answer, and the journey has the potential to strengthen your own connection with nature. For now, let’s venture a short way together down this rabbit hole.
Humans are a self-centred species. Many consider ourselves separate from nature in part due to our high intelligence. This in of itself is interesting, since the definition of intelligence is made by us. An animal is deemed intelligent as it compares to humans. Using tools, problem solving, or using language means it’s smart. Things we don’t do aren’t even considered. Baby elephants eat adult feces, helping establish healthy gut bacteria. I’m not saying feed feces to a baby (do not feed babies poo!), I’m just saying that if an elephant observed humans dosing their children with broad-spectrum antibiotics, they may conclude that we are none too clever. Our definition of intelligence is akin to a swan looking at another animal and only deeming it beautiful if it has swan-like features. It’s incredibly self-serving, and has an element of Narcissus to it. The moral of this story is too predictable— proclamations of supremacy are folly.
Over the centuries, science has strived to control nature, isolate its wonders, and improve upon it. In reality, we’ve merely exploited it while simultaneously underestimating the nuanced complexity. It’s just like we talked about last week: mistaking knowledge for wisdom. A great example is processed food. Instead of growing food in dirt humans moved to manufacturing it in factories. Things like hydrogenated oils were a marvel, the product of human genius. On the surface, they were healthier (until sufficient data revealed they weren’t), didn’t go rancid as easily (humans taming nature at its best), affordable, and interesting from a chemistry standpoint (if you’re into that). Yes, I know that foresight is 20/20, but my point is that the accomplishment was held up as evidence of superiority without question. This is detrimental to any relationship: it’s hard to maintain connection when one party thinks they’re better than the other.
And yet, we are driven to learn. We get so excited about finding a piece to the immense puzzle of the cosmos, we forget that we know almost nothing. Humans are like that friend of yours that read one book and now acts like an expert.
For a long time, science pushed the belief that our genes are our fate. That old-fashioned notion persists, despite some fascinating discoveries. In The Epigenetics Revolution Nessa Carey explains how genes can be turned on and off, impacted by our environment and diet. In a devastating turn for the human ego, the human genome project revealed far fewer genes than expected. In fact, a human is less of a supreme animal and more of a symbiotic organism, the majority of genes being non-human. In 10% Human Allan Collen revealed that only 10% of our cells are human, the remaining 90% comprising of microbes. Shocking, I know. Not only are we an ecosystem in of ourselves, but the over-use of antibacterial products and antibiotics calls into question our pride as a species. Elephants may be justified in thinking us unintelligent after all (I repeat, do not feed babies poo!).
Ecological thinking is not just about wetlands and biodiversity preservation. Through interconnectedness, the health of a system is connected to the health of its parts. It’s like the arthritis diagnosis I received a year ago. I felt betrayed by my body. It seemed as though there wasn’t much to be done beyond diet, exercise, and stress reduction. When I was done wallowing, I took a walk in the forest to reflect. There, it hit me. It was I that had betrayed my body, not the other way around. I had indulged in foods that were inflammatory, I had slept less than normal, and I had been sedentary. I had forgotten that I was an animal, evolved to thrive under certain conditions. We ignore our nature to our detriment.
The ecological view of human health is not as enticing as a miracle cure or fad diet, but it is gaining in popularity. Books like The Mind-Gut Connection by Emeran Mayer consider the effects of lifestyle and diet on the entire human organism. In Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker reveals the wide-reaching influence of sleep on mental and physical health. Spoiler alert: sleep, health, and what we consume are interconnected. After years trying to master nature, modern science has come back full circle. It seems the answer to health and happiness could have been deduced all along by studying our natural history. Drink water. Eat whole, unprocessed foods. Sleep. Exercise. Connect with others. Get into nature.
Get into nature.
That statement is intimidating to some. Nature is powerful, and to many, mysterious, and daunting. Yet, reestablishing our relationship to nature is critical to the health of ourselves and the planet. What is a human animal, orphaned from its Mother Nature, to do?
There are many ways to start. Join a local outdoors club, and venture out with experienced people. Volunteer for your local nature advocacy groups like The Nature Conservancy, where you can get out, give back, and connect with others. If you’re an overthinker like me, pick up a book. Discover the amazing life of birds with Jon Young’s What the Robin Knows. Take our youth under your wing and learn how to be a nature mentor with Scott D. Sampson’s How to Raise a Wild Child.
Or start small. Walk instead of drive. Garden. Look up at the sky. Visit a neighbourhood park. Sleep out in a tent. Sit out on the lawn and stargaze. Go for a hike in the woods.
Women Who Run With the Wolves reminds us that we are natural. We are nature. Deny that, and we remain incomplete. In our attempts to master and dominate nature we have forgotten how to inhabit it, to the detriment of ourselves and our planet.
I could go on, but I think you’ve got it from here.
How do you connect with nature? Do you have a favourite nature photo you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you. Comment below, or email us!