We tend to think of nature as separate. We imagine spending time “out there” hiking in some remote wilderness, drinking from mountain streams and observing creatures that have never faced highway traffic. There, in a place far from our busy lives, we might find peace, tranquility and some kind of deep connection to what is real.
If. We. Just. Found. Time. To. Get. There.
That’s part of the problem. Because we’re already there. We are nature, right down to the life processes of every cell. And what’s around us even in the smallest city apartment? Nature.
Nature is the food we eat, air we breathe, water we drink. It’s seedlings pushing up between cracks in the cement (and the cement itself, depending how you define it), birds lighting on utility poles, pollen making us sneeze, storm clouds swelling with rain. It’s a living planet in a universe of natural laws that continue to be revealed to the amazement of scientists like Harvard’s Dr. Randall and the awe of cosmologists like Dr. Swimme in The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos: Humanity and the New Story.
When we define nature as separate from us it’s easier to push it aside as something apart from our very life force. This disconnect isn’t healthy for us or the planet.
In part it simply has to do with SEEING. I learned this when I helped conduct a psychology study in college. We went to urban office buildings and asked people two questions. First, we asked each person to describe his or her mood. Second, we asked them to describe the current appearance of the sky. These people were in their offices or hallways when we talked to them and the windows in most buildings were shuttered with horizontal blinds ubiquitous during that decade, so the only way they could have described the sky is if they had paid attention on their way to work or during a break. Here’s the interesting part. The people who identified themselves as pessimistic, angry, depressed or in other negative terms were also the ones unable to describe the sky’s appearance. You guessed it. The happiest and most optimistic people either correctly described the sky or came very close.
That study was never published, but research these days now indicates that pausing to experience nature in our daily lives is powerfully positive. Just a few minutes of regular exposure has been shown to improve our emotional and physical health. It leads us to be more generous, to enhance relationships and value community. The effect of nature, even looking out a window at nearby trees, seems to lead us, as one researcher noted, to be “our best selves.”
So wherever we are, let’s pay attention. Let’s remind ourselves to look at the sky every day, not just for a moment but long enough to savor it (without declaring the weather good or bad). Let’s put our bodies into the experience by taking regular strolls and touching the bark of a tree, a flower’s soft petal, the texture of a rock. Let’s watch the habits of birds, squirrels, spiders and other creatures making their lives amongst ours. Let’s pick one tree near our homes and notice it as the seasons pass, as we would a quiet friend sharing the same neighborhood. It takes only a shift of awareness, but it can make a world of difference.
Nature is right here, moment to moment, in each breath we take. It connects us to what’s real and helps us be the people our planet needs right now.