The Benefits of Spending Time in Nature

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I grew up in a city triple-decker. In the back of the house there was a plantless, dusty yard that became muddy in the rain. Nothing blossomed there. The only tree I remember from my early childhood was the one that grew in the drab, crumbling playground next to our driveway. As I came into my teen and young adult years I had only a bit more exposure to the out-of-doors, but when I moved to the suburbs as a young mother with small children I wanted my kids to understand and appreciate a part of living that I had limited exposure to. I had to read up on natural things before going out for walks with them in the neighborhood.  I learned what “puddingstone” was and could explain how it was formed from molten lava and stones. The little stream in back of the elementary school was a place to find tadpoles and where I could explain how pollywogs became frogs.

Over these many years since that time, I have learned a little more than rocks and frogs, and have gained immense respect for the spectacle of nature. This has come about because I have purposely prodded myself to look and listen with intent. Now when I walk in the woods I notice the dazzling patterns of light on the ground and how they change when the wind blows through branches. I have become enamored of the velvety look of mosses when they are wet and the astonishing variety of lichens on dead tree limbs. Mostly, though, I cherish the peace I feel when I am in an outdoor space where there is quiet all around me except for the swish of dry leaves in the fall and the jumbled sounds of birds whose names I still don’t know.

I have found that these precious moments in nature expanded the joy I felt when I or someone close to me achieved an important goal, or when I heard the terrific news each time I was to become a grandmother. Nature soothes me and feeds my spirit when there are tough decisions to make and losses to embrace. A number of years ago when my vibrant, 40-year-old friend – an environmental scholar and activist – died suddenly, I found sad solace imagining her spirit in simple, intense displays of nature.

I talked with the president of our local Conservators group and she understands these life issues. She spoke with reverence about the positive, reflective value in being outdoors.  “There is spiritual nourishment to be found in nature,” she says. “Through it you can develop a fuller appreciation of life in all its forms – it is all there in front of you. We tend to think of ourselves as separate from the natural world but we are not; we are part of it.”

Being in the natural world can help us put things in perspective if we take the time to slow down in places that are different from our routine haunts. Many people appreciate the benefits of nature but others of us may need a gentle push to get out of doors.

“The natural world is so much slower than our sometimes frenetic, anxious lives,” our conservator says. “It is perfect for reflection, especially for people as they get older. There is so much to learn. Sit quietly on a bench by the river for an hour and watch the vibrant world around you. This ever-changing scene of birds, insects, mammals, and plants is something to learn from and wonder about.” Simply noticing helps put our own lives in a larger context and offers a different perspective on our particular life-stage.

We don’t have to go very far to find places to walk, sit, and think near where I live. Parks and conservations areas are close by. Locally, we have a helpful trail guide with maps for nature areas here and in surrounding towns. Our conservator group works to acquire new land (not much is available now), preserve what is natural in developed areas, and advocate for open space.  As it is in many conservation areas, some are very large from close to 800 acres and as small as half an acre. Some of them can be challenging with sharp inclines and complicated pathways. Others are flat, easy to walk, have benches for sitting, and, amazingly, hidden from busy streets and bustling neighborhoods by just a few yards of colorful trees and shrubs.

I have lived in my community for more than 45 years, but I have only recently discovered the terrific work conservators do. Trying to make up for my ignorance, I have set a goal to visit and, if possible, walk the areas listed in the guide. I will give you a report sometime in the future when I get further along in discovering places to reflect, relax, and find comfort as I intentionally incorporate nature into my life.



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About Marian

Marian Leah Knapp, Ph.D., wants to start a new conversation about “aging with intent.” Much of what is written about elders is from the point of view of physicians, psychiatrists, gerontologists, and adult children. In her roles as author, columnist, speaker and elder activist, Marian is reporting from the front lines.
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