Three people took a walk in the woods. One of them loved being outside, but spent most of her time texting and checking Facebook. At the end of her walk, she hardly felt like she had been in the woods at all. She had been in the woods, but her mind was somewhere else.
“Her mind was somewhere else.” That’s a strange thing to say, isn’t it? As if her mind could be somewhere else, in a different place than her body. Would that mean that she was out of her mind? It’s hard to say.
The second one wasn’t using his phone, but he spend a lot of time thinking about how he was going to talk with his friend about something that happened at school. He saw a frog at the edge of a pond, but then began to think about his friend again. He kept imagining different things his friend might say, turning it over and over in his mind. He hardly noticed the birdsong in the trees above him.
Sometimes a worry can pull us away from ourselves, so that we don’t notice what is going on around us. We can be lost in uncomfortable thoughts, and not even notice what is right in front of us. On a walk in the woods we would like our minds and bodies to be right where we really are, able to be connected with everything around us and “tuned in” to it.
That’s how it was for the third person who walked in the woods. Here is how she did it: She started her walk by going to a quiet place and looking around, at the same time paying attention to each breath she took. Each breath brought in the air of that place, and its oxygen became part of her. Every time she breathed out, the carbon dioxide from her breath joined the air around her, ready for the trees and other plants to use in order to grow. “It’s like I’m becoming part of this place,” she said to herself. She noticed her thought and let it go. She didn’t want to get tangled up in her thoughts – she wanted to stay here, connected to this place.
As she started to walk around, she noticed a beetle running along the sandy trail ahead of her. It was brilliant metallic-green from its antennae to the back of its abdomen. It took off and flew a few feet away, and the girl noticed that the green was on the wing covers – called the “elytra.” When the beetle landed, she noticed that six little white spots were scattered on the back half of those elytra. She watched the beetle for several minutes, noticing how amazingly fast it could run on those little legs, and how it flew just out of reach whenever she got too near.
Further down the trail, she saw a butterfly being tossed around in the autumn breeze. And yet, maybe the butterfly was going where it wanted to go. She noticed that it sailed behind some trees, then came back around near her. The breeze didn’t do that. Maybe those fluttering wings knew what they were doing, even though the butterfly looked almost exactly like a yellow leaf being blown around by the breeze. A big dragonfly came on the scene, heading straight for the butterfly. Bouncing around on thin butterfly wings, it maneuvered around the tree branches and disappeared, leaving the dragonfly behind.
The walk continued in this way, as the girl took in the sights, sounds, and smells of the place. When she found some animal, she stopped to follow what it was doing, and found that with a little patience – with the ability to just be there without hurrying – she noticed lots of things that she might have missed. She didn’t even have to know all the facts behind what she saw. With a little checking, she could discover that the green beetle was a six-spotted tiger beetle, a fierce predator of smaller insects. But she could also just appreciate it as a beautiful, fast creature with whom she shared the path on that wonderful walk in the woods.
She and her mind and body had all been together that day, open and ready to see, hear, feel and smell everything that the place could offer. It was a walk that she remembered for a long time.
(This article also appears in the October, 2019 issue of “The Treefrog Times,” a young readers publication available free at www.jsdragons.com)
It was almost two weeks into autumn, and summer’s heat held on. On October 6th, when the high temperature in Arlington reached 97ºF, a cold front was scheduled to roll through late in the day. It would be an interesting time to be at the Southwest Nature Preserve. Would the change take the form of a whisper of cool air, or a line of storms? A good friend, Shelsea Sanchez, came with me to witness what might be the end of summer heat and drought. We got there a little after 5:00pm and stayed for a couple of hours.
The initial walk around the north pond felt like a late afternoon in summer. We passed a little Texas Spiny Lizard positioned on a tree trunk, stalking insects in the hot sunshine as if it was back in August. Actually, two months ago this very young lizard might not yet have hatched from the egg, but now he or she was feeding and growing as it if was endless summer.
the path up the gentle climb on the back side of the preserve, to pay a visit
to a Post Oak that will be proclaimed as a Texas “historic tree” later this
month. It is estimated to be over two hundred years old, with huge twin trunks
and massive limbs that stretch out over the surrounding vegetation. It is being
called the “Caddo Oak,” recognizing that it would have been an adult tree when
the people who lived on this land were Caddo hunters and farmers.
A good way to
spend time in a place like this is to clear our minds of the mental traffic
that pulls us to past worries or future plans, so that we can simply be open to
the present experience. A good strategy for this is to notice our breathing,
how the body expands and relaxes with each breath. From this focus on present
experience, we can connect more deeply with our surroundings – in this case a
massive old tree with deeply furrowed bark and a giant canopy of leaves. There
is a lot to notice and appreciate when practicing mindfulness in nature, simply
opening oneself to the present experience without judging it or being tugged
away from the moment by the internal “chatter” that often captures our lives.
We stood for a
while, taking in the tree, the sky, and all the surroundings. Later we talked
about what we had noticed: Shelsea’s perception was that those big limbs would
just go on reaching out to the woods and sky, ever wider. It impressed her as a
“wise” tree, something that had lived a long time and experienced a great deal.
The branching limbs of our oak trees often suggest to me a parallel with blood
vessels, extending into the surrounding air, supporting life in the process.
Following the trail as it turned and skirted a yucca meadow with deep sand, beyond a thicket of sumac and past a big juniper, we talked about how trees are linked together below the soil. A fine network of fungal threads, called mycorrhizae, connects with the roots and helps provide water and minerals. In exchange, the fungus gets nutrients from plant roots. It is a mutually beneficial relationship, and it is thought that mycorrhizae make possible a sort of communication between trees. For example, a tree that is attacked by insects may respond by releasing volatile organic compounds, and the surrounding trees connected by the fungal network respond in a similar way.
We spent some time in stillness and quiet, looking to the west toward some oaks in the background, and a scrubby open area with prickly pear cactus and a thicket of greenbriar. The front was coming, and darker blue-gray clouds were massing, and the distant thunder was a welcome and soothing sound. A couple of doves flew overhead, as we continued to absorb what we were experiencing. Afterward, Shelsea commented about how a nearby greenbriar was overtaking and pressing a shrub closer to the ground. Greenbriar is a strong, tough vine that I’ve described as like botanical barbed-wire, and this particular one was attempting to climb a shrub that could not support the vine’s weight. However, the main thing that we had both noticed in the last few minutes was the occasional low rumble from the advancing clouds.
You hear distant thunder when it is quiet – when there are no airplanes, no car engines, no roar of freeway traffic, no loud humming air conditioners. At an urban preserve, some of those things are inescapable, but if those noises are muffled – or if you are in a wild natural place away from mechanized sounds – you can hear breezes, birds, insects, and distant thunder. Through most of our history as humans, those sounds have usually been audible to us. We could hear coyotes howling on a nearby ridge, or a chorus of frogs a quarter-mile away. In a quiet glade we could hear water moving in a creek, and bees buzzing in nearby flowers. The sigh of wind in tree leaves was familiar. It makes you wonder if the loss of all those “quiet sounds” leaves an important gap in our lives, and if constant mechanized sounds and the ever-present TV and video sounds might be a source of low-level stress for us. The answer is yes, it is a source of stress, based on studies showing poorer concentration, increased anxiety and depression, and disrupted sleep because of noise pollution. Even low-level noise tends to increase the body’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and chronically elevated levels of cortisol interfere with the brain’s ability to focus and plan, as well as putting us at risk of digestive and cardiac problems, weight gain, headache, and other problems. And so I place a very high value on those experiences of quiet, when a bird’s song or a breeze stirring leaves in a tree can be heard.
Looking up the
trail toward the west at 6:30pm, we saw a hawk rise above the tree line,
soaring in the turbulent air below the oncoming clouds. A second hawk emerged
near the first one. As they flew, the sun shone through a break in the clouds
and highlighted the wings of these birds. Another couple of birds joined the
group, which flew higher and stayed visible above the tree line. The aerial
dance continued and rose higher, with other hawks coming into view. Shelsea and
I needed a real birder with us; I did not see rusty reddish tail feathers that
would have identified a bird as a Red-tailed Hawk, and so I was at a loss. I
could tell that the underparts were light-colored, but my eyes and brain could
not follow the movement well enough to remember their color patterns as they
rode the fast-moving air currents.
As the number
of hawks grew and they spiraled higher, Shelsea pulled out her phone and began
recording video. I began doing the same thing, framing the swirling “kettle” of
hawks. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reminds us that hawks sometimes gather in
“kettles,” using rising air currents to gain altitude, especially when
migrating. In his book, The Birds of Texas, John Tveten notes that in
early fall, Broad-winged Hawks begin their migration south into tropical
America, rising on air currents and forming large swirling flocks. I do not
know if these were Broad-winged Hawks, but it seems quite plausible.
We stood for a
moment, taking all this in. Life at the preserve was in sudden motion, as the
cold front came through with distant thunder and the promise of rain, and this
seemed to have spurred the soaring, wheeling kettle of birds to rise into the
And then, raindrops began to fall. After the heat and drought, it was delightful, and we stood there enjoying the feel of a few cool drops of water on our skin. In our state of fascination with every detail of experience, I noticed that every drop created a little dimpled medallion of mud as it struck the fine red sand of the trail. If the rain continued, those little mud-craters would join and the preserve would get the water it needed. In the meantime, we walked through these sprinkles and enjoyed the feel of the rain.
We spent two
hours there, but we had little awareness of the passage of time. It didn’t seem
to go quickly or last a long time, because we tried to let go of the past and
future so that we could fully experience the present. Although we didn’t pay
attention to the passage of time, we had a great time!
Florence Williams’ book, The Nature Fix (Norton, 2017) summarizes some of what we know about how time in nature affects our well-being. It’s a “popular” book, but that’s not to say it is short on substance. Among the endorsements inside the cover is one from famed biologist Edward O. Wilson, whose work includes the biophilia hypothesis which says that evolution has “wired” us to be drawn to nature and all its plants and animals.
Williams is a journalist, and what she writes in this book is woven into a series of interviews, walks, and back country expeditions with experts in the field. It’s the story of her active, “hands-on” research on the subject, and so it is an engaging read. It also lays out some of the evidence and a few of the theories about how nature might decrease our stress hormones, lower our blood pressure, and have other benefits to our well-being. My notes here are part of my effort to understand this better; it seems intuitive to me that being in nature has benefits to our bodies and souls, but I want to look at the science behind it. So here are a few notes from the first section of her book.
In Japan, forest therapy (sometimes referred to as “Forest Bathing”) or “Shinrin yoku” is quite popular. It is based on Shinto and Buddhist practice and seeks to let nature into your body through all five senses. It is also linked to E.O. Wilson’s idea of biophilia, that we have an innate emotional affiliation with other living organisms. In forest therapy, people spend time in forests and become immersed in the sights, sounds, smells, and other experiences there.
If this sounds a little sketchy, consider the results found by Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a physical anthropologist in Tokyo. He found that leisurely forest walks decreased cortisol, compared to urban walks. (Cortisol is a stress hormone, and with chronic stress cortisol creates problems, from dysregulated blood sugar to heart problems, depression and anxiety, memory and concentration problems, and so on.) Forest walkers had decreased sympathetic nerve activity, lower blood pressure and heart rate. (The constant stimulation and demands of life trigger activity from the sympathetic nervous system, resulting in “fight or flight” reactions. On the other hand, relaxation and feeling at ease are associated with a system that works in opposition to it, the parasympathetic nervous system.) When the walkers completed questionnaires, the nature group report better mood and less anxiety.
More evidence comes from psychologist Roger Ulrich, who connected subjects to EEG and showed them slides, either of nature or of urban scenes. Those who watched nature slides had greater alpha rhythm, which is associated with relaxation and release of pleasurable endorphins. He also exposed subjects to a stressful activity, and then had them watch 10 minutes of either (a) nature scenes, or (b) urban scenes. Within five minutes, the sympathetic activity of the nature scene group returned to baseline, while the other group only partly recovered.
Qing Li, an immunologist at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, looked at the impact of mood states and stress on the immune system. Li was interested in NK cells, a kind of white blood cell that sends self-destruct messages to tumor cells or virus-infected cells. Stress can decrease the number of these beneficial NK cells. Li took a group into the forest for three days that included hiking in the woods for a couple of hours daily. They had a 40% increase in NK cells. Li wondered if this was due to aromatic volatile substances coming from trees, and so Li had thirteen people spend three nights in a hotel where a humidifier could vaporize oil from hinoki cypress trees (or, for a control group, just water vapor). The cypress oil resulted in a 20% increase in NK cells, compared to controls.