It seems that ‘empathy’ has become a topic of interest lately.
Psychologists. Researchers. Journalists. Teachers. They’re writing about empathy. Plumbing its meaning and touting its values. They promote empathy and use principles of empathy in their programs. Empathy has even found its way into the business world, promising improved employee productivity and increased sales.
Some information about empathy:
1) Basically, empathy is thought of as an innate ability to take another’s perspective; more commonly known as the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and to recognize and respond to what the person is feeling.
2) Advocates for empathy say that without empathy self-interest would prevail.
3) Research has shown that the ability to show empathy is associated with pro-social behavior, behaviors such as obeying rules, conforming to society, and expressing concern for the welfare of others.
What about animals? Do they possess the capacity for empathy? Those who distinguish humans from animals would like us to believe that, no, animals do not exhibit empathy, which is unique to humans.
Evidence does exist, however, to the contrary, and it is possible that empathy is genetically encoded in animals as well as in humans.
Many stories have been written – and I’m convinced that each of you could come up with stories of your own – about animals engaged in what appears to be empathic behavior. An elephant guarding a lost, helpless hiker. A humpback whale sweeping a seal being hunted by a killer whale onto its back.
I once watched one of my cats try to rescue a very perturbed kitten who had gotten stranded on my roof. His strategy was to show her how to jump from the roof to an adjacent tree and climb down. He did it three or four times before giving up, as the kitten would have none of it.
The cat’s sense of ‘responsibility’ went just so far. With humans, however, it’s unlikely that we would give up that easily. We would try other methods. Maybe that’s one thing that does separate us from the animals. Our vast intellectual ability and our resourcefulness would compel us to test out various solutions. Maybe that’s when empathy actually crosses over to another human trait: determination. Stubbornness?
If you do accept the premise that empathy is a shared experience between humans and all of nature, it seems to require acceptance of the implications of an empathic relationship with nature.
The recognition of our interdependence
The necessity of a mental shift from domination to joint membership
The acknowledgement of the citizenship of all creatures, including humans, in the natural world
The sense of responsibility to protect the land and all its parts
Furthermore, an empathic relationship with the land involves ethical duty that imposes restraints on us, forces us to pull in the reins on our personal desires. We would have to come to consider nature worthy of our ‘sacrifice.’ In essence it would become incumbent upon us to value behaviors geared to arriving at a state of harmony between us and all of nature, behaviors that would bind us to the care of the land.
Empathy towards nature may start with looking, really looking. A conscious, mindful looking that Rachel Corbett, in her book The Invention of Empathy (2016), refers to as the wondrous voyage from the surface of a thing to its heart wherein perception leads to emotional connection…..
A kayaker achieves instinctive understanding with a loon. A trainer bonds with his horses. We peer into the eyes of a pond turtle and tumble headlong into Terry Tempest Williams’ threshold of shared existence.
Once such seeing is achieved, the challenge is to hold on to the connection; watching more, looking further, paying more attention, going deeper into the gift of sight, exploiting the depth perception and peripheral vision that might give us the ability to take in our entire surroundings, to transcend self-interest and to build bonds.
The setting is the dining hall at the Yosemite Majestic Hotel – when it was still called The Ahwahnee. This is a stunning, cavernous space, famous for its Native American décor, its elegance, and its restrained atmosphere. Coupled with good table manners and well-behaved children is an air of formal relaxation that buzzes with conversation.
One gray winter’s day, at lunchtime, a bobcat ambled along a path just outside the dining hall.
All at once, as if a tweet of the bobcat’s presence had shot around the room, dozens of diners dashed from their seats – some dragging kids behind – and raced to the windows in order to get a view of the bobcat passing by.
Oohing and aahing, they crowded around and pointed excitedly out the windows, over the heads of the folks dining at the window-side tables, unmindful of their rude behavior. Those with children pushed in closer to get a better view.
When the bobcat disappeared behind a tree and was lost from sight, everyone returned to their places and the dining hall returned to its refined state.
This is what happened too……
A Seder is in progress. Twenty people are seated at eight tables arranged in a large square. They are reading and discussing, answering the question, why is this night different from all other nights. They sample ritual foods that evoke the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of freedom. To honor the rebirth that comes with the springtime celebration of Passover, the Seder leader reads lines from an anonymous poem:
The rains are over and gone,
the winter is past;
everything is created with beauty; go
in peace rain.
The reader pauses, and at that very instant, outside, in a sky that had threatened rain all evening, the sun breaks through and the room lights up. Two rainbows appear along the horizon, two arcs of stranded color, one poised above the other, fainter, colors reversed – red to violet – the two held together in perfect harmony.
All decorum breaks down. Squeals of delight. Oohs and aahs. Cell phones and cameras appear. Some in the group dash outside, unperturbed by the sprinkling of rain that has finally begun to fall. Some stand by the windows gazing silently. Finally, when the rainbows have faded, and the sky has darkened, and all are reassembled around the seder table, a hush washes over the room and hovers for a moment, creating a mood of collective awe.
What is that all about?
A bobcat walks up a path. A double rainbow appears in the sky. And a breakdown in decorum and a departure from valued traditions follows. Why?
Many things could account for this: novelty, rarity, predisposition to nature, a highpoint of a vacation.
But there are factors related to these two situations that might allow for a different explanation; not only the abandonment of good behavior, but the spontaneity and authenticity exhibited by the players in both of these stories. These were natural events, unrelated and disparate. Yet the response in both groups, in addition to being unplanned and uncensored, were identical.
Is it possible that these experiences had tapped into something deep-seated in the observers, something innate in their relationship to nature? Something primal?
Author Bill Bryson, in his book, In a Sunburned Country, describes just such a feeling at his initial view of Ayers Rock, a.k.a. Uluru, a sandstone outcropping measuring 5.8 miles around and rising to an altitude of 1,142 feet in an otherwise flat desert area in the Australian Outback.
The thing about Ayers Rock is that by the time you finally get there you are already a little sick of it…..Even when you are a thousand miles from it, you can’t go a day in Australia without seeing it four or five or six times – on postcards, on travel agents’ posters, on the cover of souvenir picture books – and as you get nearer the rock the frequency of exposure increases….and then you see it, and you are instantly transfixed…..Somewhere in the deep sediment of your being some long-dormant fragment of primordial memory, some little severed tail of DNA, has twitched or stirred. It is a motion much too faint to be understood or interpreted, but somehow you feel certain that this large, brooding hypnotic presence has an importance to you at the species level – perhaps even at a sort of tadpole level – and that in some way your visit here is more than happenstance. I’m not saying that this is so. I’m just saying this is how you feel…..
One comes across many authors, both contemporary and from the past, who, like Bryson, have articulated similar feelings about their connection to nature. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and philosopher stated in his memoirs, I felt close to nature, the earth, the sun, the moon, the weather, all living creatures…. Trees he saw as mysterious, direct embodiments of the incomprehensible meaning of life.
Oddly, once you open up to the idea of a human kinship with nature it becomes apparent that many people feel a sense of oneness with nature, each in a personal, unique way.
Speaking with individuals who claim to have experienced their connection with nature is like taking a trip into a world apart, yet it feels somehow familiar.
A kayaker who rescued a loon that had become entangled in a fishing line, said he believed the loon felt calm during the whole procedure because, when we looked into each other’s eyes, we communicated and connected. There was an instinctive understanding between us.
A lifelong backpacker remarked that he has had many momentary experiences of feeling completely whole and connected. I could be sitting on a rock looking into the San Joaquin River gorge and I suddenly become conscious of being one with everything.
A member of the Fresno 4-Wheel-Drive Club likes to explore in the wilderness. I am taken aback, she said. My breath just stops at the beauty and cleanliness of Nature. It’s so there. I reach out and hug the mountain. It’s what Nature makes you want to do.
A horse trainer said that when he is in nature it’s as though there’s an additional dimension, as if I enter a parallel universe where there’s balance and beauty of design and purpose, where I exist in a state of heightened awareness and consciousness.
When he trains a horse, before beginning, he establishes a connection with the animal. I might touch them in places where horses touch each other, he said. We might even breathe on each other. And then I wait. I wait and allow. He waits until the horse signals that he is ready.His eyes will open up, get bigger, but also deeper,as if I could dive into them. That’s when I know we’re really seeing each other, really connecting.
Driving along in the back country we pass a turtle crossing the road. The driver, ordinarily a calm, controlled person, screeches to a halt, dashes from the car, which sits in the middle of the road, and picks up the turtle. We dash out of the car after him and the three of us gather around. We are naturalists and have an intelligent conversation about the turtle. It looks like a Pacific Pond turtle. What a find. It’s native to California. We hold it. Turn it over and investigate its underbelly. Its flatness tells us that she’s a female. We flip her back to upright. Her head and legs are retracted into her shell. She is looking at us from inside. Her deep black eyes seem to pulsate. It’s as if she were demanding. Pay attention! And something happens. We obey. We finally look at her. Really look at her. And we connect and, in that moment we become concerned for her. We soothe her. Don’t be afraid. We’re not going to hurt you. Where are you going? We’re certain she’s listening, understands what we’re saying. Her head ventures out a bit. We’re excited. Look! She’s come out. She likes us. Her legs fly out, as if she wants to run away, and her head slides back into her shell. She’s had enough of us. We place her in the grass on one side of the road, but then we wonder, which way was she going? How do we know where a turtle wants to go? We choose one side of the road and set her down. Be safe, one of us says, in a final moment of connection, and we stand and watch her inch her way along the grass.
In her book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams wrote, To hold an animal, to look into its eyes and have it look back at you; to try to calm its terrified heart; …..is to open the door to empathy and cross a new threshold of shared existence.
Next week we’ll take a look at empathy. In the meantime, see if you have the opportunity to hold an animal and look into its eyes, or to view a forest devastated by fire, or to watch a hawk circle in the sky in search of something to eat. Is Tempest Williams correct? Can we tap into empathic connection with the animal? The forest? The hawk?
In her recent comment, Sandy Alonzo raised the question about the relevance of age in the sensation-seeker personality. She wondered whether the mudder’s youth would explain his willingness to engage in activities that have ecologically destructive outcomes, without considering the negative effects on the environment.
It probably will come as no surprise to learn that, in this personality type, sensation-seeking activities tend to escalate around the onset of puberty, peak in the mid-teens, and, with the leveling off of hormones, wane in intensity by the late twenties. Also not surprisingly, the need in sensation-seekers for external stimulation declines significantly over the lifespan.
I couldn’t find any specific information about whether the young mudder might become more ecologically responsible as he ages; another question raised by Alonzo.
Reason tells us that sensation-seekers, like most people, will develop a perspective about themselves and about their place in society as they experience life. In the process of maturing, they would most likely become more knowledgeable about the world around them and more reflective about how to take part in the world they had come to know.
This seems to presume that awareness and experience would contribute to an increase in environmentally responsible behavior, and that it would happen voluntarily and spontaneously as a consequence of maturation.
Ecologist and forester, Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), might have argued against that supposition. He might have proposed that, without valuing land and all its soils, waters, plants, and animals for their own sake and not for the fun and excitement they offer; and that, without a knowledge base in ecology and an appreciation for the connection between human health and safety and the health of the planet, those sensation-seekers who pursue their sport in nature are vulnerable to misusing the land and inadvertently creating collateral ecological damage.
In his essay, The Land Ethic, published in 1949 as part of his book A Sand County Almanac, Leopold wrote, We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.” Leopold proposed that ethics imposes a limitation on freedom of action in the service of a higher cause.
If the sensation-seeker cannot develop a land-oriented ethic based on ecologically sound principles, one that obligates him to correct use and care of the environment, behaviors required for protecting the environment would come into conflict with his need to achieve excitement and stimulation.
The young mudder will be particularly susceptible to choosing pleasure over prudence if he lacks a value system that holds protecting the land to a higher standard than fun and excitement. His genetic makeup and his age would almost dictate that he drive his vehicle into a forest meadow and bear down in pursuit of his coveted mud, leaving destruction behind. Out of sight, out of mind.
The mature sensation-seeker, therefore, is in the best position to steer the young towards ecologically responsible behavior. He can become a mentor and role model for youth through a land-based code of ethics which reflects ecological principles and which can work side by side with an ethical code for the sport.
Last week’s post left us with the question of how Sierra meadows protect our health and safety. The answer is simpler than you would imagine:
By controlling the flow of water, season to season.
Intake and outflow, overflow and underflow, water following natural laws of movement from the mountains, directed into streams and rivers that make their way to the San Joaquin Valley, where it is eventually shunted to the canals and reservoirs that supply two-thirds of California homes with water.
As such, Sierra meadows stand out as hydrologic marvels, engineered by nature for efficiency, able to moderate the effects of the seasonal extremes of water flow in the Sierra.
On the one hand they check the oncoming deluge of water during springtime flooding from mountain snowmelt and rainstorms, and, conversely, during the driest, hottest times of the Sierra summers, they move water up from their shallow water table to replenish diminished streams. In addition to recharging streams, the meadows draw water up to feed shallow rooted plants and to restore moisture to the soil during drying out periods.
In a healthy meadow water is continually circulating, entering and leaving. It spreads over the surface and seeps into the ground. Absorbed as if into a sponge, it percolates down through deep layers of moist textured soil and plant material to a shallow groundwater. There, the water is stored amidst a maze of decomposed granite pools, waiting like a dedicated servant to be called upon when needed.
In a striking example of efficiency, in the process of percolation, meadows filter out excess sediment and undesirable nutrients, offering clean clear water to meadow wildlife and to wildlife downstream, as well as to us, the human recipients.
Moist textured soil. Decayed plant life. Underground decomposed granite. These are the key elements that allow the meadow to carry out its many tasks. These structures work together in a delicate balance, sensitive to even slight changes in the environment. The meadow’s hydrologic abilities become threatened if the natural flow of water into the meadow is interrupted or redirected – let’s say, for example, by the presence of tire tracks.
Cutting tire tracks into a meadow could be compared to pouring sand in the truck’s gas tank. The system becomes clogged and shuts down. The ability of the meadow to capture the incoming water and spread it out is decreased. The soil dries out. Inundation during runoff cannot occur. The water passes over the surface unimpeded and the threat of flooding downstream increases.
Underground, meanwhile, the moist textured soil and decayed plants become dry and compacted. Percolation is blocked. Filtering of sediment and undesirable nutrients cannot occur. The natural storage of the water is reduced, and the groundwater table lowers. In the arid summer, streams are unable to draw fresh clean water up, so silty tainted water is transported on to forest streams and rivers.
A year after we discovered the tire tracks in the meadow featured in the wildflower-seeker story, several of us returned and found the imprint of the tracks still present; two pale lines, bare of vegetation, running parallel into the meadow. The deep gouges were gone, but the tracks has filled with compacted soil.
Fortunately, in this case the driver of the truck had backed off before venturing too far into the meadow, so the tracks appear to have had little impact on the water flow. But they stand out as a reminder of the intrusion, an ugly scar in an otherwise healthy meadow of rich dark soil with springs bubbling up from underground, and acres and acres, as far as the eye can see, of green.
And what about the next truck driver? What will he do when he sits at the edge of the meadow, drawn in by the moist, dark soil – in other words, the mud – contemplating his ride, faced with choices?
What if, instead of depressing the gas pedal he keeps his foot on the brake and takes a moment to think? What if, instead of revving the motor he decides to turn it off and step out of his truck? And as he stands at the edge of the meadow, what if his fractured connection to the land gives way, and the truck fades from his mind. And he begins to notice things; movement amongst the grasses or the sounds of buzzing or chirring, or he might catch the sight of a butterfly settling on a flower nearby.
And in his heightened state of awareness what if he enters one of his alternative sensation-seeker worlds, where breaking the law and tearing up Sierra meadows with a pickup truck would be unfathomable. Then, maybe he would put aside his mud desires and his natural inclination for physical challenge and would say to himself, not here, not now.
As the president of an urban 4-wheel drive club said:
My church, the mountains, you step out of your vehicle and it no longer exists. There’s only you and the expanse and the quiet. It draws you in, takes you into its arms and tells you, now you’re where you belong. You can’t put it into words. You have to experience it.
First, a disclaimer: This story is written in the masculine. Not because only males are mudders, but because every ploy I tried for gender neutrality came out sounding either contrived or silly. I am told that writers are inventing all kinds of new words to express genderless ideas, but I am not one of them. Therefore, everything in this story can be viewed as happening to a male or a female.
This is what happened….
A glorious spring morning in the Sierra. A fieldtrip to view meadow wildflowers. We walk single file along a path leading through the forest to the edge of the meadow. We’re an eager group, armed with cameras and binoculars. We carry books on Sierra wildflowers.
When we reach the meadow, we stand for a few moments taking in the grand expanse of grasses and wildflowers. Then off to the side, something out of place: tire tracks in the meadow. We are taken aback.
Why anyone would do such a thing?
It wouldn’t be hard to imagine what went through the mind of the driver. He is sitting in his truck at the edge of the open field. Not a boulder, not a tree, not an impediment in sight. Like a child unable to resist a puddle in the road, ignoring parental warnings, stepping in, going right to the center, jumping, splashing, giddy with the fun of it all, a twinge of guilt on his face, like that child, the driver pictures himself speeding through the meadow, cutting a trail from one end to the other. A warning goes off in his head. Should I or shouldn’t I? He decides to enter.
But something unexpected happens as he drives into the meadow. He discovers that the ground is spongey. His tires begin sinking into the soft soil. His truck gouges out tracks that etch deeper and deeper, until twenty-five feet ahead, his front tires butt up against a barrier of earth and begin to spin. He stops and scans the landscape. He envisions the meadow torn up, cut through with tire tracks. He backs up and drives away.
Now, let’s create a ‘what-if’ situation.
What if the soil were wetter and muddier, and a channel of water zigzagged through the middle of the meadow? And what if the driver of the truck perceives the barrier as a challenge and the water channel his goal. And what if he decides to back up his truck and approach the barrier at a greater speed. And he lets his tires continue to spin, revs the motor, and the mud starts flying around, hitting the sides of his truck, all the while gouging out deeper and deeper tracks, tapping into more water and bringing up more mud. And when his truck has sloshed over the mud barrier, he steers towards the channel, tearing through it, sending up more mud. And what if he keeps doing this until the mud all but coats the very windows of his vehicle.
That is mudding….
It’s a difficult image: Two tons of aluminum and steel, cutting a path through grasses and wildflowers, tearing up stream channels and ponds, and sending all manner of wildlife scurrying for cover.
Yet, it is not difficult to imagine the dilemma facing the potential mudder.
Let’s say he comes across a meadow and drives to its edge. He sits, two tons of power jouncing under him. The meadow is open, there for the taking. Most likely he will follow the law and back off, because, as is well known, driving into meadows on public lands is illegal and can bring large fines.
But, at that moment, a glint of sun reflects off a pond or a stream channel in the distance. He looks around and notices that he is on his own. There’s no one to stop him.
On the surface it may seem that conditions have conspired to make driving onto the meadow inevitable. He is insulated inside the truck and disconnected from the landscape. He wouldn’t have to confront what happens in his wake as he bears down on the terrain. His focus would be on what’s ahead as he plows on towards the mud.
Also, his personality may predispose him to seeking new and unconventional experiences. He might be willing to take risks. Variety. Novelty. Intense feelings. Physical stimulation. These may be an essential part of who his is, perhaps were part of him since birth.
It may come as no surprise to learn that psychologists have even named this personality trait. He is a sensation seeker.
The irony is, the driver of the truck is in the best position to grasp the reasons for not entering a Sierra forest meadow. There are similarities between his truck and the meadow that he could easily comprehend.
For instance, the meadow, like his truck, functions as a system of individual parts working together. The truck driver knows that if one of the parts of his truck is disturbed or malfunctions, the system breaks down. So too with the meadows of the Sierra.
But there he is, a natural born sensation seeker faced with ideal conditions for experiencing something exciting and intense. Under these circumstances, then, the question we should ask is not; why would he decide to drive into the meadow? The question we should ask is; why in the world wouldn’t he drive into the meadow?
Because, even though the mudder’s personality might fall within the spectrum of sensation seeker, there may be many things that might override his decision to enter the meadow.
Obeying the law when there’s nobody around to notice, for example, might fill him with inspiration and an intense feeling of pride way beyond any mudding experience.
Or, if he lives adjacent to the national forest, protecting the meadows of the Sierra might be the most natural thing for him. He might even be acquainted with fellow mud enthusiasts who support the care and preservation of the meadows.
It’s these drivers of trucks, the ones who respect the intricate inner workings of their vehicles, who care for them and value their service, these are the ones who can fathom the secrets of the Sierra meadows and appreciate the awesome role they play in protecting our health and safety.
How do they do that?
In next week’s post, The Secret Life of Meadows, we’ll look at some of the inner workings of Sierra meadows and answer that question.
A balm for aches and itches. A cosmetic. A place to slosh about and wrestle, to walk barefoot and let the ooze push its way between the toes.
And, for those whose world includes mud as recreation – mudding – mud is a quest. Fun.
It’s a world where weekend outings involve climbing into trucks with family and friends and chasing after mud, plowing through bogs without getting stuck or flipping over, and returning home with a truck plastered with mud.
A weekend recreation with mud might also take place on a man-made obstacle course set up by private owners who have adapted their land specifically for mudding.
It’s a “colorful lifestyle for people who like to get into deep mud predicaments,” as one promoter expressed it. “The more heavy the equipment needed to extract the stuck truck, the more fun is had by all.” As described by one mudder, “It’s like riding a bull.”
Mudding is fun also for the fans of the half-century, ever-growing sport they call mud-bogging.
In this other world the Internet connects the mud-bogging buff to websites where the sport is promoted as an excitement-filled spectator event at mud parks with tantalizing names such as, Trucks Gone Wild and Redneck Mud Park.
“500 acres of fun and party….”
where families can enjoy ‘good clean fun.’
where mud truckers compete at mud fests and mud jams. Drive their mud-trucks on mud race tracks and fields, in mud pits and mud stadiums.
where you can even enjoy watching two trucks compete at tug-o-war through mud.
In the mud-bogging world, on those days when one is not out there actually mucking in mud, the Internet offers virtual mudding opportunities with online video games like Supermud Mania, or vicarious mudding experiences through the myriad YouTube mudding videos.
Also on the Internet, there are ways to keep up with what’s going on in the mud-bogging world by checking in at Extreme Mudding Tour, a website devoted to publicizing events around the country.
There are tips on how to waterproof a truck and how to lighten its weight. There is information about tires and suspension lift.
Those intending to sign up for mud-bogging competitions can find instructions on how to modify a truck for the various levels of mud events, and how to adapt a truck – as time and skill and resources would allow – according to the rules set down by the national mud racing organizations.
And, yes, mudding is fun also for those mud lovers who seek out the meadows of our national forests, especially in the spring, when the rains come, or after a thaw.
But that’s another story, and next week we’ll begin a series on forest meadow mudding and its implications for the environment.
In his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky wrote, For the vast majority of beasts on this planet, stress is about a short-term crisis…. Animals, he explained, are endowed with physiologic mechanisms, commonly referred to as the fight or flight response, that allow them to deal with short-term physical emergencies.
Example: A deer feasting on brush senses movement nearby. A warning signal goes off in his brain. Chemicals flow and prompt vigilance. His body tenses. Head lifts, ears up, eyes wide. A leaf rustles. More stress. He bounds off into the forest. Moments later you might come across that very deer, once again munching on brush, for the moment relieved of his stress.
Human beings are equipped with similar physiologic mechanisms for responding to acute stressful circumstances. Whether you’re experiencing a ‘good’ threat – like anticipating starting a new job or performing in a concert – or a ‘bad’ threat – a police car with flashing lights following you – your body prepares for the confrontation. Your increased heart rate and elevated blood pressure, the sugars released into your bloodstream, the tensing of your muscles, increased alertness; these all position your body to act. When the perceived threat passes – the concert is over or the policeman has issued a ticket – the chemical levels return to normal, baseline heart rate and blood pressure will be restored and other physiologic processes will normalize.
Sometimes, however, we interfere with our bodies’ best intentions by preventing the system from returning to its normal state.
As human beings we have been blessed with the ability to anticipate the future and retrieve the past, to reflect and ponder and plan. These human powers, however, can at times work against us. We think too much – I shouldn’t have played that piece so fast. We dredge up our stressors from the past – I really got off to a bad start in my last job. Why should I expect to do better in this job? We anticipate and dread the future – how am I going to pay for that ticket?
When we sit around and worry about stressful things, explained Sapolsky, we often activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute [short-term] physical emergencies, but we turn it on for months on end, worrying about mortgages, relationships, and promotions.
These worries hover around us and seep inside. We might not even be conscious of our fear and anxiety or our acute vigilance. So we keep sending signals to our watchful brain that something is wrong, and the feedback loop continues.
As a result, the stability our system craves has been undermined, and we remain in a state of physical and psychic imbalance. Hormones keep cranking out. Our hearts continue to beat too fast. Our stomachs roil with anxiety and our digestion is off. And to add to our woes, we have difficulty sleeping.
This situation mirrors the real sorrows and griefs described by Emerson, and the exhaustion, shaken nerves, and over-civilization perceived by Muir. We are Jung’s neurotics in need of the ancient Tao healing gardens, and of Thoreau’s tonic to the human spirit to help restore to our traumatized brains the balance and harmony promised by the Earth goddess, Gaia.
For those among us who need more than philosophy and psychology, who do not believe mythology provides answers to our everyday problems, for those who want hard data to prove the existence of a nature-health connection, there is a large body of information available. Over the past thirty years scientists and health practitioners have been studying the subject under a variety of conditions, and the results of their research point to a positive association between nature exposure and a range of physiologic, psychologic and cognitive functions.
A few examples:
Post-operative surgical patients whose rooms had windows that looked out on scenes of nature were less anxious and required less pain relief medication than those who had windows that looked out onto a brick wall.
A group of people suffering from depression and anxiety experienced lowered depression and felt an enhanced sense of well-being after a group walk in nature. These people were also better able to cope with stressful life events.
A group of office workers exposed to mild stress over a period of sixteen weeks, whose offices were equipped with plasma TV ‘windows’ with high-quality views of nature experienced greater reduction of heart rate, greater sense of well-being, clearer thinking and an enhanced sense of connection to the natural world as compared to a group in windowless offices exposed to the same stress. A follow-up experiment showed that an actual window that looked out on nature scenes resulted in greater heart-rate recovery than with either a plasma TV nature view or no view at all.
In two studies which looked at 1) the link between nature and happiness independent from other things that make us feel emotionally connected to life, like family, country, culture, music, and friends, and 2) the connection between nature relatedness and happiness, the researchers found that nature relatedness has a distinct happiness benefit separate from the other things, and that emotional connection to the natural world – nature relatedness – predicted happiness in life.
Participants subjected to tasks requiring intense concentration, to the point of saturation, were found to have achieved restored concentration after a three-mile walk through an arboretum, as opposed to participants who walked through urban streets. They did not experience restored concentration.
It’s rather heartening to think that a walk in the park or a view of nature out a window or, astonishingly, even on a T.V. screen, can alleviate so much suffering. But, what’s even more promising is that we are able to reach a peaceful place, even as we live under the pressures of modern life.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the nineteenth century poet and philosopher, got it right when he wrote, To the body and mind which have been cramped with noxious work or company, nature is medicinal and restores their tone. I can attest to these words from my own experience.
For several years I lived in a canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains just outside of Los Angeles. My house was situated in an isolated spot surrounded by rugged cliffs and hills of evergreen chaparral.
Some evenings, particularly after a stressful day at work, I would go out to the patio and sit, and simply enjoy the quiet and solitude. I can remember at those times feeling a calming energy that seemed to flow into me from the mountains. Sensing something switch inside of me, I would lean back in my chair, close my eyes, and allow my body to recalibrate.
This ends my series on the healing effects of nature. I’d love to hear about your experiences with the soothing, restorative presence of nature. In my next series of posts – Mudding, Mudders and Meadows – I will devote the space to exploring the recreational activity referred to as “mudding.”
One hundred fifty years before the Rodney King riots, poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says, — he is my creature, and auger [in spite of] all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me.
When I first read those lines, I felt as if Emerson wrote them for me, personally, painting a picture of my thirty-six hour journey from anxiety to peace of mind. Then it struck me that his words painted a picture for anyone who has experienced the restorative and calming effects of nature.
Here are a couple of examples…..
A member of a 4-wheel drive club who breathes easier when he’s in the mountains. I shut down when I’m in town, he said. I don’t want to breathe the exhaust fumes. I don’t want to hear the racket we live in. But when you’re up there, you say, Yeah! I get out of my truck, and there’s a lake with no dams, no boats, no noise, just pristine and clear. It’s like, I stand there and I don’t want to curse anymore.
A retired high school social studies teacher who would go on a solo backpacking trip before school started each fall. To prepare myself for my year of teaching, he said. It was a need I had for this experience in the wilderness, this kind of beauty, the majesty. I felt a kind of cleansing or refreshing – something like that. I loved teaching, but this was different. I knew I had to have it – for my soul.
And Richard Louv, who, in his book, The Nature Principle, wrote about a time in New Mexico when he was sitting alone, looking out over a field toward the Pecos River nearby. My eyes settled on a single cottonwood at the river, he wrote, its branches and upper leaves waving in a slow rhythm above all the others. An hour, perhaps more, went by. Tension crawled up and out of me. It seemed to twist in the air above the green field. Then it was gone. And then something better took its place….. I received from nature just what I needed: an elusive it for which I have no name.
So, how do these individual tales of nature’s balm connect to Emerson? What is the relevance for these people of Emerson’s reference to man’s real sorrows and impertinent griefs?
And what about the words of conservationist John Muir who, in 1901 wrote, Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home…?
Or, Henry David Thoreau, the nineteenth century poet and philosopher, what was he saying when he touted nature as a particular tonic to the human spirit in an age devoted to commerce, to politics, to the spread of dehumanizing industrialization and urbanization, to unfulfilling social interactions and to the perpetuation of human institutions at best in need of change and at worst immoral?
What does my experience have to do with these writers? Why do we in the twenty-first century have to pay attention to them?
These voices from the past were addressing what Oxford University professor, Sally Shuttleworth, has named ‘diseases of modern life.’ But her focus was the nineteenth century. From medical and scientific journals and the literature of that time, Shuttleworth has gathered examples of stress and overload and other disorders related to the problems of modernity associated with the Industrial Age.
– addiction to drugs and alcohol
– fatigue from overwork and overpressure
– stress of economic turbulence created by new ways of doing business
– anxiety over job loss due to mechanization
– stress related to overcrowding, noise, pollution and to new technologies
– fear of memory lapses
– phobias due to perceptions of lack of control over one’s destiny
– suicide as a choice for a way out.
While there appears to be a parallel in our time with the stressors of the nineteenth century, you could argue that the innovations that drive society today are more complicated and challenging than those of the Industrial Age, and therefore the writings of long ago have little relevance.
The typewriter cannot be compared with the computer for technological complexity, nor the telegraph with the Internet for speed and proliferation of information exchange. The telephone is not simply a precursor of the iPhone. And as for the economic turbulence of the nineteenth century industrial economy, there is no comparison to the confusion and instability created by doing business in the global economy of today.
That all may be so. But we will leave it to the social science experts to ferret out the differences and similarities.
What is of interest here is not the comparison of our two worlds, but how our present-day stress connects us to Emerson, Muir and Thoreau and their nature healing; as well as to the ancient Taoists who planted gardens for people’s health and well-being; and the ancient Greeks who understood nature and created the primordial mythical goddess, Gaia, to protect Earth’s balance and harmony; to Carl Jung, the twentieth century psychiatrist and teacher who warned that without nature human beings become neurotic; and to the many writers, philosophers, and scientists, the health practitioners and enlightened public down through the ages who have advocated for time spent in nature. We are linked to all of them through nature and its restorative gifts.
In next week’s post I will explore some of the physiologic aspects of stress and, for those of us who prefer science and facts to philosophy, poetry and mythology, I will describe some of the research findings related to the health benefits of contact with nature.
Stress is interesting. It can be a good news or a bad news matter. Something you can or cannot get a handle on. Stress is what makes life worth living, or can make it a living hell.
Every sight, sound, taste, and smell, every brush of sensation over your skin, every conscious and unconscious thought or piece of news from the outside can be a source of stress.
It can last a moment, an hour, a day, or in the extreme, it can linger for years. For me, as I described in my post of July 23 my stress lasted 36 hours following the onset of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992.
This week I will reflect on what I believe happened that brought me from stress to peace during that time.
Restlessness, unspent energy, and unresolved stress, these were my constant companions during those hours. My stress was feeding itself. I found it difficult to fall asleep. My concentration faltered. I wandered, or drove, outwardly without purpose.
Although my behavior appeared mindless, however, I didn’t move in a fog. I was aware of what I was doing. Yet, I didn’t stop myself. Nor did I question where I was going. I allowed whatever was directing me to have its way.
Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist who is well-known for his work in dream analysis, and who has described some of the hidden workings of the human psyche, might have said I was being led by my unconscious, an all-knowing part of the psyche that plays an important role in helping the physical body maintain balance.
“When the conscious life is too stressful,” Jung wrote, “the unconscious will take over. Let it…..”
And I did let it. It was as if my unconscious knew that my physical body was being threatened by my stress and that I was unable to make healthy decisions or to function in a healthful way.
Whether Jung’s theory of unconscious interception can be applied in my situation cannot really be known. But, my consciousness had certainly been disrupted, and there seemed to be something else making decisions for me. I think my unconscious self knew, without the interference of reason or logic, what I needed to do.
But, why the wandering? Who knows? Perhaps for my healing, I needed to be out there, to see what was going on, to connect with the world outside my home and my neighborhood. Perhaps my fear would have kept me from venturing out, had my unconscious not intervened.
In that sense, you might say that my conscious and unconscious beings collaborated, to use Jung’s expression, to bring me to a healthful state.
Here’s how I see the collaboration working:
During the first twenty-four hours, although I wasn’t making any conscious decisions, I was aware of what I was doing. I knew that I was following some inner voice that was telling me to wander, to drive around.
On the second morning when I awoke, however, I made a conscious decision – to drive to the Crenshaw. But, even though there was no obvious reason to drive to the Crenshaw, I didn’t question my decision. I simply followed whatever it was that told me I needed to be there. Collaboration.
Once I arrived and observed the rebuilding and the human connection in the midst of so much destruction, I understood. A change came over me, and I felt hopeful.
But it didn’t end there. I had to continue to relinquish conscious control to my unconscious. When I went to Home Depot, my psyche knew that I needed some direct contact with the natural world. I needed to feel the mud ooze through my fingers, to tap into that primal self that connects me to all of nature. More collaboration.
It’s personal. I was led to planting tomatoes as the vehicle for my healing, even though I had never been a gardener. I had always disliked working in the garden. Yet, there I was, digging in the mud, creating a garden, never once questioning why. The ultimate collaboration. Ignore the preferences of my conscious life and follow the signals of my unconscious.
Day 1: The riots broke out in Los Angeles at 5:30 p.m., April 29, 1992. It was a Wednesday. I was driving home from work at the time, unaware that earlier in the day the Superior Court of Ventura County had announced their acquittal of four L.A.P.D. officers in the beating of Rodney King, a 26-year-old African American man.
If, at the time of the beating in the early hours of March 3, 1991, George Holliday had not videotaped almost a minute of the savage beating, and if he had not turned that tape over to a local T.V. station, and if that videotape had not gone viral, it’s possible that the acquittal would not have been so carefully watched and L.A. would have been spared the rioting that caused over 50 deaths – including many homicides – 2,000 injuries, businesses and cars burned, and widespread looting.
The beating was captured on videotape, however, and everyone saw it, and after a year of legal maneuvering, everyone was waiting for the trial’s outcome. The acquittal was received with shock and outrage, and a chain reaction of anger and lawlessness erupted.
By the time I arrived home that night, Reginald Denny had been dragged from his truck and thrashed on the street; the first car burnings and rock-throwing at passing cars had occurred; buildings were beginning to burn.
I parked myself in front of the T.V. and, for over three hours sat transfixed by scenes of looting and arson, people raging in the streets, and Mayor Tom Bradley calling for calm. When a state of emergency was declared, a dusk to dawn curfew imposed, and after Governor Pete Wilson called in the National Guard, I turned off the T.V. and planned on going to sleep.
But I was a changed person, driven by an urgency to leave my house – curfew be damned. I roamed the dark streets, searching for I knew not what. Flame-lit skies surrounded my quiet neighborhood, a reminder that all was not well. When I finally returned home and climbed into bed, I fell into a deep, heavy, dreamless sleep.
Day 2: In the morning I awoke confused and disoriented. Then, with a jolt to my gut, I recalled the events of the previous night. The disquiet returned. I wanted to go to work, but the office was closed, so I left the house and drove around aimlessly, unable to concentrate. I cannot recall where I went or what I saw that day.
Day 3: The next morning I awoke knowing what what I needed to do. My neighborhood was adjacent to an area called the Crenshaw District, a predominantly Black community and a center of Black business, art, music and culture. Many a day I had enjoyed shopping and lunching there. So I got in my car and drove to the Crenshaw.
What I found was both beautiful and dreadful, hopeful and discouraging, calm. The streets were crowded with young and old sweeping debris, boarding up windows, dousing still smoldering fires. People hugged and chatted. Traffic lights were out, and cars barely moved along the streets. At one point, I sat in my car waiting for the intersection ahead to clear, and bawled.
When I left the Crenshaw I drove directly to Home Depot. This, like most of my moves over the past days had not been planned. I entered and walked directly to the garden shop. Now, I am not, nor ever was a gardener. But when I walked out of Home Depot with a flat of tomato plants, I never questioned why.
At home, I filled a bucket with water and doused a narrow strip of dirt at the side of my house. I began tearing at the soil with my bare hands. Poured more and more water on the spot. I scooped out handfuls and dug some more.
And then, as if coming awake, I felt the ooze squeeze through my fingers and saw my hands caked with the rich dark mud. Everything slowed and softened. My heart. My muscles. My hands. The roiling in my stomach disappeared. I stopped digging and sat cross-legged on the pavement. Quiet. At peace.
In my post next week, I’m going to reflect on my journey from stress to peace in 36 hours.