Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman
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.