It’s Only Natural
Since the days of the 19th-century transcendentalists, when Henry David Thoreau lived “deliberately” in an isolated cabin on Walden Pond and wrote a series of essays about his life in the woods, Americans have held the belief that going outside is good for us. But the idea of communing with the outdoors served our sense of identity as a nation as early as the 18th century. Because we had more “nature” than most of Europe, celebrating wilderness was a way to distinguish ourselves from the mother countries. Moreover, nature provided an escape from the miasma of the few cities we had.
Today, in a time defined by the newly minted phrase “social distancing,” we are finding a new reason to be outside — as a relatively safe way to escape the confines of our homes during the coronavirus pandemic.
I hope that when this forced isolation eases, I can spend some days social distancing in the outdoors without putting my aging body too much at risk. Lord knows I need the distraction. Except for short walks with the dog, I have shut myself inside. I’ve begun to feel what life might be like in my old age — staring out the window, every day the same, with little accomplished except living a bit longer. I write this in an awkward in-between time of early spring, the snow just melted, the lakes opening up. In a few weeks, God and the epidemic willing, my wife Susan and I will be able to fish for trout in the streams and coulees of southeastern Minnesota — and keep one or two fresh fish for dinner.
I think of Thoreau social distancing on the outskirts of Concord, Massachusetts. Or, closer to our home and time, Sigurd Olson finding social distance on the lakes of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters and Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. Both writers knew the salutary effect of distancing from other people for a while.
During my own trips into the wilds, I have measured the wildness of the country I was traveling by my degree of ignorance of daily news and events. A number of years ago, I made a project of paddling around Lake Superior in a series of trips that took Susan and me around the lake, curving a little more left than right, until we had traveled counterclockwise for roughly 1,000 miles. Except for our weather radio and the occasional conversation with someone we met on the water or along shore, we had no communication with the outside world for days on end. I always anticipated what unexpected news we might learn when we finally reached the end of the trip and rejoined society.
On another adventure late one summer, we paddled the lonely shore of the Pukaskwa Peninsula in Ontario, the most rugged and most remote shoreline of Superior. We camped on sand beaches and paddled in the shadow of towering cliffs and headlands. We socialized with otters and caught fiery-colored brook trout. After more than a week on the lake, we paddled into Hattie Cove and encountered a couple preparing to launch a red canoe.
“Did you hear the news?” asked the woman. She wore a sweatshirt that read, “Ontario Provincial Police.” When we said we hadn’t, she told us, “Princess Diana died.”
I was astonished. I hope this year that once I’m able to spend long stretches of time social distancing in nature, I’ll hear something just as surprising when I return to civilization — that people are no longer dying in a pandemic.
Social distancing aside, there are other reasons to get out of doors.
Science supports the perception that spending time outdoors makes people happier and healthier. Several studies suggest that nature helps increase attention, reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and even aid creativity.
University of Michigan researchers found that strolling through a park improved attention and recall. Japanese researchers showed that, compared with city walks, forest walks are more likely to reduce blood pressure, heart rate, and the level of the stress hormone cortisol. (They didn’t factor in running headlong into a foraging bear.)
The author Richard Louv reports that time spent in a natural setting calms children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Move closer to a green space and your mental health improves immediately and sustains that improvement for at least three years, according to a 2014 study in the journal of Environmental Science & Technology. Psychology researchers at the Universities of Kansas and Utah found that adults improved their results on a creative problem-solving task by 50 percent after completing a four-day Outward Bound wilderness trip.
It’s not all in your head. Finnish researchers found that teenagers who live on farms or in the woods have stronger immune systems and fewer allergies than city kids. The “hygiene hypothesis” posits that a childhood spent outdoors with dirt and animals primes the developing immune system.
Research at the University of Exeter in England showed that “the more individuals visited nature for recreation and the more they appreciated the natural world, the more pro-environmental behaviour they reported.”
“Spending time in nature with our children can make everyone healthier and happier, emotionally and spiritually,” says Kathy Shea, professor of biology and curator of the St. Olaf Natural Lands. She recalls her own childhood, visiting her grandparents’ farm near Loveland, Colorado. She gardened with her grandmother. She explored irrigation ditches, pouncing on frogs and bugs. She grew up with a love of nature and mountains — and a desire to protect them. “If you spend time in nature and you appreciate it, then you will want to spend time helping to conserve nature. That conservation can take many forms,” she says.
“Spending time in nature with our children can make everyone healthier and happier, emotionally and spiritually.”
The link between time spent in nature and effort spent on conservation is something Joe Pavelko ’04 sees all the time in his work as assistant director of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, a Minnesota government and citizen body that evaluates conservation spending and projects for the benefit of wildlife and natural lands.
Pavelko himself knows something of growing up with a love of nature. “I spent my whole life being outside,” he says. Pavelko grew up in Richfield, Minnesota — not wilderness, but with parks and woods enough to roam that he could catch minnows and frogs to populate ponds he dug in his own backyard. In high school, he fished and hunted with cousins and uncles at an uncle’s cabin near Akeley. At St. Olaf, Pavelko would hide near Big Pond on the Natural Lands and practice calling ducks.
Who will speak up for nature?
The Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council comprises legislators and citizens, all of whom, despite political differences, share an abiding interest in the natural world. They work with representatives of public agencies and conservation groups that submit proposals to benefit wildlife and the environment. Nearly without exception, the council members found their love of conservation in the outdoors, if not as kids, then sometime early in their adult life. Says Pavelko, “They’re working there because they love the outdoors and the environment and think that what they’re doing is a good thing.”
It is the converse of what Norwegian Priest and Educator Christopher Arndt Bruun wrote: “That which a person did not burn for in his young days, he will not easily work for as a man.” We can’t really expect people to fight to protect nature and the environment if they never knew it growing up.
On Ellesmere Island one June several years ago, wolf researcher L. David Mech and I sat on a hillside counting wolves, musk oxen, and other animals in the island’s tundra habitat. We could see for miles all around. The largest trees were Arctic willow, mere inches tall, grasping the stony ground like gnarled hands. Arctic hares stood out like cotton balls. This census had become an annual ritual: Dave would sit for a long time, tallying wildlife, making a year-to-year index of their abundance.
As is so often true in the natural world, nothing seemed to happen. As though the land were the face of a giant clock, the sun traversed the sky, the shadows pivoted, the wolves shifted position; a musk ox in the distance descended the hill, crossed the river, and ascended the other side of the valley. And everything remained as it was hours ago — or a thousand years ago.
I thought of this as I talked to Nathan Mueller ’07, an assistant professor of ecosystem science at Colorado State University and a double major in biology and environmental studies at St. Olaf. I had asked him why it is important to have a personal connection to nature to understand it.
“Getting outside puts things in perspective. You realize that the world is a lot bigger than whatever problem you’re thinking about at that moment in time,” he told me. “I think it helps connect you with the bigger systems and the context of everything happening on planet Earth.”
Mueller was a St. Olaf student when he took the late Professor Jim Farrell’s Campus Ecology class. “One of our assignments was to pick some place on campus and monitor it for the semester and just get out there and describe what we saw,” recalls Mueller. “I remember thinking as a hard science major that this was kind of touchy-feely. But then I picked a spot out on the Natural Lands, next to a pond. It was spring semester, so we got to watch the season change, and it helped me appreciate the importance of getting out into nature for being able to slow down and reflect on the bigger picture and what’s going on.”
Getting outside puts things in perspective. You realize that the world is a lot bigger than whatever problem you’re thinking about at that moment in time.
Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac, “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” Nathan Mueller’s family didn’t own a farm, but growing up in Pella, Iowa, he was surrounded by farm country, which taught him not only where food comes from but also the ecological price paid to grow it.
“When you grow up in the Midwest, particularly in a more rural area, you become pretty quickly aware of the fact that nature isn’t all untouched and pristine. It’s really fascinating to think about human impacts, the ecology of agricultural landscapes, and the trade-offs with how we manage our land,” he says. “That probably inspired my choice of majors and certainly also the research I do now.”
The threads that bind us to nature and the outdoors are fraying one by one.
Think of the family farm. We once were a nation of farmers. According to the first census, in 1790, nearly 95 percent of the population lived on farms or otherwise in the “country.” Ever since, Americans have been moving to town. By 1920, half of Americans lived in cities and towns. By 2010, more than 80 percent did.
My mother grew up on a farm, milking cows, feeding chickens, trudging two miles up a dirt road to a rural school house each morning and back again in the afternoon for more outdoor chores. I visited the farm every summer and Thanksgiving, which is where I first began to love hunting. My daughter visited the farm once or twice. And my granddaughter will never visit, because the family farm was sold off long ago.
The threads that bind us to nature and the outdoors are fraying one by one.
Consider the impact today. The once common nature-related experiences of caring for animals and crops or hunting the back 40 are disappearing.
Likewise, jobs performed in the woods and fields are changing or disappearing. When we do go outside, we engage in a kind of make-believe. We hunt, fish, or camp in an atavistic simulacrum of our ancestors’ work and survival. We “recreate” on skis or in a kayak — a good way to know nature, certainly, but different from the experience of a farmer or lumberjack. And that might explain the difference in rural and urban attitudes toward the environment.
Think of how technology increasingly mediates our experience of nature. There are the obvious ways, such as watching wildlife through TV nature shows or YouTube videos (where of course you’ll see things in an hour you might not see in a lifetime in the woods).
There are more subtle things as well. It used to be, when I paddled my kayak on Lake Superior, I navigated by map and compass. The continual negotiation between the map and compass on my deck and the changing kaleidoscope of the shoreline has now been replaced by the certainty of a symbol on a lighted screen. With GPS, I could navigate from the campsite in the morning, travel all day, and pull into camp at night without ever having looked at the lake or shoreline at all. Of course, that would be fine with some people, whose noses are stuck in their tablets and smartphones. On a hike or run in a park, earbuds, not nature, provide the soundtrack.
Think of how our children play. Kids once enjoyed a feral existence, roaming fields and vacant lots, exploring the woods. Now kids are organized, scheduled, and supervised. For parents not ready to fully commit to unsupervised play, there is Gizmo, one of several GPS devices they can use to track their children — even as they encourage them to play on their own. But more and more kids seem to be spending their lives indoors. Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder,” typified by the child who told him, “I like to play indoors better, ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”
“Today, children have much less unsupervised access to the countryside,” writes Children’s Book Author and Illustrator Cressida Cowell in The New York Times. “I worry that they may never know the magic of the wilderness, the power of trees and the thrilling excitement of exploring nature without an adult hovering behind them. And so I write books for children who will never know what the freedom of my childhood was like.”
“I worry that children today may never know the magic of the wilderness, the power of trees and the thrilling excitement of exploring nature without an adult hovering behind them.”
How will these people ever know the outdoors? And if they never do, who will speak up for nature?
Fortunately, there are signs that people are still getting out in nature, notwithstanding the coronavirus pandemic, and who will in time become advocates.
According to the 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, the most recent available, the number of anglers grew by nearly six percent during the previous five years. That’s nothing compared to the increase in the number of people who ventured out to watch wildlife — up nearly 20 percent in five years. (Notably, the number of hunters fell.)
Visitation to U.S. national parks generally continues to rise. Likewise, visits to Minnesota state parks have risen 25 percent in the 15 years between 2003 and 2018. To support and encourage these trends, Minnesota this year began awarding grants under its new No Child Left Indoors program to fund activities that get kids fishing, making maple syrup, snowshoeing, and otherwise going outside.
Growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, David Prange ’97 fished, hiked, and camped as a Boy Scout. At St. Olaf, he studied ecology in Australia and earned a degree in biology and environmental studies. He then earned a law degree and “fell” into patent law, where he could use his scientific background to learn about commercial products. But he came back to nature on his own time. When he got married, he became a hunter because his wife’s six brothers all hunted. He trained a hunting dog and joined the board of a local chapter of the conservation group Pheasants Forever.
It’s an irony of our current predicament that one way of social distancing is to stay closer to nature. It’s also hopeful because the enormity and sheer perseverance of nature suggests that this too shall pass.
With the understanding that hunting serves up valuable lessons about wildlife and the origin of food, while also providing a means to control burgeoning numbers of deer, turkeys, and geese, Pheasants Forever and groups like it sponsor workshops to reach potential hunters who were never exposed to outdoor pursuits growing up. What’s more, hunters like Prange have the opportunity to donate venison to food banks and food shelves with the help of state agencies such as the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, assisting people in need while helping reduce local deer populations.
Public agencies, too, are trying to recruit newcomers to outdoor activities and nurture natural resources knowledge. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) offers educational programs such as Becoming an Outdoors Woman and Becoming an Outdoors Family, recruits city kids to fishing through Fishing in the Neighborhood, and promotes hands-on angling and aquatic education through MinnAqua. (The Minnesota DNR has made adjustments to all of its activities and programs during the coronavirus pandemic.)
Without a sense of nature, gained by some sort of first-hand experience, we are bound to fall back on sterile textbook learning, stereotypes, and old-wives’ tales. Again, I think of the pristine landscape of the Arctic. With human footsteps so scarce, I might imagine a nature that is always peaceful, wildlife and resources that are abundant, a nature that is “in balance,” in equilibrium from year to year.
But what experience and observation teach are another matter. This is a land of extremes, generous of space, stingy of sustenance. Life here, like life throughout the Arctic, runs in cycles and fluctuations — boom and bust, plenitude and scarcity. Arctic hares dot the tundra like white flowers one year and vanish the next. Musk oxen die in mass. Wolves come and go. These variations define a land. And nature.
It’s an irony of our current predicament that one way of social distancing is to stay closer to nature. Ironic because the very evolution of life-forms that created the diversity of the natural world has also created a virus that threatens large numbers of our fellow citizens. Yet it’s also hopeful because the enormity and sheer perseverance of nature suggests that this too shall pass.
A frequent contributor to St. Olaf Magazine, Greg Breining has written about science and nature for more than 30 years. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Audubon, National Geographic Traveler, Islands, The Nature Conservancy, and many other publications. His books include Super Volcano and Paddle North: Canoeing the Boundary Waters-Quetico Wilderness. Greg and his wife, Susan, split their time between their home in St. Paul, their cabin in northern Minnesota, and “traveling where the birds fly, the fish bite, and the rivers run free.”