It is now well evidenced that spending time outdoors can be therapeutic for both our physical and mental health. Over the last five years especially, there has been a tsunami of research about therapeutic outdoor experiences covering everything from walking, to mindfulness, to gardening, to working with animals, to surfing, to Forest Bathing to wilderness travel.
But really, most of us don’t need the research - the only evidence we require is our own personal experience. Anyone who spends their leisure time outdoors knows it’s therapeutic. No-brainer.
So we know outdoor experiences heal us - whether we trust our own experience or head to the University library to drown in the formal evidence. But why do they heal us? How does it work? What is it about being outdoors that is therapeutic?
This article is the second in a series that offers some ideas to respond to these questions, based on my own professional practice over the years. Some of them are more flaky than others, so please do comment if you can help!
Human beings evolved in environments we would today label as ‘wild’. What wild actually means is another story - a hot topic of debate beyond the scope of this article. For now let's just go with it meaning outdoor environments which are not obviously dominated by human activity: those that are ‘self-willed’, the origin of the word wild.
We have been around in various formats for a few million years now and it is only in extremely recent times that we have stopped living in wild environments. If the Earth’s history were condensed into one week for example, then the first human beings emerged at about four minutes to midnight on Sunday evening. Modern humans appeared at 11 seconds to midnight and the entire written history of humans fits into the last three-quarters of a second before midnight.
In the least-case scenario, we have lived wild for 99.996% of our time on the planet (that’s actual maths, not an illustrative number!). We are therefore 99.996% wild animals.
Of course, that 0.004% of our time on Earth - since the emergence of agriculture between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago - has brought with it extraordinary change. The context in which we now live is unimaginable, even to our grand parents. Imagine how our pre-agricultural selves would feel.
Well, I’ll tell you: we’d be anxious, depressed, disillusioned, frustrated and suicidal. We’d feel sick from a whole raft of degenerative diseases like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimers, multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia. We’d have bad backs, poor eyesight, chemical allergies, food intolerances, sleep deprivation and most of us would live in poverty. We’d be chronically addicted to a dizzying array of substances and activities in our vain efforts to cope. For the most part, we’d feel pretty rough.
Oh dear, that all sounds rather familiar.
We are wild animals living in cages. At very best, we have learned to live this way with the help of a whole raft of unhealthy coping strategies. At very least, we are pacing our cages, neurotic, frightened, sedated and desperate. Constantly teetering on the cusp of personal, familial, social and ecological war. As Ben Harper sings, “everyone I know is in a fight for their lives”.
When we go out into places where we experience wildness, we connect directly back into the 99.996% of ourselves that is missing from the majority of our modern lives. We remember who we are, by remembering what we are: wild animals.
We come alive to those ancient familiar sensations: the warmth of the sun, cool air on skin, the sound of running water, the smell of wood smoke, birdsong, animal calls, tired muscles, awe, silence. We remember with our bodies.
With this somatic re-awakening we begin to recover our own evolution, our own genesis. We remember what we came from, what ultimately birthed us. Nature, from the etymological root, natus - born.
Spending wild time outdoors heals us because it restores our evolutionary memory. It weaves us back into the primal story of our own creation. It contextualises us according to the bodies and places that have reliably provided us with shelter, food, security, warmth, company, joy and meaning for over 2 million years.
Being in nature heals us because it brings us home.
Article #3 in the series takes a look at some of the physiological benefits of spending time outdoors.
With a nod to ‘Do the evolution’ by Pearl Jam and ‘War, baby!’ by the Tom Robinson Band.
Photo: Thomas Bonometti / Unsplash