No, friends, this is not about the New York City of Frank Sinatra's dreams; it's the great outdoors.
Before I launch into my personal theory on Nature Deficit Disorder, I'd like to present some facts.
The David Suzuki Foundation threw together a beautifully disturbing infograph, which I will happily regurgitate: "For the first time in history, more people live in cities than in rural environments. This urban migration has important physical, social, and cognitive implications. We urgently need to wake up to the link between human health and the natural environment."
Let's get the nasty facts out of the way first; the foundation states that "City life is characterized by constant consumption, i.e. electronics and appliances that are plugged in 24/7. Nearly 4 billion people live in cities, which is 4x the amount in 1800. New York City leads the pack with regard to carbon footprint - 10.5 tons per capita."
Other sobering facts include the fact that an average North American spends 95% of their day inside, that 8-18 year olds spend 67% of their day on some form of media (TV, phone, computer) and that 77% of North Americans are Vitamin D deficient. But so what - we're evolving, right? We stemmed from Neanderthals long ago, went through the Industrial Revolution, have modern medicine and amenities to make life more comfortable.
But if everything is so hunky-dory, and playing Words with Friends while eating potato chips is the definition of summiting the hierarchy of needs, then why are 1/3 of Americans overweight, and 1/3 obese - leaving a staggering 30% in a healthy weight range? Heart disease, depression, diabetes, cancer, ADHD. All on the rise.
I'm not a statistics freak and I suck at numbers. But I'd venture to guess that there's a pretty strong correlation between the gross way we're living disconnected lives, our fat asses, our short attention spans, and our inability to climb mountains. Tim Gill, of The Ecologist, states, "Humans are disappearing from the outdoors at a rate that would make them top any conservationist's list of endangered species." You now get the idea that we're not outside a whole lot in the year 2012. And yet, Central Park, Wash Park, Delores Park - they're all packed on the weekends. Why? What's wrong with throwing down a blanket on the concrete?
The Suzuki Foundation has staggering facts about a "greener" life; within 2 minutes of being outdoors, stress levels drop (they measured blood pressure levels, brain activity, and muscle tension), within 2 hours, memory performance and attention span increases, and if you spend a whole 2 uninterrupted days in nature, levels of cancer fighting white blood cells increase by 50%.
So what is it? Can we bottle it and sell it at Whole Foods?
My theory is that it has to do with the fact that deep in the backcountry, you can't mobile upload it but you can empty your own recycling bin, you can't "like this" but you can love being in it, you can't tweet about it but you can hear the birds sing, you can't check on your stock but you can stock up, you can't get it at Costco - but boy, can you fill your tank.
I'll never forget, several years ago, when a good friend of mine living in New York City protested nature. "Dirt is gross and I detest the smell of pine." Like nature wasn't cool. Like nature wasn't trendy because it didn't provide a status symbol. Like nature, somehow, with our "evolution" and emphasis on collecting shiny toys and bullshit, somehow stopped being in vogue. Cities are the new black, nature is so 1800. I mean - can't I just sit in a cafe and read about it in Travel & Leisure? The standard for success, after all, isn't working on a farm in the middle of nowhere, it's making it to the top in a sprawling metropolis through "healthy competition" - long hours, rapid response emails.
Nature is the removal of the mask. To thrive, you have to strip down to the basics. No makeup bag, no laptop, no Facebook status updates, no "smart" phones. You, the elements, some protein, a sleeping bag, a blanket of stars, the galaxy, the dirt, animals, wind, flora and fauna. The great conservationist John Muir once said, "I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was actually going in."
In order to be present outdoors, one must disconnect - from the comforts of home, from the amenities we grow used to, from chargers and electronics and the ability to Google how long something is going to take us. Priorities shift. You start using all of your senses, not just the ones required to mindlessly watch The Bachelor or to stare at a computer screen on the daily. You start connecting after you disconnect; paying attention to how fast the clouds are moving, what they're forming, that certain evergreens carry a butterscotch scent, that the sun really does keep track of time. You don't need a watch, you don't need a phone, you need 2 legs, willing lungs, an excited heart and a childlike mind. Stop and pick it up. Take your shoes off and dangle your legs in water. Ocean, mountain, desert, plains - smell it, dance in it, lose yourself in it. Connect the pieces that can't be connected in any other way. You have more in common with a deer or a bear physiologically than you do with your computer; you can touch a soft purple flower but you can't touch Google.
Nature teaches so many valuable lessons - what seeds in your mind are worth sowing? What thoughts that don't serve you can you leave behind with the deadwood? She is powerful because she is where we came from and where we are going - we're merely borrowing energy from something greater, and that "greater" is absolutely the most kinesthetic, simple, whole thing in the world - Mother Earth, created from bits and pieces of chemicals that the cosmos decided to throw together in stunning fashion.
If we take time away from our "busy," self-important schedules to feel our part in this life - our existence as a mere string in a violin of the strings section of some great orchestra - that humility can shift perspective and actually make us into better people. I'm confident of this and I don't need any certain facts to prove it. People who seek refuge in nature aren't likely to thrive on the chaos of the world when they've witnessed the connections they have to it in such a raw way.
After the tragedy of the Aurora shooting in Colorado, folks were eager to point fingers in search of answers. Gun laws. Movie theatre security. Hand wringing, name calling - we need answers.
But I believe that tragedies such as the aforementioned have a strong correlation to the disconnect we are carrying around in our hearts - we don't know our neighbors, we might move or switch jobs every couple of years, we dedicate our Monday nights to Season Premiers instead of long bike rides. As human beings, it's time to question our "evolution." Our looking down at our phones during dinner instead of looking into the eyes of the person we're dining with. Our obsession with newer, faster, shinier, instead of practical, eco-friendly, communal.
You don't need Adderall to satiate your natural human thirst for adventure. You don't need anti-anxiety medication or a drink to calm you down. You need to get your ass outside, and fast. To connect, to feed your inner wild child, to set yourself free. Calm your nerves, shake it out, get down to earth, and back to nature.