Intimations of Immortality: How Spending Time In Nature Seems To Matter

by Jonathan Scott

 When archeologists dug through the ancient debris of the lost city of Pompeii, they found evidence that potted plants had been used by some of the residents to decorate and enliven the interior of their homes. Nearly 2,000 years after Pompeii had been destroyed by a volcano, the famous psychologist, Eric Fromme, pondering the reasons why humans seem to be compelled to surround themselves with plants, coined the word ‘Biophilia’ (bio=life, philia=to love), to refer to our common and persistent attraction to all that is vital and alive.

Twelve years later, in 1986, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and eminent Harvard professor, Edward O. Wilson, wrote an autobiography using Fromme’s term as the title. Trying to explain Biophilia, he wrote, “To an extent still undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hopes rise on its currents.”

Since then, an idea has been growing in the health sciences that, despite the largely artificial world into which we are now born and live, there’s something deep within our consciousness and even our physiology that craves nature. 

One of the largest and most high-profile movements in this field began with a question over a restaurant table. Ten-year old Matthew Louv had been listening to his father reminisce about how he used to catch crawdads in a creek. “Dad,” Matthew asked, “how come it was more fun when you were a kid?”

The question landed with a punch to Matthew’s father, journalist and author Richard Louv. His first reaction was to blame himself for over-romanticizing his own childhood, but then realized his son was serious. Matthew was feeling he was missing something in his young life.

That incident led Louv to think about the all the possible benefits of spending time in nature. Eventually he compiled the contemporary research, as well as his own thoughts, into a book, Last Child in the Woods. On publication in 2005, the book started a national conversation with teachers, health-care professionals, parents and even city planners. Its subtitle, Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, introduced a new term into the modern
American lexicon.

Louv says his term nature-deficit disorder is meant, “as a way to describe the psychological, physical and cognitive costs of human alienation from nature.” He offers a disclaimer. “It is not meant to be a medical diagnosis”, but then adds in parenthesis, “although perhaps it should be”

Louv followed up this landmark book with The Nature Principle in 2011. In it he expanded the concept, which had originally meant a condition suffered by children, to include adults. 

Not only does it make intuitive sense that what’s harmful to children may be harmful to adults, but there are some indications that time in nature may be more important to seniors than kids.

Nature-deficit disorder might not have yet found its way into a diagnostic manual, but it has been taken seriously. Hard-nosed research and evidence-based conclusions are challenging to obtain, given the sometimes intangible benefits reported, the endless varieties of nature, and the differences in each of our prior experiences. Yet successful research has been done in this area. Some of it has been very recent. And some of the results have been compelling.

We can take, almost at random, one such study published in Current Epidemiology Reports in June 2015. The article, titled “A review of the health benefits of greenness,” includes research specifically exploring mental health and concludes that adults who had more access to natural spaces had “reduced risk of stress, psychological distress, prevalence of depression, depressive symptoms, and clinical anxiety.” The data were even clearer for adults than they were for children.

If you want to read more about the current scientific research into the health benefits of nature, check out Dr. Maryanne Edmundson’s article, “Effects of Nature on the Brain,” on page 12 of this issue of OutreachNC.

Even with the results of different studies from different cultures starting to pile up, it’s still mostly a guessing game why exposure to nature seems to be so beneficial. The most common reasons ascribed to this effect say it’s a result of more exercise, sunshine, better air, and even the socialization that often is part of a walk in the park.

One intriguing theory that may be difficult to prove claims the benefit of nature is the result of our brains and senses having evolved in a natural world over hundreds of thousands of years. This theory postulates that even our eyesight is designed to look at nature. This may be why studies show patients in hospitals recover faster if they have a window overlooking a pleasant scene. 

It’s as if our very subconscious minds are somehow attuned to nature and we feel more “at home” there in a vague, fundamental way. 

But, considering that many of us grew up in urban environments, is this enough of an explanation? It might be more productive to leave science for a moment and turn to literature.

One morning, as spring was returning to England’s Lake District in the late nineteenth century, the poet William Wordsworth sat beside a window sharing breakfast with his sister. The change of seasons was making the middle-aged poet nostalgic. Just as Richard Louv would do with his own son two hundred years later, Wordsworth began reminiscing about the days he played in nature as a child—days where felt close to what he described as “an immortal presence.”

The memories compelled him to write down a few lines, which would become one of his most well-known poems. It describes Wordworth’s yearning to re-experience the elusive joy of being in nature as a child. Its full title is “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.”

And O, ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves,

Forebode not any severing of our loves!

Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might;

I only have relinquish’d one delight

To live beneath your more habitual sway;

I love the brooks which down their channels fret

Even more than when I tripp’d lightly as they;

The innocent brightness of a new-born day

Is lovely yet;

What’s most crucial to come from the discussions of biophila and nature-deficit disorder may not be found in the psychological or medical literature. When all is said and done, it might be the actual experiences of each of us, individually, spending a little time in a natural environment—being aware of how these experiences affect us, touch us, or even better, allow us to feel a little more like who we really are.

Feeling A Little Nature-Deficient?

Fortunately, we live in a part of the world where we have relatively easy access to beautiful, natural areas. All except one are totally free, and all make easy day trip destinations. This is by no means a complete list, so please explore more.

Cape Fear Botanical Garden is a natural beauty situated on an impressive 80 acres nestled between the Cape Fear River and Cross Creek just two miles from downtown Fayetteville. 536 N. Eastern Blvd.# Fayetteville, NC 28301 (Admission Fees)

Hinson Lake is located within the city limits of Rockingham with almost 3 miles of walking trails looping around the lake underneath a shady canopy of trees with numerous wooden bridges.152 Hinson Lake Rd. Rockingham, NC  28379

Hoke Community Forest is the first community forest in the Southeastern United States. There are several trails ranging from less than half a mile to almost four miles, some wind along creeks that offer a dynamic view of the longleaf pine ecosystem. 1758 Vass Rd, Raeford, NC 28376

Lumber River State Park is a 11,064-acre green space with diverse plant and animal life, plus a scenic river for boating. 819 Princess Ann Rd, Orrum, NC 28369

Lumber River State Park Chalk Banks has easy access to boating and a trail that meanders along the river’s edge, by a wetlands habitat, and a mixed pine and hardwoods forest.
26040 Raeford Road, Wagram, NC 28396

Raven Rock State Park invites you to visit the ageless landmark from which it gets its name. Along the trails, hikers and walkers will experience steep terrain, mountain laurel and rhododendron thickets and tumbling creeks. 3009 Raven Rock Road, Lillington, NC 27546

Sandhills Horticultural Gardens features collections of plants both familiar and unusual, all presented in 12 specially designed landscapes. On the campus of Sandhills Community College, 3395 Airport Road, Pinehurst, NC 28374 

San-Lee Park is over 17 acres, and provides boat rentals, campgrounds, fishing, hiking and a nature center. 760 Pumping Station Rd, Sanford, NC 27330

Uwharrie National Forest offers camping, hiking, climbing, biking and other outdoor activities on 51,000 acres of public forest lands.