Spending Time in Nature Just Might Save the World

Nature is not a refuge—it’s a forge that transforms us

Spending time outdoors can serve as a forge that brings out the best in us.

Nature transforms us

What’s come down are medical studies showing time in nature does a multitude of good things for our health. Add to that the brainwave studies showing the benefits to our mental health. Top it off with the sociological studies showing time in nature leads to increased creativity.

Improved health and creativity are just what the doctor ordered.

In sum, we now have the science to justify it: nature is a forge in which much-needed world-saving values are brought to life.

Ajo Scenic Loop in southern Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Still stuck in the old paradigm

While our appreciation of what nature does for us has evolved, the way our culture looks at time spent in nature, unfortunately, is still much the same. Despite what we know about the benefits of spending time in nature, our culture still views time spent there as passive. It’s often spoken of as a retreat or escape.

Our attitude reflects the society we grew up in. “Nature is so relaxing.” “I go hiking to get away from it all.” “The outdoors is my happy place.” We hear these phrases. The problem is that they’re limiting. They pigeonhole nature and the role nature can play for us.

Even though we now have awe theory and forest therapy, even though we know about the three-day effect and have books like The Awakened Brain and The Comfort Crisis we’re stuck in the old paradigm that defines time in nature is a form of recreation—and holds that the real work takes place when we’re sitting at a board meeting or behind our laptops.

It’s not nature that needs to change, but us.

Wells Gray Provincial Park, British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The new paradigm

These are dire times and the old paradigm of nature as recreation no longer makes the cut. If we as a species are to shift onto a less self-destructive path, we need to access the values-shifting awarenesses nature can provide.

If the next generation is to care about protecting the natural world, they need to have had positive experiences in it. If these changes are to come about, we need to value nature more broadly and spend time in nature with broader intentions. We need more access to green spaces for those who live in cities. Nature needs to be more than a place to relax. And, so of course, it’s not nature that needs to change, but us.

We need a new paradigm. We need a new story to tell ourselves about nature and the time we spend in it.

Simply put, we need to embrace the idea that nature isn’t so much a place to retreat and relax but rather a forge that can transform us.

Bernheim Forest, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For the good of the people

The idea that spending time in nature can lead to personal transformation is not new. Far from it! Seers and prophets have been going out into the wild since the beginning of human civilization. When they went, they weren’t going on vacation. They weren’t sipping mai tais by a pool.

Native Americans—and many other indigenous cultures—had a tradition of the vision quest in which young people on the verge of adulthood would go out into nature alone in order to experience spiritual growth.

Black Elk of the Oglala Sioux tells a story from his childhood in which a tribal leader welcomes a group of young men back from a scouting mission with the words, “Whatever you have seen, maybe it is for the good of the people you have seen” (Niehardt 65).

Those simple words signify recognition of what the young people did and its importance. The young people left the community and went forth into the wild. Their purpose was to see. Their seeing was beneficial not just to themselves but to their community. It was “for the good of the people.”

Roseate spoonbills in Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nature helps us save ourselves from ourselves

It’s a small shift—thinking of nature as a forge rather than a retreat—but it makes a big difference. I’m reminded of the well-known Thoreau quote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

Wildness and wilderness can strengthen and preserve us. I have no doubts about that. But the bulk of the world seems to have little interest in wildness. How then could the wildness be important to the world or have a chance of saving it?

The solutions to the problems of today are unlikely to spontaneously show up on the screens of our cell phones. The solutions might just manifest themselves when we’re out in nature, however. This is because nature is a rich source of complexity, mystery, and inspiration; nature is a bottomless well, a source that counters and supplements all that is human.

In light of the new paradigm, in light of what we now understand in terms of how crucial nature is to our health, in light of our dependence on nature for everything from new medicines to new technology, and in light of the popularity of rewilding now—more than ever—we can see Thoreau’s words as being amazingly prospicient.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In wildness is the preservation of the world.

Over the course of history, our preoccupation with technology has led humanity to stray from nature but if we’re to survive and if our planet is to thrive (some would say survive) we must ever circle back. And so the time ahead may later in history be seen as the great circling back—a time when people rediscover the power of nature to strengthen our bodies and nurture our spirits. A time when we acknowledge that to be the best versions of ourselves, we need nature—and that nature is an inexhaustible source of new understandings.

Worth Pondering…

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs