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Last autumn I wrote here about the idea of “forest bathing,” which sounds like it might require getting naked in the woods and some water. It doesn’t.

The practice began in Japan in the early 1990s and was known as Shinrin-yokuwhich translates roughly as forest bathing.

More recently I heard an NPR story about someone who went for a forest bathing adventure on the pocket of forest outside Washington D.C., Theodore Roosevelt Island, on the Potomac River. If that doesn’t sound wild enough that seems to be part of the point of the activity.

You don’t need hundreds of acres of forest or water or miles of trails or a destination. You probably don’t need a certified forest therapy guide either, though some guidance is always helpful.

Forest bathing is about slowing down and becoming immersed in the natural environment. Immersed is a good word. It does mean to plunge into a liquid, but the dictionary also says to involve deeply, absorb and to baptize. In a good forest bath, you would plunge into the smells, textures, tastes and sights of the forest. Touch the tree bark, smell the pine needles, loam or the black walnuts, taste the mulberries.

It is meant to cleanse the mind of the accumulated mental detritus from the outside world.

One of the exercises that might be done in your bath time is the body scan. It is a technique I learned many years ago in a mindfulness workshop. It can be done any place, but in a natural setting it will take on another dimension.

Lie on your back, legs uncrossed, arms relaxed at your sides, eyes open or closed. Focus on your breathing for about two minutes until you start to feel relaxed. Then, turn your focus to the toes of your right foot. Notice any sensations you feel while continuing to also focus on your breathing. Imagine each deep breath flowing to your toes. Remain focused on this area for one to two minutes.

Think of this as a guided meditation, though easily self-guided. You move focus to the sole of your right foot, then right ankle, and move up to your calf, knee, thigh, hip, and then repeat the sequence for your left leg.

When I first tried this I was so relaxed by the time I had moved up my torso, through my back, chest and shoulders, that when I tried to focus on my head, scalp and hair, I fell asleep. That is not what is supposed to happen, but it did. I have used the technique to fall asleep on nights when my brain can’t shut down.

A body scan is not a trick. It is a way to shift your focus and train your mind to go where you want it to go. In an age of many distractions, being able to control when you want to let your mind wander (which can be a creative thing) and avoiding drifting into worry and doubt is a powerful ability.

This all sounds very “new age” and a lot of people unfortunately use that term in a disparaging way. They lump together everything from well-documented practices like yoga and meditation to more fringe practices. For example, many people would probably dismiss aromatherapy and yet we all experience emotional responses to aromas in our lives – the smell of baking bread, the scent of herbs you brush against in a garden or the pine forest you walk through.

Forest bathing is being studied as an alternative kind of therapy or medicine. The NPR story I heard said that a 40 minute walk in the forest is associated with improved mood and feelings of health and a real decrease in levels of the stress hormone cortisol .Excess stress can play a role in headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, and arthritis, among many other ailments.

The idea of trying in your day to “Be here, not there” seems so simple, but is so difficult for most of us.

Henry David Thoreau knew that his little Walden woods didn’t need to be very far from Concord to be an escape. I have my own nearby small woods that certainly doesn’t qualify as a forest but allows me to turn off the outside world. It is more than walking or meditating or being mindful in your home, office, or on city streets. Those are all good things to practice, but this is about being in the natural world.



Listen to “A Crash Course in Body Scan Meditation” for a guided body scan.

Learn more about forest therapies at natureandforesttherapy.org. Perhaps you might even become a guide one day.

“A traveler! I love this title. A traveler is to be reverenced as such.
His profession is the best symbol of our life.
Going from ___ toward ___; it is the history of every one of us.”

Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday is this year. I have never quite felt comfortable with the idea of marking birthdays for people who have died, but we do it. I have written about Henry before because I find him an interesting person of contrasts.

He went against the times he lived in. He went to Harvard College and was an intellectual, but in our general image of him, he is a non-conformist. He walked away from society to live in the woods for a year. But he went back. My favorite little anecdote about Hank is that in that year at Walden Pond, he often walked back into town to get some cookies from his mother and have her do his laundry.  It is like camping in the woods, but not too far away from a convenience store.

Thoreau was an abolitionist, a serious and the solitary walker and a passionate naturalist. He modeled his life on religious convictions. He believed that each of us has a connection with divine spirit, though I suspect people generally think of him as less Religious and more spiritual. He never went to church. He never married. He never voted and he didn’t pay his taxes.

He literally talked to trees. He was an environmentalist, although that term was not used in his time. He saw a tragedy coming for future generations because of the heedlessness he saw growing around him.

There is a new biography of HDT out this month that I reserved at my library simply titled Henry David Thoreau: A Life. Will I discover new things about  Thoreau when I read it? Certainly. Will it change my own life, as I feel my first reading of Walden did? I highly doubt that. That’s not a flaw in the book, but a flaw in me. Or maybe it’s a flaw in almost all of us – our lessening ability to change as we get older.

I found out about the book listening to an episode of Radio Open Source, one of three episodes on Thoreau. Pronunciation trivia: “Thoreau” is pronounced like the word “thorough” though most people tend to emphasize the second syllable instead.

Something that I always liked about Thoreau is that he seems to have kept himself very busy. As someone who spends too much time making To Do lists and not enough time doing things on the list, I admire his work ethic.

He worked. He was alternately a handyman, carpenter, surveyor, lecturer, businessman (his family owned a pencil-manufacturing company) and a constant writer.  He spent nearly a decade trying to describe that famous one year on Walden Pond and finally published his Walden or Life in the Woods.

He was a bit of an anarchist. In 1846, he refused to pay six years of delinquent poll taxes because of his opposition to the Mexican–American War and slavery. He spent a night in jail, but was freed the next day when someone, probably his aunt, paid the tax, against his wishes. He used the experience for several lectures on tax resistance, the rights of the individual to self-government, and it eventually became an essay best known as “Civil Disobedience.”

Thoreau studied Indian spiritual philosophies and religions and they appear in his writings. He even followed a diet of rice (“It was fit that I should live on rice, mainly, who loved so well the philosophy of India” and enjoyed flute playing (a musical pastime of Krishna) and yoga.

I found a very interesting website, MappingThoreauCountry.org,  that uses historical maps to organize and interpret documentary materials related to Thoreau’s travels throughout Massachusetts. I am a fan of maps of all kinds and you can view Thoreau’s own work in cartography on the site.

Henry (whose first name was officially David, but he reversed the first and middle name after college) was also very much at home on rivers. Water worlds engaged him. He made his own boat and he paddled and sailed on nearby waterways. He looked into the water in a scientific way and a philosophical way.

Before his Walden year, he had spent A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers  paddling from Concord, Massachusetts to Concord, New Hampshire, and back, with his brother John in 1839. John died of tetanus in 1842 and Thoreau wrote the book, in part, as a tribute to his brother. He did the first draft during that year at Walden Pond along with his journaling that would become Walden

HDT also loved solitary walking. Between 1849 and 1857, Thoreau walked the length of Cape Cod four times, passing through nearly every town on what he described as “the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts.” Along the way, he recorded observations that became the basis for lectures, essays, and, eventually, a book-length travelogue that was published posthumously as Walking in 1864.

After college, came a short period of teaching first in a public school and then in the Concord Academy started by Henry and his brother. The school closed after John’s death.

In Concord, he met Ralph Waldo Emerson who took a paternal interest in Thoreau, advising the young man and introducing him to local writers and thinkers, including Nathaniel Hawthorne. His friendships with Emerson and others in the transcendentalist movement had their ups and downs, but it led to his being a popular lecturer and an anti-slavery activist.

In 1841, Thoreau moved into the Emerson house and served as the children’s tutor, editorial assistant, repairman and gardener. For a few months in 1843, he tutored the sons of William Emerson on Staten Island,  while he was looking to make contacts with literary men and journalists in New York City. That was how he found his future literary representative, Horace Greeley.

Thoreau returned to Concord and worked in his family business for most of his adult life.

In April 1844,  he and his friend Edward Hoar accidentally set a fire that ironically consumed 300 acres of Walden Woods.

His experiment in simple living began the following year on July 4, 1845. He moved to a small house he had built on land owned by Emerson around the shores of Walden Pond. The house was in “a pretty pasture and woodlot” of 14 acres. It was 1.5 miles from his family home.

He left Walden Pond on September 6, 1847 – 2 years, 2 weeks and 2 days after loving there – and returned to the Emerson house.

In Walden, he wrote “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Thoreau moved out of Emerson’s house in 1848 and stayed at a house on nearby Belknap Street. In 1850, he and his family moved into a house at 255 Main Street, where he lived until his death.

When his aunt Louisa asked him in the last weeks of his life if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau responded, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.”

Thoreau’s last words were “Now comes good sailing”, followed by two unexplained words, “moose” and “Indian”.

He died on May 6, 1862, at age 44.

During his rather short life,  Thoreau had witnessed the transformation of his world from a community of farmers and artisans into a bustling, interconnected commercial nation. This was not a change that thrilled him.

He did not see those changes away from nature, self-reliance and simplicity as positive progress.

He was a contemplative individual and a proponent of finding the wilderness, wildness, even the bewilderness that remained in nature. Even if that wilderness was just a small woods, park or river near your home.

The nature of Americans sounds like a title that might these days refer to how we are changing as a people. But in this case, it is more literal – about our relationship with the outdoors.

Studies have shown that although the majority of Americans say that nature is one of their most enjoyable interests, they don’t spend much time outdoors. Why is there this gap?

A new study, “The Nature of Americans,” surveyed nearly 12,000 adults and children to try to determine why there is that gap. Are there barriers that keep people from going outside?

We know that even certain smells and sounds of nature can trigger happy memories. Being in nature brings people a sense of peace. This is true for children and adults.

Youngsters in the age 8-12 range said contact with nature “made them happier and healthier.” Their parents and researchers agree. Exposure to nature promoted their physical, psychological, and social well-being.

So then why do the majority of adults spend only five or less hours a week outside? Kids ages 8-12 are only a bit better averaging 6.5 hours a week outdoors. Add to that other studies that show those kids spend more than double that amount of time indoors on computers, televisions and electronic devices.

I feel like this has been “news” for about 50 years. We know it’s good for us but we don’t act upon that knowledge.

The study found a number of barriers. Some of this is pretty obvious. Where we live, work, and go to school can make it difficult for many people to have contact with the natural world. Not many Americans depend on the natural world for their livelihoods these day either. We don’t farm or work outside. We work in buildings.

In prioritizing our lives, nature has fallen down the list. Technologies and electronic media have moved up and they keep us indoors.

People who grow up without much contact with nature tend to be adults who are uncomfortable being outdoors alone. They probably don’t have many friends who want to accompany or encourage excursions into the natural world.

Children are kept indoors by a lack of available adult supervision. KIds, including my own, are rarely allowed to wander alone outdoors in a park or woods or even in their own neighborhood.

One thing the study found is that we need to change perceptions about nature. Too many adults perceive nature as something remote and inaccessible. Getting “out into nature” means a national park or wilderness – places that are often far from home. But neighborhood parks and small wooded areas and trails are also important. And making nature experiences social by doing things like group hikes connects us to nature and people.

Some of this nature wisdom is also a natural knowledge. The study shows that children perceive nearly every outdoor place as being part of nature, but that concept fades as they grow up. Watching ants climb over the ground, fishing at a park pond, climbing a jungle gym or a tree, watching chipmunks run in and out of their stone wall home or wading in a creek and rearranging the flow by moving rocks and making boats from leaves and sticks are all great ways of being in nature.

In the book Blue Mind, the author considers in a very long subtitle “The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do.” Most of us are drawn to water. Even when it’s not summer, I feel the pull of the ocean. This connection to water is also in our nature.

I read Last Child in the Woods  years ago when my sons were children and I wanted to make nature part of their childhood. Along with other books by Richard Louv, such as Vitamin N and The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age, they can introduce you to the New Nature Movement that looks to the restorative powers of the natural world. It promises much: boosting mental acuity and creativity, health and wellness and even smarter and more sustainable businesses. It is an optimistic vision in an increasingly pessimistic world.

 

                   

This earlier post is now updated to reflect the recent release of a film, The Lost City of Z, based on Grann’s book of the same name. Both tell the true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett who went into the Amazon in 1925 with his son looking for an ancient lost city. They both disappeared. For decades, explorers and scientists have tried to find evidence of his party and the Lost City of Z. Since then, perhaps another hundred people have died or disappeared searching for Fawcett.

I read David Grann’s The Lost City of Z in 2010 and halfway through it I realized what attracted me to it. It takes me back to a book of my youth – The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – which was a novel I loved as a kid.  I probably read the Classics Illustrated Comic version before I actually read the book, as that was the case with many books from Treasure Island to Hamlet.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is much better known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Even if you have never read any of his fiction, you probably know a few of his stories and characters because, according to the Internet Movie Database (love that site) there are at least 215 films based on his writing.

I took out my old comic book version and also my paperback of the novel and rediscovered Doyle’s little introductory verse:

I have wrought my simple plan
If I give one hour of joy
To the boy who’s half a man,
Or the man who’s half a boy.

There was another book titled The Lost World which was Michael Crichton’s sequel to Jurassic Park, but I have nothing to say about that book. To me, The Lost World is the one published in 1912 and it is the fictional story of an expedition to a place in the Amazon where prehistoric animals still survive. (Hmmm, did Mr. Crichton get inspiration for Jurassic Park from it?)  The book introduced the character Professor Challenger who appears in other books by Doyle.

Exploration and lost worlds captured the fancy of the public and authors in the early part of the 20th century. In 1916, Edgar Rice Burroughs (who is better known for his Tarzan and science-fiction stories) published The Land that Time Forgot, which was his version of a lost world story. In that  rather ridiculous tale, sailors  from a German U-Boat discover a world of dinosaurs and ape-men in Antarctica.

I read all of them. I didn’t really pay attention back then to the chronology of publication. If I had noted dates, I would have realized that another one of my childhood author heroes, Jules Verne, had introduced the whole prehistoric-animals-in-the-present-day adventure story with his novel Journey to the Center of the Earth which was published back in 1864. Those explorers find a prehistoric world of people and dinosaurs inside the Earth.

By the way, you can read The Lost World as an “e-book” free online at Project Gutenberg – if you can handle reading on a screen. I can’t.

cover

Now, to get back to where this post started, the setting for The Lost World is was probably inspired by reports about British explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett’s expedition to Venezuela and Brazil, in a mountain region called Mount Roraima.

The modern-day non-fiction book, The Lost City of Z , tells the tale of Fawcett who launched his final expedition in 1925 into the Amazon.

His goal was to find the fabled lost city of El Dorado, the “City of Gold.” El Dorado has captured the imaginations of kids, armchair explorers and real anthropologists, adventurers, and scientists for about 400 years – even though there really has never been evidence that it ever existed. That hasn’t stopped hundreds of expeditions from going out looking for it.

Fawcett was financed by the Royal Geographical Society in London.  It humbles me to think that at age 57 he headed out again because he really believed in El Dorado, which he called the City of Z .

He set out with only his 21-year-old son Jack and one of Jack’s friends. He wanted to travel light and fast, eat off the land, and not harass the natives. They vanished in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil.  Subsequent attempts to find Fawcett and the city have failed.

What happened to Fawcett? David Grann thinks he knows. The author is not an adventurer, but he ended up in the jungles of the Amazon to try to find an answer.

Fawcett’s expeditions inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel of a lost world. Grann wrote an earlier book, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession.

I’m not ready for any Amazon adventures, so I’m happy to follow Grann’s digging through Fawcett’s old diaries and logs for clues and doing my own armchair adventuring.

I liked that the book also deals with how in the past 40 years in Brazil alone, the Amazon has lost some two hundred and seventy thousand square miles of its original forest cover. That’s an area bigger than France. Tribes are being threatened with extinction. Many animals and plants, some we never even knew existed, are also vanishing.

Much has been lost in those jungles.

More Reading
Vanished!: Explorers Forever Lost     

The Lost City

dragon

image via The Dragon

There is a system called Wu Xing by the Chinese, which translates to the Five Phases (sometimes as the Five Elements, Steps etc.). The “Five Phases” are Wood (木 mù), Fire (火 huǒ), Earth (土 tǔ), Metal (金 jīn), and Water (水 shuǐ).

Wu Xing also correlates to the seasons.

Wood is Spring, a phase of growth, which generates abundant wood and vitality.

Fire is Summer, full of swelling and flowering, and filled with fire and energy.

There is a shorter in-between transitional phase known as Late or Long Summer.

Metal is the element of Autumn when there is harvesting and collecting.

Water represents Winter, the period of retreat, stillness and storage.

Each season or “phase” also corresponds to other things. For example, the direction east and a green dragon correspond to springtime.

The Chinese also use Wu Xing to describe interactions and relationships between such diverse activities as music, military strategy, martial arts and how to heal the human body.

I view it as a way of thinking about nature and another way to encourage a closer observation of nature.

For a few weeks in February, it sure felt like spring was very near in Paradelle – or maybe it had arrived early – even if the calendar and Earth’s tilt said otherwise. I saw crocuses and daffodils up and blooming. Tree buds seemed to be starting their bud burst.

Then the thermometer reversed itself and we had our biggest snow of the winter.

The news reported that the cherry blossoms in the nation’s capital are threatened, and the ones in New Jersey, which generally peak in early April, might also be affected. [Not So Trivial Fact: New Jersey has more cherry trees than Washington D.C. – the largest cherry blossom collection in the United States. But the Branch Brook Park cherry blossom webcam in Newark just shows bare trees and snow as I write this.]

I have written before about the study of cyclic, seasonal natural phenomena which is called phenology. The National Phenology Network tracks “Nature’s Calendar” via phenological events. But can we actually predict the seasons with any accuracy?

These nature observations include the ones we all have been observing lately, such as trees and flowers, but also ones that you may not be able to observe or just don’t pay attention to. Those signs of seasonal change include male ungulates, such as elk or deer, growing antlers at the beginning of the rut and breeding season each year, mammals that hibernate seasonally to get through the winter, and bird migration during the year.

Other than the false Groundhog Day forced observations, phenological events can be incredibly sensitive to climate change. That change can be year-to-year, but the timing of many of these events is changing globally – and not always in the same direction and magnitude.

map

Spring leaf anomaly: dark red indicates areas of early bud burst, with some areas as great as 21 days early. It should be noted, that areas around Los Angeles are conversely nearly 21 days behind schedule. Image via blogs.plos.org

According to a Public Library of Science (PLOS) blog, “From 1982 to 2012, spring budburst (when the leaves first appear) has advanced by a bit over 10 days, while the onset of autumn in the northeast US has pushed back about 4.5 days. No trends were found for other regions. This lengthening of the growing season has profound implications for the ecology of these forests and potentially their ecological evolution. A longer growing season could translate to high carbon storage for increased growth, but higher rates of decomposition and changes in moisture availability. However, these changes in phenology are primarily driven by increasing temperatures. In a warmer world, some species may simply not be able to survive where they are now, creating a dramatic change in the species composition. And this is without considering changes in precipitation.”

The National Phenology Network’s project called Nature’s Notebook collects data from more than 15,000 naturalists across the nation who, using standardized methods, provide information about plant and animal phenology.

Project BudBurst is another citizen science focused project using observations of phenological events and phases through crowd-sourcing. Project like this give you the opportunity to make your observations of nature more conscious, and to contribute to the knowledge base.

This post first appeared, in slightly different form, on my Endangered New Jersey blog

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All around I fear that Jonathan's (and most modern) satire is lost in a world that is itself a satire. The corporation side. All fall down The chenille is blooming its odd flowers again. It's August in NJ.

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