Small Sanctuaries

A few months ago, I checked my email on top of a mountain in the Adirondacks. Yep. Right there on the summit, sitting in a cloud with my partner and our dog, who was happily snarfing up trail mix, I whipped out my phone and with a few clicks found out what I had missed in the two hours since we started hiking.

I have a very sensitive relationship to email. Maybe you do, too, or maybe you don’t use email; more power to you. It’s an enormous source of anxiety in my life because it seems like there is always someone on the other end, asking for something right this minute or did you get my email from five hours ago (yes, I did) or here is this thing that I could have called you about but figured I’d just email.

So I checked my email on top of that mountain and then instantly regretted it. Instantly. There I was, with two of the most important beings in my life, surrounded by the smell of pine trees and damp rocks and forgotten trail mix. Did you seriously just do that? I asked myself.

These days, humans are more disconnected from each other than we’ve ever been. We turn to television, social media, email or video games and let the backlit screens and whir of digital life lull us into believing we are connected. And when we get a rare opportunity for real connection, whether with each other or with nature, it is so easily interrupted by a quick glimpse at our phones.

I hear a lot of conversations between people of all ages about the reasons this trend is unhealthy. But what are we doing about it? What am I doing about it? It’s long been understood that spending time outdoors is healthy for the mind and body, and new science from around the world proves it. Older folks reminisce about when they were kids, they played in the yard with sticks and rocks. Younger folks post filtered images of their epic outdoor trips on social media. Wow, the response goes, that must be the life. But you see, turning back the clock is just as unrealistic as those photos. Kids, even the outdoorsy ones, probably have an iPad. And those people on Instagram probably spent their whole hike staging that one shot. We need a healthy middle ground.

Maybe we need more nature. Maybe we need to feel the dirt in our toes and the rain in our hair. And I’m not talking about the kind of nature that will make a great profile picture or Christmas card or make your friends envy how outdoorsy you are. I’m talking about feeling connected to something bigger than ourselves, this big, confusing, beautiful Earth that gives us life. We all connect in different ways: walking, touching, listening, eating. I like eating. When I studied in Vietnam, we talked to farmers who had started growing organic produce because chemical fertilizers and pesticides had burned their hands in the past. What was healthy for their bodies was also healthy for the Earth.

In the United States today, depression and anxiety are more prevalent than ever. Research has shown that people who have the privilege to live closer to green space (usually white people) have better mental and physical health than those who don’t. Advocates have argued that investing in parks close to cities will be more beneficial for communities’ health in the long run than faraway National Parks that are hard to get to, expensive, and only visited once a year.

There’s a practice in Japan called Shinrin Yoku, or forest bathing. People spend time in the woods, ideally somewhere out of cell service, just walking or sitting and noticing all their senses. Now, it’s called bathing. How often do you bathe? I’m guessing every day, or every other day. Bathing is a ritual, an act of cleansing that is repeated again and again. If we only bathed once a year, it would defeat the purpose. We need nature consistently, even in small amounts.

Nature heals us. Seriously. But we can only let it heal us, and begin to think about how we might heal it, if we’re willing to bathe in it. You wouldn’t bring your phone in the shower, so don’t bring it when you go to the garden. When you’re at the top of a mountain, take pictures-- but for the photo album, not social media. Let your email fester inside all alone and see what happens. I’m working on that right now, and it’s really hard. But I’m slowly getting better at it, and I can feel the difference in my body and my heart. Every morning I water the plants on our 3 foot by 6 foot porch that overlooks a parking lot. It’s no Yosemite, but it’s green, and for those few minutes it’s a sanctuary.

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