“The troubles of modern life come from being divorced from nature.”
– Isaac Asimov, The Caves of Steel
My friend Dan Mahar has a name for something that is very important to him, as it is to me. Dan calls it “Vitamin N”, and simply put, it refers to the great health-promoting benefits of nature.
Nature is good for you!
We all know this. Our mothers and our grandmothers told us. We need fresh air and sunshine, along with our green vegetables. We need exercise and contact with nature to maintain balance and good health.
Many studies have shown this to be true, but without looking at them we can feel it ourselves. When I am walking along the hot concrete and steel of the city and turn into a park where I suddenly find myself surrounded by trees and grass, I feel a wave of calmness pass over me. Instantly I find myself in a healthier and happier state.
Extend that walk through the park into a week in a national park and I will experience a profound boost to health and happiness that I will not need any scientific measurements to appreciate.
That’s why for me, it is essential to periodically schedule a Vitamin N trip, a time designated to bring me back in tune with nature. At least once a year I have to go to recharge at one of those places where nature is on display on a gigantic scale. Call it super nature.
Any encounter with nature, even in your own backyard, has health benefits. But when we encounter the magnificent natural monuments of the national parks we reach another level of magnitude in terms of the profound effects of nature. Then we can experience the deep stirring of the soul that can take place by merely looking upon one of the great wonders of nature, such as a great mountain peak like Grand Teton. It can have not only a profound effect on your physical health, but even beyond that, it can alter your feelings about life.
Too little contact with nature puts us out of balance, moves us toward illness. I feel it when I sit too long hunched over the computer, struggling with business matters and resisting the urge to get up and go out into the natural world. By suppressing the impulse I keep pushing myself farther out of balance.
Nature Deficit Disorder
Dan told me that the term “Vitamin N” came from a book by Richard Louv, who wrote that people living in industrialized countries today are suffering from too little contact with nature.
Louv coined a term, Nature Deficit Disorder, which he called “a description of the human costs of alienation from the natural world.” He cited many studies that show the negative effects of the alienation that is increasingly happening as we find ourselves absorbed in screens.
“An increasing pace in the last three decades of a rapid disengagement between children and direct experiences in nature has profound implications,” he wrote, “not only for the health of future generations but for the health of the Earth itself.”
Louv believes that alienation from nature is a factor in the rise of obesity, Attention Deficit Disorder and mood disorders. Contact with nature has been shown to have a positive effect on these conditions and many others. More than ever, we need a break from our time spent in front of screens. We need to reconnect with the natural world.
I know that nature is present no matter where I am, even in the city. But sometimes I get so wrapped up in my routines I need a jolt to wake me up again to the beauties of the world around me. At certain points the only thing that can knock me out of the deadening effect of too much sameness is a trip to a place where the beauties of nature are so overwhelming they cannot be ignored.
If you take a few days off and go where you are surrounded by super nature it transforms you. Anyone who has done this can confirm it. The fresh, rich atmosphere and sunshine have tangibly beneficial effects on your health. But beyond that there are profound effects on health and well-being from the beauty of nature itself.
What is the effect of gazing upon a great mountain or canyon or coastline? How is it that nature produces such indescribable beauty in remote places without any participation from human beings? What gave rise to such splendor? How is it that we even have the capacity to enjoy it?
Whatever religion we subscribe to, or whatever systems of logic we use to help us understand life, there are some things that are undeniable.
We call it beauty because we have no better word for the ache it creates in us. We cannot name that ache but we are moved to our core. However different we may be in our attempts to describe it in words, we can share that feeling with others. When you are looking at the Tetons, you know that you are experiencing the divine, whatever that means to you.
The National Parks
Fortunately for us in America, there were people who recognized the great value of some of our most beautiful natural resources and took steps to set some of those areas aside and protect them from the kind of rapacious activity that would ruin them.
I’m grateful for visionary people like John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club and an early advocate of national parks, who foresaw a time when those special places would be even more rare and precious than they were in his day.
He was in Alaska when he wrote, “Standing here, with facts so fresh and telling and held up so vividly before us, every seeing observer, not to say geologist, must readily apprehend the earth-sculpturing, landscape-making action of flowing ice. And here, too, one learns that the world, though made, is yet being made; that this is still the morning of creation…”
The need for human beings to be connected to nature, and the desire to protect those natural wonders that affect the human soul so profoundly were behind the creation of the national parks. And that need inspires millions of people to visit them every year.
This year in the centennial of the creation of the National Park Service, travel to the parks is at an all-time high. Ken Burns’ documentary series “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” helped the American public to understand what a great endowment we have in the national parks.
The Divine in Nature
A friend recently asked me to pray for a sick family member. I was thinking about that as I was watering the plants of my neighbor who was on vacation. As I was filling the watering can, an odd thought occurred to me. If I pray, where do I direct my prayer? Where do I direct my mind to address the divine? Where am I to look for God?
As this thought was floating in my mind I suddenly found myself looking at a bright red flower. It was small but striking in its elegance and flamboyant beauty. At that moment an answer came to me, almost as if the flower by its very appearance had spoken to me.
It seemed to flash its wild beauty upon me in a flirtatious swish and say, “Look at me.”
And yes, I thought, I could direct my prayers to that tiny flower, so poignant in its design, so full of life, such a graceful living presence that I cannot look at it without acknowledging that there is certainly something much greater than myself.
It is a small thing, not a mountain. But its extravagant beauty is infinite and unfathomable. And surely if God is anywhere, God is there in that flower.
On that note, I bid you farewell for now, and I would leave you this parting thought:
Take that trip. Don’t hold back.
Your Humble Reporter,
A. Colin Treadwell