THE STARTING PLACE.
Low 70’s and sunny here in Waco today. I am beginning to believe that we made some kind of deal with devil to steal San Diego’s weather. Lake Waco is not quite the Pacific ocean, but a Corona covers that up. In any event, while the world fell apart this year we received compensation in the form of a glorious fall and now winter. For over three months we have enjoyed an almost uninterrupted stretch of abundant sunshine and mild conditions. I am not ready to call it even, yet I feel like I learned a long overdue lesson this year.
We have relationships with many people, places and things. Not to be too hippy-dippy, but the starting place for all of it is our connection with the the environment. Think about it; when Tom Hanks ended up alone on a desert island in Castaway, he interacted with two things. Nature and his volleyball friend Wilson. Nature is the one relationship you cannot escape; there is no divorce court from the outside. What do we make of it?
Many people intuitively understand the link between man and earth; to them I apologize for today’s column. Maybe I am writing for the over 80% of Americans who, like me, live in urban areas. City dwellers lack the advantage Ralph Waldo Emerson noted when he said:
“The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature
Buildings block the horizons and we forget to look. Maybe that is the reason we are always so tired. We pay attention to our screens, whether they be work computers, telephones or televisions, an inordinate amount of time. The pandemic accelerated that fact for many people. Nature turns out to be something we go to, rather than experience on a daily basis. A trip to the Grand Canyon or the beach for some sunshine and then back to the grindstone seems to be normal. In 2020, too many of us did not get to go anywhere, our sunshine dose was accidental.
It does not have to be that way. Sunshine and nature exists everywhere. we just need to start paying attention to it.
The Wonder Of It All.
Relationships work best when you are aware you are in them. Almost two years ago, M’Lissa and I started on an adventure to see the whole state of Texas. We have lots of people; we have way more land. I started to become aware of my relationship with sunshine and other natural phenomena on long drives through the country with the convertible top down.
When we visited the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis on a perfect early summer night, the wonder of nature hit me like a ton of bricks. The uber-knowledgeable staff directed our stargazing and explained in detail what we were seeing. That made little difference to me; it was too vast to take in. I was in awe.
It turns out that being in awe is a very good thing. Scientists tell us that when we take the time to see the overwhelming and appreciate being overwhelmed we advance creativity, critical reasoning, improve our physical help and increase our ability to positively socialize. Of course, it easy to be awed on top of a mountain with, to steal a line, “a million stars all around.” The trick is to see it more often.
The State Of Sunshine.
Amie Gordon of Cal-Berkley reports that everyday awe is possible, that people who start to look for it report being awed every third day. In Japan, the one place in the world where workers put in more labor time than we do, looking for awe is part of the routine. The Japanese call it shinrin-yoku, loosely translated to “forest bathing.” The practice is more than being in nature; you get the full benefit of nature when you are active in nature. Not necessarily mountain-biking active in nature; it is often poem writing or just fully exercising all five senses in the forest. Tokyo’s company men and women view the practice as essential; to them it is preventive medicine like brushing your teeth.
The Japanese are no smarter than us; we have scientists that can tell us that being outdoors, particularly in sunshine, holds multiple benefits. Our vitamin D level goes up. We move more, whether we intend to or not. Concentration improves and we heal quicker. Most of all, we are just happier. It would seem a no-brainer to live in the state of sunshine as much as possible.
Powerful forces, however, oppose us. The defining sociological changes of our age include digitization, urbanization and increased stress. Each of these trends work to keep us inside and unhappy.
WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?
The data seems to support the idea that the forces of darkness are triumphing over the sunshine army. A 2017 study from Yale University reports that more than 50% of adult Americans spend less than five hours a week outside and that their children spend three time the amount of time on their digital devices as they do playing outside. Most tellingly, younger and middle-aged adults express satisfaction about their reduced time outside, while older Empty Nesters worry about our waning connection with nature. On the other hand, the number of camping trips and the number of National Park visits rose a significant amount over the last decade.
I see those numbers as consistent with my original thesis: we will travel to sunshine and vacation in nature, but we do not live in nature. Likewise, for these Empty Nesters. We were in awe of the night skies at the Observatory, we loved our float down the Rio Grande, and delighted in discovering Caddo Lake. Then we spent the rest of the year working inside, eating at restaurants and streaming movies.
The pandemic changed that. Frankly, I was scared that weight could lead to a bad COVID outcome if I caught the disease. So we started walking. And walking. And walking. Next, we did a little more walking. Everyday we spend at least an hour and half outside.
We are considerably healthier, but I imagine the same thing would have occurred if we used indoor treadmills. The difference is mood. Completing a walk actually does wipe the stress away, for a while at least. In other words, the science worked for us. I cannot imagine that the same thing will not work for you. Empty Nesters have tome on their side; to make the most of your relationship with the environment, spend some of that time in the sunshine.