Colin Harrington: Attend to nature, and it will attend to us


WINDSOR >> All of a sudden, in the last weeks of January, winter finally turned into winter! Pardon my enthusiasm, but some of us wish the big storm had been close enough to dump piles of snow enough for getting out there to ski, snow shoe, and slide down the hill at Clapp Park.

The Notchview community here in Windsor lives for winter snow. I admit that after last winter's brutal and unrelenting severe cold, Bracing myself for the pain and anguish, I filled my garage with split wood for the wood stove so I wouldn't have to go outside for the logs. Never done that before, it has been unnecessarily cramped in there now with the cars.

The milder winter has actually had me casually venturing out more often and this means less cabin fever. Outdoor adventure, especially in winter, is essential to a relaxed state of mind and a degree of happiness this time of year. You have to get out there to embrace winter. Just be careful and stay warm.

In the latest issue of National Geographic, the idea of being outdoors and out in nature was featured in connection to national parks. Entitled "The Power of Parks: A Yearlong Exploration," the article has a really nice section on the benefits of just being near natural places called, "This Is Your Brain On Nature." It provides scientific evidence of what we intuitively already know, that we all need nature to be happy and healthy.

Government and civic-minded leaders of means, such as President Theodore Roosevelt, historically took this seriously and our national parks and city parks and natural lands are never to be taken advantage of or for granted. It is at least one way we are entitled to a quality of life in this country and people who knew city populations when planning them designed the presence of nature into them, such as when Frederick Law Olmsted the great landscape architect, designed Central Park in New York City and the Emerald Necklace in Boston, and in 1865 championed Yosemite Valley as a National Park. These places are there for all Americans to enjoy, even if it's only in literature and travel journals.

In the part of the article about how natural places are immensely beneficial for our well-being, there is a reference to a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah, David Strayer and the "three-day effect" or "cleaning the mental windshield." Senses come alive and the mind clears for efficiency when people get outside among trees, lakes and fields. It's all about the brain.

He found, as did the author of the article, Florence Williams that stress levels decrease more than half and there are beneficial effects on blood pressure and blood sugar levels in just three days of making significant contact with nature. The article goes on to reference the work of an epidemiologist at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, Richard Mitchell, who studied people living close to nature but do not necessarily go out in the nearby parks.

At first he thought it was probably the proximity of the parks and forests that made regular exercise easier to access and asked if it was simply the fresh air and movement that made these people happier and healthier or was it more than that? His studies and others show that these restorative outcomes of happiness and greater healthfulness happen whether people in fact go outside or not.

Nature itself lowers stress. Just sitting on a park bench, in your car, or near a window overlooking trees and brush is good for you. Those who live near parks and forests and can see natural things "perform better in school, recover faster in hospitals, and experience lower instances of violent crime." Being outside in nature or just being nearby can decrease stress hormones and increase creativity, happiness, and mental acuity by a wide margin. How very lucky we are to live in the Berkshires and have some of the most serene natural beauty all around us all the time.

The article goes on to site a school outside Zurich, Switzerland, where children spend most of the day outside regardless of seasons and weather. They learn all kinds of skills that support self-confidence and an independent spirit. Those are the things I value very highly myself.

It's a good idea to get out and attend to nature even in winter, and it will attend to us in return. Unplug, take a drive or a walk somewhere in the county where it's nice and quiet and full of trees, even if it is winter! Now if we can just get some snow or the lakes would freeze over for skating, we can have some fun out there!

Colin Harrington is an educator, writer, outdoor enthusiast and occasional Eagle contributor.


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