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Distance growing between humans and nature

September 21, 2011
By JOE HACKETT, News Outdoors Columnist
The natural environment possesses incredible capabilities for restoration, a fact which becomes glaringly evident during times of greatest stress. Nature has an uncanny ability to repair damage.

Whether on a storm-scarred mountain, in a toppled forest or along a ravaged river, nature takes care of its own.

In an ongoing and ever-changing manner, the natural world always manages to heal, to find a balance and to achieve equilibrium. Destruction and restoration is part of the natural cycle.

It has taken more than five million years for humans to become human, a process that has evolved at a very slow pace.

Prior to the modern era and well before recorded time, humans spent more than 99.99 percent of their existence in the outdoors, in nature.

Although a majority of the world’s population now resides in decidedly urban environments, they cannot escape nor deny evolutionary history. We are who we are as a result of surviving and existing for millions of years in the outdoors.

While we may have progressed beyond the stage of simple hunters-gatherers, we cannot escape our indigenous roots. We became who we are today through the processes of existing and evolving in a natural environment. The natural connection is ingrained and undeniable, despite the comfortable surroundings of civilization.

However, it appears the process isn’t doing so well in current times. In the modern world, we have seemingly forgotten our roots and lost our way.

We are essentially animals. We evolved into humans along with nature, not apart from it, and after being immersed in the outdoors for millions of years we should have learned to adapt accordingly.

However, we have rapidly removed our societies from the natural world and allowed ourselves to be encapsulated in an increasingly artificial environment.

Only modern man possesses the frighteningly powerful capability to drastically alter the environment on a global scale. It has been accomplished through pollution, extraction, over-consumption and the waste of natural resources.

The earth’s atmosphere has changed and thus the climate. Across the globe, light pollution now obscures the night sky from more than 20 percent of the world’s population. More than two-thirds of the U.S. and more than half of the European Union population has already lost visibility of the Milky Way.

When we lose sight of the stars above, we will have lost another precious natural connection.

Human beings are rooted in nature, and when we travel in natural surroundings, we become more aware of this connection. As we are more immersed in nature, we become more relaxed and comfortable.

It should come as no surprise that we find a walk in the woods restorative. It is intuitive. After all, humans evolved in the forests and fields and our senses were adapted to detect both predators and prey.

The need for a natural connection is simple and conclusive. Regular activity in the outdoors has been shown to improve fitness, to increase overall health and to expand lifespan.

There is also evidence that being outdoors helps to develop cognitive functioning. A 2005 study by the California Department of Education revealed that students involved in outdoor science programs improved their test scores by 27 percent.

In recent years, researchers have been attempting to quantify the health benefits of the outdoor environment. Some scientists believe it may be related to the cooler temperatures beneath a forest canopy or the softer intensity of light, or possibly due to the higher concentrations of oxygen.

Recent developments in assessment methods have also allowed researchers to measure the physiological effects surrounding the connection between of humans and nature. We know that we feel comfortable in natural surroundings, but it is a difficult sensation to put into words.

Harvard Professor E. O. Wilson developed the biophilia hypothesis, which postulates that human beings are attracted to nature biologically because, inherently, we remain hunters and gatherers. Wilson believes there remains something in all humans that we do not fully understand, which requires an occasional immersion in nature.

Scientific research has provided evidence that a long hike provides a boost of endorphins in the brain that makes us feel good. However, there is no scientific evidence to explain the overwhelming human need for natural surroundings or for the comfort that such an environment provides.

Article Photos

Photo by Joe Hackett
The still water of Henderson Lake, located near Tahawus, provides a mirror image of the surrounding landscape.

 
 

 

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