Seattle's Child

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nature / Jeff Lee column

(Photo by Jillian O'Connor)

Hearing the call of the wild

We all need nature — even kids who say they’d rather be using screens.

Learning to appreciate nature, slowly: Our 10-year-old, Pippa, is showing some early Goth tendencies. If she had her way, she’d spend most of her time indoors, reading dark fantasy books and drawing scenes of elaborate dystopias ruled by ninjas and dragons. Sometimes, we have to practically force her out of the house just to get a little sunshine and exercise. The grounds for her resistance aren’t entirely clear, but she’s been known to mumble “I hate natural light” as she shuffles sullenly out the door. There must be a trace of vampire in that girl.

In any case, we don’t give her a choice. As a parent, there are some hills you’re willing to die on, and this is one of them. Despite her purported hatred of the great outdoors, we’ve seen plenty of evidence to the contrary. We’ve seen her on backpacking trips, scrambling up steep granite slopes like a mountain goat. We’ve seen her plunge naked into ice-melt streams. We’ve watched her rappel down canyon walls, and spend long, lazy afternoons snatching frogs and garter snakes from mountain lakes. All this gives us faith that, somewhere beneath that petulant preteen veneer, the forest sprite we once knew is still hiding and waiting to re-emerge.

When I was a kid, my mom used to push my brothers and me out the door, too – mostly because there were four of us, and that was too much bottled-up energy to contain with mere wood and plaster walls.

Most of my childhood was spent chasing little critters, in meadows and streams and puddles of mud, and peering at them through magnifying glasses, or smuggling them up to my bedroom in jelly jars. When we ran out of small animals to harass, we’d ride our bikes all over the neighborhood, kick field goals over the laundry line or play street hockey in some neighbor’s driveway. By the end of the day, when Mom clanged the big brass bell that was bolted to the side of the house, we’d run home and scramble through the front door, all grass stains, muddy sneakers and bloody noses, hungry enough to eat anything she plunked down in front of us.

When we extol the virtues of outdoor play, we tend to do so on moral grounds. We lament the loss of nature in our lives, and its replacement with high-tech gizmos and flickering screens, mostly because it violates our sense of natural order, and contrasts with our nostalgic memories of the past. Lately, though, science has backed up our intuition. It turns out you can take the humans out of nature, but you can’t take nature out of human beings.

Research shows that time spent in the natural world has profound and lasting effects on our physiology and health.

Even a fleeting exposure to the smallest patch of greenery reduces our levels of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine. Housing projects whose courtyards are planted with trees experience less crime than otherwise identical projects that lack trees. Pharmacies in London fill fewer prescriptions for antidepressants when they’re located in neighborhoods with parks. One study found that a three-day vacation in a natural setting (compared to one in a luxurious urban setting) resulted in a measurable strengthening of the immune system that persisted for more than a month.

Of course, none of this comes as a surprise. Zoo animals in naturalistic environments live longer and stay healthier than those we confine to concrete boxes. Just because we call our own boxes “offices,” “schools” and “homes” doesn’t mean that human animals should be any different.

Every once in a while, I have a recurring dream: I’m a kid again, and I’m searching for a lake or a stream where I can go fishing.

I feel my frustration build as I wander around looking for an elusive stretch of water where I can wade in and cast my line. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that I only have that dream when life is feeling cramped, predictable and constrained. I think of it as a message from my natural self – from the side of me that exists outside the concrete box.

Nature isn’t something we have to get into a car and drive to. Nature is in our blood, and our bones, and in every cell of our bodies. It will wait for us, patiently, for as long as it takes.

This summer, find the time to go someplace quiet and lie in the dappled light, under a tall, sturdy tree. Breathe in the smell of the grass and the dirt, and peer up at the fragments of blue between the shifting leaves. Listen. Something is calling you.

It’s calling you home.

Jeff Lee writes and raises vampires in Seattle.

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About the Author

Jeff Lee, MD

Jeff Lee, a family physician, lives, works and writes in Seattle.