Entering the Rhythm
Everyone has a natural rhythm. In my seasonal cycle, mountains rise in me like rivers rise in the spring. When the snow melts off the streets and the trees open their first buds, dreams of walking through deep valleys and struggling up steep, mountainous slopes flood my sleep, washing away the winter’s months of stillness. It’s difficult waiting for early summer. I squirm like a kid waiting for Christmas. I make lists of maps and look for places to walk away from empty talk, garish skylines of aluminum, and streets lined with black staves of wire instead of trees.
But, no matter how anxious I am to dive into the first national park I see, when I do go, there’s always a waiting period before I can settle into the trail’s rhythm. On those initial miles, I feel out of sync with nature, and it’s not until I’m two or three days deep into a long-awaited hike that my body will break through the surface tension holding me captive. My muscles and nerves relax and suddenly, I’m no longer drowning in questions or choices that don’t really belong to me. From that point, I am newborn and can rise into the scenery and the silence, while the sun’s warmth on my skin laps away the last vestiges of civilization.
Technology and Syncopation
As I slip into every day’s simple cycle, I am reminded of how in the past, for tens of millennia, when the sun went down—the world fell into a darkness we could not see into. What was out there, silent, watching, hungry, was a mystery that no one dared delve into. The night was for taking shelter and sleeping until the sun returned and lit our way again.
We have undone this rhythm with lights on everything. Don’t get me wrong or label me a Luddite; I enjoy having lights to read by, music to listen to, and television to watch, but the fact remains that we have thrown off our natural rhythm, and that exacts a price.
For mostly economic reasons, we have imposed our will on nature’s rhythm, the beat of which has formed us since the beginning of time. This technological syncopation has entered our minds and seriously thrown us off. As an Air Force member, I worked shift work for nearly twenty years, and I remember reading research from the late Seventies that showed the ill effects working night and day had on physical and mental health. Today’s research continues to reinforce those earlier studies.
Paying Modernity’s Price
In 2016, Medical News Today, an international publication for health news, published the results of a meta-analysis that showed shift work posed an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, and a second study indicated that shift work impaired brain functions like: memory, cognitive speed, and overall brain power. Apparently, we cannot throw off the rhythms that have formed us without threatening our health.
Carla V. Finkielstein, an associate professor of biological sciences at Virginia Tech, said that ” television, computers and longer hours of social activity also contribute to what is referred to as “social jet lag,” as well as many new diseases and disorders that are more prominent in Western societies.” Depression is higher among shift workers. Plus, many of these disorders occur in those who work longer hours than usual. Even too much overtime throws one’s system into a tailspin.
And what can set our mental health back on an even flight path? The outdoors. Being surrounded by nature has been shown again and again to reduce people’s stress, increase their cognitive ability and creativity, and strengthen their ability to focus their attention. Putting aside time to be outside in a pleasant environment shifts our attention away from ourselves and away from negative emotions. Even something as simple as a walk in your local park has been shown to increase your attention, calm stress, and lower your blood pressure.
Remember when I said it took two or three days for me to slip into the rhythm of the trail? Meet David Strayer. He is a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah who specializes in attention, and he talks about something he calls the “three-day effect.” Strayer demonstrated it with a group of Outward Bound participants, who performed 50 percent better on creative problem-solving tasks after three days of wilderness backpacking. “The three-day effect,” Strayer says, “is a kind of cleaning of the mental windshield that occurs when we’ve been immersed in nature long enough.”
So there’s scientific proof for what the early environmentalist, John Muir intuited. He said, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. ” But however beneficial to my health, I will always venture into the wild not because science says I should, but rather how it makes me feel connected to something larger and so very alive. Entering the rhythm of the natural world resonates within us as humans. Nature restores our spirits, heals our bodies, and soothes our weary souls.