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Naturalist Notebook

When in doubt, go out, outside, that is

woman sitting on a fallen tree stump reflecting

I don’t know about the rest of you, but this year has made me tired of technology and noise. Zoom meetings, Skype chats, cluttered inboxes, social media, cars, trains, and sirens, it never seems to end. In fact, close your eyes right now and listen to the world around you. What do you hear? Are there cars going by? A train? How about air conditioning noises? Your kids playing (arguing over a toy)? Most of us are bombarded every day by a barrage of sounds, information and activities.

Yesterday, my mind and body rebelled after four and a half hours straight of Zoom and Skype meetings and trainings. I felt like fleeing, screaming or both, and so I practiced my mantra which is “When in doubt, go out, outside that is." It was thankfully lunchtime, so I grabbed my keys and drove out of town; over the train tracks, past the noisy streets full of cars, out into the countryside. I drove to my local farm stand where I pick up my weekly CSA share (best way to get fresh locally grown food, in my opinion), parked and enjoyed the fresh air, blue skies and the abundance of beautiful veggies arranged in tubs. And I took a moment to appreciate the vivid blue of the sky and the white puffy cumulus clouds that were floating by and just took a deep breath.

A favorite author of mine, Wendell Berry, wrote, “I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief... For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” There is something freeing about being out in nature. When we get closer to nature, we do our over-stressed brains a favor. And, people instinctively know this. One just has to look at the people flocking to the beaches this summer or notice how many are walking their dogs or jogging. There is a need for green spaces that I believe is as deeply embedded in our DNA as is what color of eyes we have.

Of course, my belief is made intuitively and here at Extension we deal with scientific evidence to support our ideas and suggestions, so here is the data. According to Harvard researchers, calming nature sounds and even outdoor silence can lower blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which calms the body's fight-or-flight response (which could explain why my sense of needing to flee or scream after all those meetings left me once I was at the farm stand). They also compared the brain activity of healthy people after they walked for 90 minutes in either a natural setting or an urban one. They found those who did the nature walk had less activity in the prefrontal cortex. This is the region of the brain that is active during rumination. You know those repetitive thoughts that focus on negative emotions. So more nature equals less negative thoughts and more feelings of calm.

So as your local neighborhood naturalist (who is not a doctor), I prescribe a dose of the great outdoors for everyone. Remember your “sit spot” that you picked out back last September? Now is a great time to visit it again. Have a local park? Early morning or dusk are great times to visit when crowds are usually smaller. Ever been on a Sunday drive? My grandparents used to do this all the time, and now is a great time to bring back the tradition. There is an antidote to the endless technology and noise of our daily lives and it is just a matter of “when in doubt, go out.”