Get Out: In Praise of the Natural World

 

I heaved the canoe over my shoulder for our third half-mile portage in knee-high mud, tempting fate by dodging lightning and launching expletives. But as I made my haul, I realized I'd been given a chance to appreciate the natural world I too often took for granted. "This is what life's about," I contemplated. Whereas I'd previously questioned the wisdom of eating from plates that had been all but licked clean by other campers (too many germs, I thought) and struggled to appreciate the unwelcome chill of tent sleeping (too many clothing layers, apparently), I fell in love with the great outdoors in this very moment...despite approaching hypothermia (pro tip: a windbreaker is NOT a raincoat).

"Yes!" I squawked when college administrators had asked me to facilitate a wilderness immersion trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The problem? I'd never been camping before in my life. No matter. Mother Nature proved an awe-inspiring playground. Testing much more than my fitness, this experience introduced me to the mental, emotional, and spiritual benefits of communing with nature. And set me on a new career path.

12 years later, I relish daily the 6,790 acres of parkland and water throughout Minneapolis, the City in a Park. They're my gym, therapist, and church (threefer!). An urbanist with farm kid sensibilities who doubles as a wellbeing and population health professional, I'm awed by the vision of Theodore Wirth, who ensured a playground within a quarter-mile of every child and a recreation center within a half-mile of every family in Minneapolis. I shouldn't be surprised by Mr. Wirth's reverence for nature and outdoor activity—he was raised in my beloved Switzerland, home to the Jungfrau, Grindelwald, Interlaken, Lake Lucerne, Zurich (I could go on)...and "a few of my favorite things": cheese fondue (duh), the world's best jail-turned-hotel (figured I'd end up in jail one way or another), and Roger Federer (swoon).

My love for Minneapolis and Switzerland is eternal but such stunning vistas can be appreciated anywhere. Our city, regional, state, and national parks offer an abundance of natural beauty. Recently, I attended a screening of the new National Parks Adventure film at the Science Museum of Minnesota. The Omnitheater's giant screen offered a breathtaking backdrop for an inspiring "off road" experience of America's wild and unspoiled spaces—mountains, canyons, and other landmarks that constitute our national park system. What a way to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service!

Another way to celebrate the National Park Service is to simply get out(side). In this way, we're actually celebrating life. According to the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality and Healing, nature proffers healing, soothing, restorative, and connective qualities. Being in nature, putting a simple plant in a room, or even viewing scenes of nature reduces anger, fear, and stress, and increases pleasant feelings. Also, we're genetically programmed to become engrossed by trees, plants, water, and other natural elements that can meaningfully distract us from our pain and discomfort, while helping us heal more quickly. Time in nature or viewing nature scenes increase our ability to focus while providing respite for overactive minds at any age. Finally, spending time in nature increases our feelings of empathy, belonging, resilience, and connectedness while reducing street crime, violence, and domestic aggression.

We're at our best when we surround ourselves with nature; in turn, our nation's natural amenities symbolize the very best in life. Whereas we've become increasingly fragmented, greedy, and segregated in other parts of society, our parks and natural environments offer diverse landscapes (often preserved through public-private collaboration) that attract people from all walks: families, retirees, college kids, and outdoor adventurers representing various backgrounds, races, ethnicities, genders, and classes.

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to work with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, for whom I wrote the following ode to green space. I share it today and invite us all to become better stewards of our natural world, our communities, and ourselves.