"Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished." -Lao Tzu
Some of my richest childhood memories involve being outside. Whether it was an extended camping trip to North Carolina or just going out in my backyard, I spent a fair portion of my early years outdoors. I would play in the dirt, construct tree forts, and battle invisible enemies with sticks. My brother and I would splash in streams and ponds collecting crayfish, tadpoles, and turtles. I remember growing up very dirty and very happy. Fewer and fewer children are having these outdoor experiences. And for that I am a little sad.
When we spend more time outside many positive things happen simultaneously. First, mature ecosystems like forests, steams, and grasslands are the most complex learning environments on the planet and imbue us with more information than we realize. Every major contribution of humankind to science and medicine has its roots in natural phenomena -- calculus, penicillin, aeronautics, etc. Second, by interacting with nature on a daily basis we sync up better with the local environment. Time outside in the sun with your shoes off is an excellent way to reset your circadian rhythm and get better sleep (especially important with the upcoming time change). Plus, getting our bodies dirty with soil and pollen is excellent for our gut microbiome and immune system. Third, being in nature reminds us of how small, yet interconnected we really are.
Being in the natural and holistic health fields I often am asked the question, 'what is natural?' Embedded in this question are two other questions--'what is our timeline and what are the consequences?' Are we talking about natural for this generation, or natural for human history, or natural for Earth's history? Each of these suggests a different answer. Geologically speaking, humans are an insignificant part of Earth's history, yet we have become a force of nature in our own right. And while, technically, anything that we produce is 'natural,' we have the unique responsibility of weighing whether or not the changes we make are going to be creative or destructive.
The most elegant answers to the question of 'what is natural?' are the ones that are the simplest and produce the most anti-fragile outcomes. In other words, the natural system is the one that becomes stronger and more sustainable over time. Take diabetes, hypertension, or weight management for example. The simplest answers to these maladies is exercise, sleep, and eating right. The trojan horse of taking medication starts the patient down a path of deleterious side effects, poor habits, and, ultimately, further medication. If our goal is to live long, happy, and disease-free lives, then the path is actually quite obvious. Build better habits.
Dan Buettner wrote a book in 2008 called The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who Have Lived the Longest. The subtitle is a bit cheesy, but the book's findings are sound. The basic summary is that the Earth's seven zones of the oldest average citizens all have several basic characteristics -- daily exercise, interwoven communities, whole-food diets, moderate alcohol consumption, limited stress, high amounts of shared property, and a strong connection to place and purpose. If we want to live well, we would be wise to incorporate as many of these properties as possible in our own lives.
When life gets me down, I think about what a blue-zoner would do. They would call up a friend, go on a walk outside, and then cook some good food together. No need to purchase a fleeting piece of happiness, or self-medicate with Netflix while you stay at home and eat chips. Oftentimes the best answer takes a little bit more effort upfront, but makes life so much easier later. Do the right thing and nature will take care of the rest. Be patient and kind with yourself.