While talking with a friend about life goals the other day, I said “I dream of living in nature.” He said “You already are.” Ummm…I live in the borough of Queens in NYC surrounded by asphalt, continuous construction, whining sirens, and millions of people. The idea that I am currently within nature uses the more expansive definition to include an urban area as nature. And yeah it technically is. A metropolitan is built upon the same multilayers of earth
crust as a forest is and it’s housed by people (we are nature!). Yet I will argue that it’s not the same.
So, let me be more specific.
I dream of living on a piece of land surrounded by hearty woods, pillowy moss, wild stinky mushrooms, at least 37 species of birds, and fresh hushed air. There is peace and well-being that can come from being in that type of environment. The variety of fungi species in an acre of forest alone is enough to keep a professional biologist busy for an entire career. While the quiet and solitude of nature may create a spike in anxiety for some personalities, it brings my body a sense of calm. It’s where I was raised.
Growing up on two acres of secluded woods in suburban Kansas City is where I learned to value nature’s offerings. To study the paths of deer and identify poisonous snakes. To take to the friendliness of trees as a companion when humans were too much (or not enough).
Why It’s Important for City Folk to Connect With Nature
As I come up on my eight year anniversary of living in New York City, I’ve been contemplating why it’s important to stay connected to nature while living in a big city. This metro moves fast like spring melt river water. There are G trains to run after, gallery openings not to miss, appointments scheduled back to back, and somewhere in there ya gotta breathe. And duh, there’s technology in your hand.
Technology is like a miniature city at your fingertips. It moves real quick, is constantly being updated, and truly doesn’t ever sleep. While technology is important and a fact of our evolution, it needs to be considered only a part of our lives.
It took me some time to get used to big city living. To prioritize finding nature here. The city parks are incredible free resources and I make it a point to spend time in them. I take lunch there or a book or nothing. There are higher quality nature areas easily accessible outside of the city. A quick one hour train will take you there.
My favorite is a day hike upstate. When I’m out on the trails my mind has space to breathe. My lungs literally breathe more oxygen than in the exhaust-filled air of the city. I have creative breakthroughs amidst the trees. They teach resilience. If a tree limb breaks, energy from the soil doesn’t stop. It simply finds a new path. The other limbs get stronger; the tree carries on amidst a trauma.
I’m not saying everyone needs to pull a Thoreau and go live secluded in the woods. But maybe instead of reaching to check your social media and dive into the internet black hole for an hour….maybe you could go outside for a 5 minute walk instead. Soak in some sunlight on your skin face; feel all warm moving the joints of your body; relax and stretch your extraocular muscles while looking at something far away. When we stare at screens all day, our eye muscles are contracting overtime. This can create a thickening of the lens inside the eyeball, eye fatigue, eye strain and headache.
Consider your relationship to nature…
What does it provide for you?
How often do you interact with it?
Are there other things you prioritize? Why? What value do they bring to your life?
How to Regularly Swap Technology For Nature
Here are a couple simple ways to take a break from the computer (or technology in general) and find nature in the city. They can take as little as one minute to do:
Close the computer screen. Walk away from the desk while rolling your shoulders around a bit. Go look out a window for at least a minute. Find something far away to study intently. It’s could be a tree that’s slowly growing buds. Or a sparrow fighting with its winged neighbor. Or if you’re feeling extra dreamy, watch a few clouds mingle, dance, then disperse.
Grab a pair of therapy balls and lay on the floor or lean up against a wall. Massage into any part of the body that feels cranky. Pretend you are a big grizzly bear coming out of hibernation and scratch that itchy muscle.
Go outside for a short walk. Be daring and leave your cell phone inside! See how many different surfaces you can walk on (large rocks, cement, guardrails, tree roots, grass embankment, gravel, puddles, etc.) Take ten deep breaths as you walk. Notice the sensation of air traveling down the back of the throat. Is is cool or warm in temperature? Can you notice a quality of humidity or dryness? Is there a taste of the air?
Find a tree with a solid branch you can reach. Wrap your hands around it and dangle the rest of your body. This is called brachiation.
I find after a small nature break (or simply getting outside for a few breaths) offers a reframe of where I am in space and who I am. So instead of subtly believing I AM THE COMPUTER; MUST PRODUCE; MUST DO MORE — say this is a robot voice for full affect — Instead I can sense that I am one little speck amidst a whole ecosystem of organisms big and small.
Technology is way cool and connects us in certain ways. It is absolutely a fact of our human evolution. Technology will only get faster and more ingrained into our world. And this is exactly the reason I believe we must stay connected to nature in some way on the regular.
The Gains From a Walk in a City Park
The other day a different friend reached out asking to go on a walk together. For no reason other than to spend time. I suggested Forest Park in far Queens. It’s a lovely spot with vein-like patterns of walking paths far enough from highways to experience some quiet. The trees are old, lengthy, and home to more than sparrows. We spotted a cruising hawk, a male cardinal, and crunched our way through snow. The sound of our feet alone made my nervous system swoon in loving ovation.
I felt so much peace after our walk. For many reasons. In part because I appreciated the companionship of my friend. Feeling connected to another is part of what makes us human – socializing, sharing experiences, discussing life.
In part because nature has a calming quality. It doesn’t rush itself. The fall leaves decay over the span of a season, with the goal of new baby spring growth in mind. Nutrients slow soak into topsoil with the pelleting of rain or snow melt. And the color pop blooms of warmer months rupture when they are well and ready. Nature can’t rush it.
We can’t rush ourselves either.
Deadlines will come and go. Email will still pour into your inbox even after your body goes back to the earth.
So take some time now while your senses are still intact. Savor the nature you can find. Go stand with a tree, notice the ridged texture under your palm, and admire how committed it is to living right there. Or dip your hands into sand. Acknowledge the lengthy process a solid rock took to become an expanse of sand particles dripping between your fingers. Unpluck your earbuds and listen closely. Nature can be full of chaos at times. Hear the rampage of dry leaves when the wind picks up. Or the cacophony of city sparrows as they argue. Tho maybe they’re telling jokes about how humans feverishly wish for wings.
Originally published April 3, 2019 on the Tune Up Fitness® Blog