Would you like to improve your health, boost your immune system, sharpen your brain function, brighten your mood, and get a better night's sleep? You can accomplish all of this by--literally--getting in touch with nature. It seems hard to believe in our technology-driven Western society, yet the Japanese have extensively studied the effects of being in nature, or "forest bathing" and found multiple measurable health benefits. And research in the United States has shown that a physical connection to the earth brings health benefits that include reduced stress, better sleep, and a lessening of harmful electromagnetic fields.
It's part part of a wider practice called "rewilding," according to Julianne Skai Arbor, arborist, forest ecotherapist, and author of TreeGirl: Intimate Encounters with Wild Nature to be published in January. The term rewilding is often used to mean returning large swathes of the Earth to their natural state, but Arbor and others believe that bringing humans back into a more natural relationship with our environment is a necessary part of the process. "It is an illusion to think we can manipulate separate parts of Nature to regenerate and preserve them into a less damaged state without reviving human culture at the same time," she writes. "We are going to have to willingly let ourselves out of our cages."
Rewilding doesn't necessarily mean we have to give up our smartphones, stop driving our cars, or otherwise abandon the trappings of modern life (although unplugging temporarily on a regular basis is a good idea even if you aren't rewilding). It does mean rekindling our romance with the natural world and exploring the wild being within each of us. "Recognize that this culture is completely out of control, and that you are not crazy for fantasizing about quitting your job and moving to Hawaii to spend all your time snorkeling (or whatever a peaceful paradise would be for you). That may be your wild, but sane, inner Homo sapiens calling to you," she explains.
If you're hearing that call, or just want to give rewilding a try, Arbor has some great suggestions for how to get started:
1. Go outside barefoot.
Podiatrists and other scientists have extolled the virtue of walking barefoot, especially in nature. "Our feet contain 7,000 nerve endings, 107 ligaments, 19 muscles, 26 bones, and 6 meridians," Arbor notes. Most of us keep all those things contained inside shoes most of the time. But, as Arbor notes, there's a growing movement of people who engage in barefoot walking and even hiking.
Arbor herself doesn't endorse going barefoot all the time, given the the danger of stepping on something sharp or getting chilled. "I do encourage a bit of exploration with our bare paws every once in a while," she writes. "Take your shoes off and feel the temperature, the texture, and the sensations of the world beneath your feet." She recommends trying to do this every day, if only for a minute or so.
2. Or simply touch nature.
If you can't or don't want to use your feet to connect with the earth, there are other options. For instance, it can be just as rewarding to put your palms on the earth. "There are a total of 17,000 touch receptors and free nerve endings in the palm of the hand," she notes. Or try sitting or lying on the earth or on a tree, she advises. "If you only have 60 seconds every day to go outside, simply making skin contact with the earth with your hands, feet, or entire body is very powerful in itself, and just might keep you young."
3. Learn some traditional skills.
Arbor encourages readers to "become a naturalist," finding and collecting interesting bits from nature such as tones, sticks, birds' nests, shells, and so on. "The next logical path to rewilding is to learn the skills and knowledge of our ancestors from tens of thousands of years ago," she writes. "Today we call that ethnobotany, ancestral technology, or traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). These ways include identifying, foraging, and processing plants and trees for use in food and medicine; as dyes and fiber for weaving baskets, clothing, ropes, nets, and mats; to make musical instruments and ceremonial objects; or to construct shelter and watercraft."
It isn't just about arts and crafts, either. Learning to understand bird and animal calls, tracking, hunting, fishing, hide tanning, making fire, and reading the weather and landscape are all useful ancient skills that most of us don't have anymore. But we can relearn them. "There are growing numbers of resources available for acquiring these skills: books, museums, websites, workshops, convergences, and people," Arbor writes. "I suggest that you start locally and bioregionally, learning skills people used historically in your area or from your own cultural heritage, knowing that they are traditional, not dead or 'primitive.' There are probably still elders in your area who are teaching the younger generations many of these living skills." Once you learn these skills, she adds, pass them on by teaching them to others.
4. Become a slow photographer.
There's something akin to the Slow Food movement happening in photography, Arbor says. It's a reaction to the ubiquitous cell phone camera which allows most of us to take so many photos so quickly that "photography can become an almost unconscious experience, with the camera replacing our own sense of vision," she writes.
In contrast, "The point of Slow Photography is to enjoy the creative process, not just the product--to really be present to what you are photographing, paying more attention to your subject than to capturing the moment in time. For some photographers, Slow Photography is about taking very long exposures. For others, it is about bringing back old-school manual cameras, cumbersome and slow-exposure large-format cameras, or even the elementary pin-hole camera. All of these techniques require time."
As a tree photographer, Arbor says she deliberately slows herself down, sometimes spending days photographing a single tree. "After the shooting, there are more slow processes: photo editing, more research, writing about the natural history of the species, remembering, reflecting, and sharing my experiences," she writes. As with all Slow movements, "the value is in the experience, and not the end result."
5. Climb a tree.
"Tree climbing is what ecopsychologist Peter Kahn calls a 'core human interaction pattern,'" Arbor writes. That may be another way of saying it's a basic human urge. Almost everyone, faced with a beautiful tree that has low-hanging, solid branches, feels the impulse to climb on.
Serious tree climbing, involving ropes, harnesses, helmets, and so on, is a thing these days, Arbor notes. It's enjoyable, appropriate for everyone, and can give you a whole new perspective and confidence level, she says.
You can get a whole new perspective from up in a tree, she says. And it's a great way to reawaken your ancient, wild self.