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Reclaiming Your Place in the World
By: Beth McHugh 2006
Compared to our parents and grandparents, most of us live in an overwhelmingly synthetic environment and our bodies struggle to maintain our connectedness with the natural world around us. We drive where our parents would once have walked, we live in apartments hundreds of feet above ground level, we breath air-conditioned air, we seldom feel earth beneath our feet.
Our bodies are highly adaptive instruments but they are not infinitely adaptive. There comes a point in time when the lack of fresh air, the lack of connectedness with the earth, the absence of natural substances all combine to make us sick. Yet the sickness may be so subtle that we do not notice that we have changed. Sometimes we put this sickness down to a physical or emotional illness, not recognizing the true origins of our malaise.
Research backs this idea up. Studies on young children in high density housing areas such as New York have reported high levels of aggression, learning difficulties, concentration problems, poor social skill development, and a raft of other undesirable behavior patterns.
However, when these children were taken out of the city environment one day a fortnight for a period of three months in a groundbreaking experiment on child and adolescent behavior, something miraculous happened. Their behavior improved, particularly hyperactivity levels and aggressive behaviors. Their general mood became more stabilized and their school grades rose accordingly.
So where did the researchers take these children? They took them to the country. For one whole day a fortnight, these children experienced grass under their feet, fresh air, and farm life. Just one day a fortnight was sufficient to see significant changes in these troubled children. The researchers involved in the study concluded that the harsh noises, and particularly shapes and colors associated with inner city living were acting to overstimulate the brains of these children, causing social and behavioral problems which were then wrongly interpreted as psychological problems. They also concluded that the predominance of the color green provided a soothing influence on the overwhelmed nervous systems of these children.
But these maladies don’t just happen to children; we adults are just as susceptible to living in an environment that we simply weren’t designed to experience. Sick building syndrome is a manifestation of how much we have lost touch with our natural environment.
So what can we do to save ourselves, our children, and our environment?
While the myriad of technical advances that have occurred in the 20th century have made our lives in the 21st century noticeably easier, it has come at a price. We have exchanged our natural heritage for technological advances. But we don’t have to give up our washing machine and go back to the communal stream in order to reclaim our natural place in the world.
We can’t just pack up our desks and wander off into a life in the wilderness. While some people do just that, for most of us it just isn’t practical. So how can we recapture the essence of nature and incorporate this powerful life-force back into our lives?
Spending as much time in nature is the obvious remedy to our 21st century malaise. Going to the beach, walking along quiet country lanes, feeling the sand and earth between our toes. Yet, living in a city does not make for easy access to the natural environment so we must look for other ready solutions.
Subtly changing your personal environment can make big changes in your mental outlook. Surrounding yourself with pieces of nature can help capture the peace and tranquility that our forebears experienced on a daily basis. Gather stream-smoothed stones and display them on your workbench. Collect an assortment of beautiful leaves and have them nearby so that you can experience the different textures of nature in your hands. Hang a wind chime to catch the breeze and listen to the gentle tinkle as the air moves about you. Place pots of aromatic herbs such as lavender, lemon thyme, and basil near doors and windows. Crush the leaves and breathe in their heady fragrance. Become aware of the beauty of nature that is all around you if you care to look.
Even a concrete path will show the unmistakable signs of nature at
work, busy thrusting weeds upwards towards the light of the sun. Frequently
remind yourself that you, too, are a part of the natural world. You
will feel calmer and more relaxed when you allow the presence of nature
to permeate gentle back into your life.
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