Saturday, March 30, 2019

Opting out to get back into Life, Disconnecting to ReConnect

Recently a question has been playing around in my mind.  While reading about getting outdoors – whether in your backyard, in a local park, on a regional pathway, or along something like the Bruce Trail or Camino de Santiago – I have begun to wonder why some people choose activities such as walking, running, cycling, trekking or thru hiking when they seek a lifestyle change?  It seems to be a choice more and more people are making these days. 

As life gets busier and busier, bills get higher and higher, and bank accounts get smaller and smaller – more of us seem increasingly dissatisfied.  However, as we all see regularly in the news – it seems that in response to these pressures many turn to opioids, alcohol, gambling, video games, or drugs.  Reports of the influences of the stresses and pressures of life – especially on millennial's – are now, sadly common place and frequent.  Yet – often not acknowledged is the fact that increasingly, in this hyper connected world people are also choosing to unplug and venture out back into nature. 

So what pulls one set of people to nature – what do they see there?  How does nature help re-balance and give perspective to our lives?  What is it about birding and hiking that pulls so many people outdoors and that can help each of us refocus and navigate this busy world?

Now at the outset let me first acknowledge that everyone reacts differently to changes in their lives.  Graduating High School, finishing college, breakups, divorce, mid life crisis, and the loss of a job..... many of us have a nutty and that just what it is. (Sadly neither chocolate nor ice cream fixes everything! Trust me I have tried.)  For the lucky few a relaxing weekend, some time with friends, or a summer vacation can right the world for them.  For many others there is a need to reorient, re-establish their bounds, and reconnect.  The reality is that, regardless of how we all react during these moments, a change in our lives is either forced on us or is coming.  And this is unnerving because a forced change makes us all feel powerless.  It is unsurprising then that during such moments each of us needs some time away from everything to figure things out.  This brings us back to the question – what propels some people into nature and how can being outdoors help us reconnect to ourselves?

Benefits of Connecting into Nature

At the outset I think we have to acknowledge that the world of the 21st century is tough and challenging - especially for youth - who increasingly spend so much time online, where there is almost no reprieve from commentary, critiques, bullying, negativity, and online trolls.  Students wake up, go to school, go to work, and come home plugged in to constant commentary.  With so many other voices barraging them I wonder where they find their own?  Or navigate the world once the online forums target them?  

More than these challenges, spending so much time on a computer instead of outside, playing, and exploring means that people have less and less of an understanding of their physical capabilities, they have less opportunity to develop their own self awareness or to be creative on their own terms.  Today achievements have been transformed into online postings rather than personal accomplishments, and mistakes have the potential to go viral and haunt us for years.  Amid all of this, finding some breathing room is undoubtedly very hard – if not impossible.   I think some time engaged with nature would help ground all of us to the actual and restore some perspective, common sense, and individuality to the world.  Ultimately, each of us would be better prepared for life by having more time and experiences in the wild.  

So what are some of the benefits of connecting to nature?

(1)    You get to disconnect from the “business” of daily events and reconnect to life through nature!

(2)    The natural sounds, rhythms, sights, smells, atmosphere - inherently relax us all.  We are part of this system after all and our bodies and minds feel more peaceful once they are back outdoors.   In these ways and so many others, nature provides each of us with moments of peace and simplicity which calm and relax each of us. In short time in nature – listening to bird songs – improves our mental health.

(3)    The outdoors allows us all to slow down our minds and provides us with time to figure things out. Studies have demonstrated that time in nature reduces stress, tension, anxiety and relieves depression.

(4)    Getting outdoors, even for short periods to walk or enjoy a moment on a bench in the sun makes us healthier!  Vitamin D, fresh air, and increased mobility are all the result of getting back into nature. 

(5)    Nature is relatively permanent; amid an ever changing world nature is a touchstone which you can count on and return to when you want!

(6)    Nature is not demanding – it waits for you, accepts you, and lets you be to enjoy, relax, listen, meander, and explore at your own pace.  This means that time spend in the outdoors gives you a break from society, its expectations, and commentary.

(7)    Nature can give you more control.  You can choose to walk today, or not.  You can choose how long you stay outdoors or sit watching the bird feeder.  You can even choose what type of feed to put out to attract the birds of your choice.

(8)    Nature allows you to discover and satisfy your innate curiosities about the world.  It also has been proven that time in nature improves personal creativity. 

(9)    Nature increases your own Personal Awareness.  Time spent outdoors allows you to know about yourself, your body, what skills you have, and what your limits are.  Nature more than anything else allows us each to ‘know thy self.’  The benefits of which mean that our understandings are not reliant on friend’s, interpretations, or social judgment.  In nature you know what you can and cannot do through your own experiences.  Experiential education is the best!

(10)Time spent physically engaged with nature gives way to Personal Growth – you increase your mental health, fortitude, and while walking, hiking, cycling you increase your physical strength which makes each of us more adaptive to the challenges around us.

(11)Nature gives you a different perspective.  With each trip outdoors, you will see something new – a new type of tree, a seasonal bird, or different part of your community.  So time outdoors, gives each of us a different perspective, makes us aware of different options, and in turn fosters creative thinking. 

(12)Above all, even for Citizen Scientists who are reporting their observations online, being out in nature gives you perspective and context to reflect upon.  Even the online reporting process, provides a positive focus for people to be able to beneficially contribute and become part of a supportive network of like minded people.  In many ways participants and contributors in the Citizen Sciences are a community.

So disconnecting from the online world allows us to reconnect with ourselves, our families, and our friends!

Come Walk With Us: The Goal

Our goal is hiking across Canada is to promote getting youth back outdoors, back into nature, reminding them of the beauty of the natural world through birding, and to re-introduce them to the benefits of time spent in the wilderness.  The hope is that promoting these experiences – the types of experiences people 15-20 years ago got in school and that for decades people enjoyed amid family outings, in Scout Troops, Girl Guide Camp outs, and through local organizations - youth will be better able to manage the challenges that lie ahead in their lives. It will show them that nature and the outdoors is a simple and accessible bastion which any of us can turn to and reconnect through.  Nature and birding provide a break and reprieve from the demands of the online world which so many of us are caught up in. 

To be clear, I am not proclaiming that nature is the cure to all that ails us or will resolve all the difficulties that people face on a daily basis.  But I do know that time spent in nature is not time lost.

My school camping trips, my summer hikes with family, years spent kayaking and trekking, and the last three years filled with increasing numbers of thru-hikes have done more to ground me and educate me to the realities and diversity of the world than any time I have spent in school or in the board room at work.  I know more about myself, my capabilities, and interests, and have a deeper appreciation for other people’s perspectives because of what I learned on the trail.  Simply put, hiking , birding and my time in nature have all made me a better person – and now for the next three years I hope to convince school boards, regional organizations, and families across Canada that getting back outdoors will help their children to be better people too.  The more people get outdoors, the more they explore, the better they feel, the more they appreciate how wonderful so much of Canada is, the more they know, and the more they will desire to stay engaged in this world and strive to protect and improve it.  

Through education and awareness, individuals can develop a passion and concern for birds and their habitat. This fuels their desire to want to help contribute to bird conservation through the Citizen Sciences, habitat management, and lifelong environmental stewardship. Such awareness also helps youth develop an appreciation for birds, forests, natural resources, and the natural world as a whole.

Ecological connectivity is essential.  Hiking is hard, but so is life – perhaps some time spent doing one will improve how we handle challenges in the other.

Given all of this, perhaps now is the moment for youth to spend less time at desks and in textbooks, and more time playing, staying active, and learning about themselves through experiences.  Experiential learning through birding and hiking....disconnecting to reconnect.....sounds good to me....

Spring is finally here~!

See you on the trail...

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