-Do you never have enough time?
-Do you get anxious if you haven’t checked the news, your email, or your cell phone in a number of hours?
-Do animals (other than pets) and insects and dirt fill you with anxiety or disgust?
-Do you consider electricity, indoor plumbing, and climate control as essential to life as food and water?
If so, then you may be suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder.
Most of us have it in some form. It is insidious and most are completely unaware of it. Our Nature Deficit Disorder becomes a part of our lives unconsciously, just like the constant hum of traffic and sirens in the city, or a few drinks every night for the functioning alcoholic. Civilization is for us like the air that we breathe, or the water fish swim in – we are so accustomed and adapted to it, we only notice it when its comforts are taken away. But when we choose to step outside of our structured and very civilized lives, we often see ourselves differently. And then we can become aware of our NDD.
For the last several years, I have spent a number of days in the mountains of Wyoming. This year I jokingly told my friends that I was going for my annual treatment for NDD – and we all chuckled. It is not easy to unplug from my busy ‘front country’ life, but when I do get into the mountains, I realize that treating my NDD is more than a joke – it is indeed real. I realize how important this is for my mental and spiritual health. Fully immersed in the front country, I often lose the perspective that I gain when I return to the back country.
Being in the back country, close to Nature, life is simple and requires a different set of practical skills. One’s relationship with the elements and one’s own basic humanity is much more immediate than in the front country. There is also a different relationship with time – it moves slower. Away from civilization, we see time in terms of day and night, weather patterns, seasons, and geologic epochs. The stopwatch, by which we seem to live in the front country, become irrelevant. In the mountains, the things that concern us in our busy suburban lives don’t go away, but they certainly lose their urgency.
It is paradigm-altering to be in a natural setting with animals, insects, plants, the mountains, and the earth on their terms. As civilized humans, we tend to feel that we are in-control; in the back country, we lose that illusion. When the storm comes, we and other animals scurry for a place to hide from the rain and the lightning. If we can’t get across a stream, we have to find a place where we can. If we get hurt, we have to deal with it. If we run out of food, or a bear or a raccoon steals it, we go hungry – unless we can catch more fish, or otherwise live off what we find, or get back to civilization. In short, for a little while and at least a little bit, we get closer to our less-civilized selves – we get a sense for ourselves as part of, rather than apart from, the continuum of Nature.
And then there are the joys of returning to civilization. Turn a knob and get hot, clean water! Go to the bathroom and sit on a toilet! Go to the refrigerator, to the grocery store, to a restaurant and get whatever food you want! Get in your car and cover miles in minutes! These are all features of civilization that we then no longer take for granted. Come back from a tryst with Nature, and we are like a children again: Wow, isn’t that amazing?! Isn’t this wonderful?!
Bertrand Russell, one of the pre-eminent philosophers of the 20th century, wrote that he believed a regular connection with nature and ‘the earth’ was essential to the fulfilled life. For him, as an upper-class Englishmen, that meant long walks in the countryside and gardening. Others find it through hunting and fishing, others through full or part time farming or ranching. The University of Kansas just completed research that shows unequivocally that creativity increases measurably and significantly when one spends time immersed in the outdoors (see article here.)
I grew up fully immersed in the suburban life-style, with its focus on structure, predictability, and organized activities. I had only a few clumsy Boy Scout trips into the wilderness. My time in the woods or other remote areas as a SEAL was so focused on tactical necessities, that there was little opportunity to tune into the beauty or natural wonder of the environment. Later in my post-Navy career, I have found that a total immersion experience of several days to several weeks, living out of a backpack in the mountains, has helped me reconnect to my place in the natural world.
Doing without that which we often believe we can’t live without, carrying everything we need in a backpack, gives a special sense of freedom and independence. Inevitably there is something I wish I had, but chose not to bring, due to limitations in pack size or not wanting to carry the extra weight. Or perhaps I simply forgot it, or didn’t plan for it. There is an old saying among experienced backpackers: If you don’t got it, you don’t need it. This insight can serve us well in the front country too.
There is a spiritual humility that comes from spending time in a place where the illusions of our civilized life are stripped away, and we realize that indeed, we are part of Nature and its cycles, of life and death, of that which appears, and then disappears, and we realize that ultimately, we are not ‘in control.’ When we gaze with wonder upon glacially cut mountains and valleys, or we see how quickly the jungle reclaims that which is left untended, it is easier to realize that in the span of eternity, our life is like one of the sparks that floats up from the camp fire, glows brightly for a moment, and then disappears…
For most civilized folk, visiting and getting to know Nature requires some training and education. Going into the mountains, jungle or wilderness is best done with a guide and done in increments. It is similar to visiting Shanghai, or any other ‘different’ culture. We are always vulnerable, but the unprepared, the naïve, the uneducated, the arrogant, are most vulnerable, and stories are legion, both in Shanghai, and in Nature, of the fate of unassuming and naïve ‘tourists.’ Those of you who know me know that I am partial to the National Outdoor Leadership School, but there are many very competent and otherwise well respected organizations that can help you to reconnect with Nature, at your own pace and in a way that works for you, and help you safely and effectively address the Nature Deficit Disorder that is a ‘natural’ by- product of living with the joys, comforts, and wonders of our 21st century civilization.
Note: “Nature Deficit Disorder” is not my term. It was coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, in which he discusses how and why children are spending less time outdoors. He makes a strong case that this has resulted in a wide range of behavioral and other problems in our society. There is a nice little article on NDD in Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nature_deficit_disorder