When I was little growing up in a rural township in eastern Ohio, I would get on my hand-me-down bicycle, rush down the steep driveway onto the not-so-well-paved road and fly away. Fulfilling a secret dream, I imagined my bike was a horse and whispered sweetly to my handle bars, “Fly, horsey, fly,” as I felt the crisp wind against my face, heard the crunch of the gravel under my tires and tasted the sense of freedom I yearned for.
I wasn’t going far. But it didn’t matter. Around Cope Allotment, the official name of our small neighborhood of less than 20 homes, I rode. Out onto the streets of my small town, and beyond the safety of my home. I might venture across the railroad tracks past the Downtown Square and ride beyond my friend Amy’s house only a few miles away. I felt like I was escaping it all. I felt like I was in charge of my own destiny and nothing could stop me from being whomever or whatever I wanted to be.
Over the years on my self care journey, I have looked for ways to recreate this feeling of freedom and reckless abandon. I look for ways to feel free, peaceful, and joyful just like when I was a kid with little responsibility except cleaning my room and doing my homework.
And you know where I find it the most often? In nature.
I have always felt the freest when out in nature. I have always been able to connect to my inner child when hiking among the trees, standing in a garden, or sitting on a beach. This summer I have had the privilege of visiting some of this country’s most breathtakingly beautiful spaces. Grand Teton National Park, Telluride, Colorado, and the Columbia River Gorge. And in each of these gorgeously natural places, I let nature free my soul.
What is it about nature that makes us feel so free?
There’s plenty of scientific research that shows the physical, cognitive, and mental benefits of spending time in nature. These include improved short-term memory, restored mental energy, stress relief, reduced inflammation, improved concentration, sharper thinking and creativity, boosting our immune system and even possible anti-cancer effects. No wonder I feel so good after a hike in the Arizona desert near my home. But is there even more to it?
Drama Therapist Krista Verrastro, has another theory. She says, “I have come to think that part of nature’s ability to heal is to let us drop our roles when in it. We play roles at home (e.g. spouse, parent, caregiver, etc.), at work (e.g. helper, teacher, expert, etc.), and in social situations (e.g. lover, friend, acquaintance, etc.). Sometimes these roles become stressful, such as feeling burdened by having to be a caregiver to a loved one or on the opposite end having to get used to being taken care of when one is very sick or injured.”
“Nature does not have roles. Plants, soil, water, air, and animals do not take on different roles in life. They do not see themselves or others as social objects or personas in the ways that we humans do. They experience the world merely by being present in it. And when we humans are in their presence, we are able to drop our roles to join them in being present in the world more fully than when we are caught up in the roles we play.”
Ms. Verrastro continues, “Trees, rocks, rivers, and other things in nature just are. A river doesn’t consciously think about carving a canyon, it just does. A mountain doesn’t decide how to be shaped, it just lets itself be influenced by wind and glaciers. And when we humans are in nature, sometimes we’re inspired to just let ourselves be.
“Furthermore, we don’t judge things in nature. We don’t say things such as “That tree is so fat,” “Only pink flowers are beautiful,” or “That river is weak for moving at a slower pace than other rivers.” The judgments we make of ourselves and other people seem related to the roles we play, but since nature doesn’t have those roles we are able to lose our judgments. With us not judging nature and nature not judging us, and with no roles to have to play while interacting with nature, we are then able to be fully present in the moment. With no pressure to impress nature, we are free to let ourselves be immersed in and inspired by nature.”
Let’s get outside to self-care – and let nature free our soul.