Discovering silence, solitude and night darkness in a world full of everything else

 

“Listen more often. To things than to beings. The fire’s voice is heard, hear the voice of water. Hear in the wind the bush sob: It is the ancestors’ breath.” Birago Diop, Senegalese poet and storyteller

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Sunset over the Appalachians and the prelude to an incredible dark night sky                                   (photo by Mark Ellison)

Silence. Solitude. Night darkness. They each offer a sense of peace as well as health benefits, but seemingly are shunned by a world too busy to appreciate them. To many, they may seem foreign after being bathed in noise, navigating through crowded cities and living in neighborhoods with lights on 24/7. When was the last time you truly experienced silence, solitude or darkness? Have you ever embraced them as part of who you are? If you haven’t, you are missing out on some of the best gifts that nature provides.

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The soothing sound of a creek in the late afternoon (photo by Mark Ellison)

It is difficult to be attentive to what nature has to share with our earbuds in and our smart phones captivating all of our attention. We often have a closer relationship with our phone than nature. Are we trying to distract ourselves from  a reality that includes constant waves of traffic noise, leaf blowers and ambient light that blurs the view of stars in the night sky. Just as sound permeates nearly every corner of the world, human created light protrudes deep into the wilderness as well.

In his book Silence: In the Age of Noise, Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge talks about the silence within us, around us and the silence we must create. Silence is a luxury for all creatures. Bird songs have even changed because of noise. The lower tones used by birds have disappeared,  replaced with higher tones to compete with human noise. This has made it more difficult for birds to attract a mate.  Kagge describes the opportunity to experience silence as a disparity that gives some people the opportunity to enjoy longer, healthier, richer lives than many others. Indeed, noise pollution is one of the biggest stressors in modern life.

How do we find the silence within us? In Japan, Shinrin-yoku, or forest therapy was introduced in the 1980’s and is now becoming popular in the United States, as a way for stressed out urbanites to improve their health. The path to this for me has always been through nature. It takes hours for me to filter out the thoughts, stress and garbage in my brain and spirit to arrive at this place. It requires being in a natural environment that is free of human created noise, light and buildings. Wilderness areas are a wonderful escape, as are trails that are off the beaten path, as well as just getting away from population centers. If you live in an urban area, it may not be possible to access this kind of nature regularly. However, you can find places that offer some escape from it all.

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The Japanese poet Bashō eloquently describes the power of listening in a haiku: An old pond. A frog jumps in. The sound of water! (photo by Mark Ellison)

Being alone in nature can have a transformative impact. Experiencing the silence of nature solo “can provide awareness, understanding and clarification of one’s place,  purpose and direction in life,” according to Clifford  Knapp and Thomas Smith in their book Exploring the power of solo, silence and solitude. They add that going outside into nature can help us go into our minds.

Just as silence and being alone seem foreign, so can being out in nature in darkness. Darkness  cradles mystery and the unknown. It magnifies sounds and intensifies imagination  because it limits what we can see. Darkness, like quiet and solitude, is a gift if we are open to embracing it. Freedom from the stimulation of human created light is beneficial for humans as well as animals. Wilderness offers us a cocoon from the unrelenting glare of modern life that disrupts sleep, causes stress and hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. Human created light also has a negative impact on many animals.

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Tracking down the One Square Inch of Silence in Hoh Rain Forest, Olympic National Park (photo by Mark Ellison)

Being able to experience wonder and awe are two huge benefits of silence, solitude and darkness in nature. In the book Surprise: Embrace the unpredictable and engineer the unexpected, Tania Luna and Leeann Renninger, Ph.D talk about the necessity of surprising yourself by turning on the sense of wonder.  The suggest doing this by slowing down and looking closer. This could be looking at a wildflower, listening to stream, gazing into the depth of a sky filled with hundreds of stars. Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book Braiding Sweetgrass encourages us to recognize “the dazzling gifts of the world, and to respond to the world as a gift.” Don’t try to put a name on the wonder, just experience it.

Seeking out experiences of awe is also important. Awe is described by Luna and Renninger as a surprise that is stirred up by something unfathomably vast or complex. Nature is the most common trigger. Awe helps us reframe ourselves as small and the world as vast. Awe also makes us feel like we have more time… an “extended now.” Experiences of awe are rare. You have to actively seek them out.

For those who are not yet comfortable with the silence, solitude and darkness nurtured in nature, that can change. Perhaps taking a hint from the authors of Surprise, it might take putting yourself in a position to grow. “It’s the moments we surprise ourselves and grow our comfort zone that we find the most meaningful. We feel most comfortable when things are certain, but we feel most alive when they’re not. By stepping outside your comfort zone you grow your comfort zone.” That is the challenge. It might make you somewhat uncomfortable, but you will feel so much more ALIVE!

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Soaking in silence, solitude and soon to be darkness (photo by Mark Ellison)

Making time and taking the first step towards experiencing something outside your comfort zone can feel scary. On the other side of that is exhilaration and deep peace.

So go for it. Make time in your schedule this year to enjoy the silence, solitude and night darkness wrapped up for you as a gift in nature. And while you are there, be sure to thank the plants, animals, trees and stars for making it all possible.

 

Why I Fell in Love With Wilderness

I can’t say exactly when I finally realized how important wilderness is to me.

I started venturing out when I was 19, and had just moved to the mountains of western North Carolina to attend college. I was (and still am) in awe of the beauty of the mountains. Living in a small college town next to Great Smoky Mountains National Park provided a gateway to explore an United Nations International Biosphere Reserve every day. I ventured out on trails, went out on mountain ridges to look at the stars, took books out into the forest to read, set up my easel and canvas at mountain overlooks to create paintings, camped, and in the process learned a lot about myself.

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Appalachian Wilderness (Photo by Mark Ellison)

I love all types of nature, but wilderness is what captivates me. Primarily because it provides freedom from human created noise, space to wander and explore, and biodiversity that is mesmerizing. I, like many others, find comfort just knowing that these places exist as an escape.

The Wilderness Act of 1964   created the legal definition of wilderness in the United States, and protected 9.1 million acres of federal land. This act defines wilderness as: “a wilderness, in contract with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

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Spring Salamander (Photo by Mark Ellison)

When I was in graduate school at NC State I read the book Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Nash in preparation for my dissertation and research on the restorative benefits of hiking in wilderness. That book, more than any other helped me understand the importance of wilderness, not just to provide places for humans to experience nature, but also as land set aside for other species. Humans setting aside space for such a purpose epitomizes our responsibility for the well-being of the planet and all the species that inhabit it. The concept that we are visitors in wilderness, that it is a place that is set aside for other species, draws me in. So much of our planet is now developed with very little concern about the impact on the natural environment.

Wilderness is about so much more than what it can offer me. There are many reasons I love it, in addition to it’s place as a refuge for so many non-human species.

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Rain on an Eastern Hemlock (Photo by Mark Ellison)

One of the most wonderful aspects of wilderness is that it does not place any demands on my attention. I am free to focus on what captures my interest. A bird chirping from high in a tree, clouds, the breeze, water flowing in a stream, the rustling of leaves, or looking deep into a dark night sky. It most cases, I do not hear any cars, or motorcycles, or people talking. There is an occasional plane, even at the One Square Inch of Silence in Olympic National Park that we visited last spring. My mind is free to wonder.

These soft fascinations, as Stephen & Rachel Kaplan describe them, are interesting but do not demand all our attention. This allows our indirect attention capacities to kick in, letting our directed attention capacities that we use regularly to rest and recover from fatigue. Returning home and to work after spending time in wilderness undoubtedly improves my ability to focus and makes me a much more fun person to hang out with.

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Wildflowers in the Smokies (Photo by Mark Ellison)

One of the most wonderful things about wilderness is that I can go there to do absolutely nothing.  I was recently looking over a note a friend from long ago gave me that included a passage from the Tao of Pooh that describes the experience well. “Say Pooh, why aren’t you busy? I said. Because it’s a nice day says Pooh. Yes, but–, why ruin it he said. But you could be doing something important, I said. I am, said Pooh. Oh, doing what? Listening, he said. Listening to what? To the birds. And the squirrel over there. What are they saying? I asked. That it’s a nice day, said Pooh. But you know that already I said. Yes, but it’s always good to hear that somebody else thinks so, too, he replied.”

It really shouldn’t be a surprise, but when I spend time in wilderness my spirit is renewed. I have more energy. Perhaps it is because I am venturing into a place that is so different than what I experience during a typical day, that it feels like I am going to another world.

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Up high in the Smokies (Photo by Mark Ellison)

Perhaps the most important component of the wilderness experience for me is reconnecting with the natural environment and understanding that I am part of a much larger universe. It is here that I can see the thread of life that is woven through all things. I use this time to express gratitude to the trees, the wildflowers, the water, and all the other species for what they do to make our world inhabitable and beautiful. We must take care of the trees and plants that have done so much to care for us. Understanding that we are in a reciprocal relationship with the natural environment is essential to the continued well-being of all species, including us. Wilderness cradles what is left of the dynamic diversity of earth. It is a refuge.

I love the feeling of being outside.  Fully alive. Free. Soaking in the view of the stars, the sunset, wildflowers, trees, streams, and the solitude and silence that embrace them. Wilderness has nurtured my health and well-being.

Wilderness is the only place I can experience these things. That is why I love wilderness.

 

Preserving Dark Night Skies

Dark night skies play an important role in the health of humans, animals and the ecosystems we are part of. This is an article I wrote for the fall issue of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy”s magazine about the need to preserve dark night skies and the unique place the AT has in providing access to view it.

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Sunset and the prelude to an incredible dark night sky in the Appalachian Mountains of NC

The Importance of Healthy Forests

The health of forests is closely linked to our own health. This is an article that I wrote for the spring issue of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy magazine Journeys. I hope it encourages you to slow down, enjoy the beauty of the forests near you, and to invest your time, energy,  and resources to help protect them.

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Hemlock trees are a vanishing site in the southern Appalachians (photo by Mark Ellison)

 

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Top Five Ways Nature Strengthens Your Mind and Body

By Mark A. Ellison, Ed.D

I am sure you are familiar with the Lao Tzu’s saying, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” When it comes to nature it could not be any more true. I began escaping to nature for restoration when I was 19, and it is a habit that I have continued ever since. It is the cornerstone of my practice to stay healthy. It all began with one hike.

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Up High in the Blue Ridge of North Carolina (Photo by Mark Ellison)

 

It really is a habit for me now. I don’t have to think about it, it is ingrained in me. I gravitate towards nature, particularly forests, for one primary reason, I feel better once I go there!

Abundant research is happening now on how nature  improves health. Here are the top five reasons I keep going back.

  1. Spending Time in Nature Heals Your Attention Capacities: The demands of urban living on attention capacities are immense. In contrast, natural settings allow attention to rest. Soft fascination aspects of nature including flowing water, the sound of wind in the trees and bird calls offer just enough activity to keep us interested, while allowing our directed attention capacities to rest. When directed attention is fatigued we become irritable, and find it difficult to focus and concentrate.
  2.  Green Exercise Offers More Benefits: Exercising in nature provides the multiplier affect, allowing restoration for the body and mind. Exercise in urban settings is fine, but when you are in nature the environment provides the benefit of helping create mental clarity, the air is cleaner and it is usually less crowded.
  3. Solitude and Quiet Decrease Stress: We live in a loud world, getting more so by the day. Noise is associated with a number of health problems, including increases in stress and violent behavior. Noise inhibits the ability to concentrate. Being able to escape to a forest that is mostly free of human noise and structures provides “cognitive space”.  It provides an opportunity to disconnect from people, technology and stress. One of the landmark research studies on the impact of nature on health was Roger Ulrich’s finding that patients with a view of nature had quicker recovery.
  4.  Immune System Strengthened: Research in Japan has found spending time in forests increases the number of Natural Killer Cells and their activity in the body. Natural Killer Cells help to strengthen the immune system.
  5. Brain Stimulator!: I have so many ideas and aha moments after I spend time in the forest. My brain feels so good. Research reveals spending time in nature may be a creativity enhancer. When I spend several hours in nature, I think much more clearly, I often develop my most creative ideas and have  “aha” moments during this time.

Getting Started

If you work full time, live in an urban setting and have other responsibilities you may find it difficult to make time to get in nature, or even find nature, depending on where you live. It is important to find a place near where you live, that is convenient to access. This will help eliminate excuses and make it easier to keep focused on your goal of being in nature. Aim for 15 to 30 minutes to get started. Once this becomes a habit gradually increase the time.

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Photo by Mark Ellison

Listen

While you are spending time in nature I encourage you to just listen. Clear your mind. Relax. AND REALLY LISTEN TO NATURE. What do you notice? Give the forest time and it will help you find balance in your life that will bring you great fulfillment.

Look Closely

Slow down and notice what new things come to your attention. Appreciate these things.

The Importance of Giving Back to Nature

Our relationship with nature is symbiotic. We can’t just take from nature for health, we need to do our part to help nature remain healthy as well. You can give back by volunteering in a local park, forest or garden.

It is also important to be aware of the people who have tended the land we now enjoy. Just as they tended the wild lands, we should as well.

Take the First Step

Take the first step outside to the forest and see where it leads you. Once you have, let me know what you notice.

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Summer in the Appalachians (Photo by Mark Ellison)

How to Enjoy Nature More This Winter

By Mark A. Ellison, Ed.D.

Once winter hits many of us transition to the indoors.  It’s too cold, it’s dark, it’s snowing…what other excuses have you used? The colder temperatures often feel uncomfortable and more hours of darkness inhibit activity, especially for those who work during the day. In 2019, don’t retreat indoors, get out more! Snow and ice add a dimension to the landscape, and it is often more quiet because fewer people are out.

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Plott Balsam Mountain Range (NC) (Photo by Mark Ellison)

One of the major benefits of exercising in the cold is that you burn more calories. With any activity in winter the key is to dress appropriately and in layers. If you are going to be sweating a lot while you are outside, bring extra base layers/shirts to change into when you are slowing down and not expending as much energy. Wear a toboggan hat to provide insulation on your head, and gloves to keep hands warm and dry. Hand and toe warmer packets that provide heat for approximately five hours can make cold days comfortable. If you are going out, always check the weather forecast.

Here are a few ways you can stay connected with the nature during the beautiful season of winter.

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Cross Country Skiing on the Blue Ridge Parkway (Photo by Mark Ellison)

Hiking

Hiking in winter can be a wonderful experience. Fewer bugs, snakes, and people make for pleasant days in the woods. The leaves are off the trees opening up vistas that are not typically available during other seasons.

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Winter Hiking (Photo by Mark Ellison)

Cross Country Skiing/Snowshoeing 

This is a glorious way to experience winter. If you live in the southern United States as I do, there is a limited time frame for enjoying this. When the snow hits, get outside. Both of these activities are really easy to pick up, and you will most likely be able to enjoy some solitude. Good locations for this are trails, closed roads and golf courses. Some parts of the country have ski centers with groomed trails.

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Doubletop and Fern Mountains (NC) (Photo by Mark Ellison)

Birding

Watching and listening for birds in winter offers the benefit of trees not having leaves, making it easier to spot birds. Some birds may have migrated away for the season, but those that have stayed offer much to see and hear. Enjoy birds from your yard, on a trail or while you are traveling.

Photography

The winter landscape and sky provide amazing opportunities to put your photography skills to work. Use your camera or smartphone to capture images that will warm you up with good memories once you return home.

Find a Sit Spot

Find a good sit spot that you can visit regularly. Perhaps keep a journal or make sketches of what you notice. Compare this to how the same location appears in other seasons.

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Ice on the Blue Ridge Parkway (Photo by Mark Ellison)

Go on a Guided Forest Therapy Walk

Guided forest therapy walks offer the opportunity to experience nature in a new way. Walks offer the opportunity to slow down, and through a series of invitations, help you experience nature in a way that works best for you. Find a guide near you using the guide locator provided by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs. You may ask, “why do I need a guide, I go in nature all the time?” Think of it as being similar to having a yoga instructor. You may do yoga on your own, but you go to a class to allow someone else to design the program, set the pace, and help you learn new ways to experience it.

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Winter Hiking (Photo by Mark Ellison)

Preparation for Warmer Seasons

Turn your computer or phone off and start enjoying winter! Use it as a time for renewal and preparation for when the warmer months arrive, so you are ready to hit the trail full force. Spring will be here before you know it…daylight savings starts March 10, 2019 in case you were wondering!

 

Tap Into the Therapeutic Power of the Forest

By Mark Ellison, Ed.D.

What do you do that gives you energy, that fuels your ability to work and play? Do you have anything? Do you escape from the stress of life to allow your mind, body and spirit to heal?

There are so many benefits to our health from spending time in nature, particularly forests. Research has found that spending time in forests can increase attention capacity and creativity, lower blood pressure, strengthen the immune system and improve mood.

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Sunset from the Waterrock Knob Trail off the Blue Ridge Parkway (NC)

Are you tapping into the power of the forest as part of your plan to improve your health? It is a key ingredient that could take your health to the next level. It is the multiplier. If you are walking, biking, relaxing in an urban environment, then  you are getting health benefits. If you do the same in a natural setting like a forest, the benefits are multiplied because of the restorative aspects of nature that impact the body and brain, that are not present in urban settings.

The power of the forest can help you at work, school or home. The more time the better, but try to squeeze in 30 minutes to an hour each week and then gradually increase.The power lies in the ability to experience solitude free (mostly) from noise created by humans. You can enjoy the sound of a waterfall, a bird chirping, or the exhilaration of watching a sunset. These benefits, called soft fascination, allow your attention capacity to rest. Much like muscles after working out, attention becomes fatigued and inhibits the the ability to focus.

My challenge to you is next week find a “sit spot” and spend 30 minutes there. Write about what you are experiencing. Draw. Allow yourself to connect with nature. Enjoy the experience and let me know how it goes!