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!

 

 

Forest Bathing: Dr. Qing Li’ s Definitive Guide to the Healing Power of Nature

by Mark Ellison, Ed.D.

Reading Dr. Qing Li’s new book Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness that is being released publicly April 17, I found myself reflecting on how time in nature has shaped my life. This excellent read will prompt many to search out ways to introduce time in nature to their lifestyle.

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Dr. Li is the leading world expert on forest medicine. He is an immunologist at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School and is a founding member of the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine, and vice president and secretary general of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine.

This book offers many things: a glimpse into the Japanese culture’s close relationship to nature; an explanation of how nature impacts our health; examples of some of the practices in Japan for using nature to improve health; and suggestions on how to practice Shinrin Yoku. If you take the time to put Dr. Li’s suggestions into practice it will have a positive impact on your life and health.

Nature: Intertwined with the Culture of Japan

Understanding the importance of nature in Japanese culture provides an important lens through which to view this topic.

Dr. Li reflects on time in his childhood growing up in the countryside, contrasting that with today, living in bustling Tokyo. He is blessed though, to work next to a beautiful park. Whether in the city or country, being near nature is important to the Japanese. It is no surprise that Shinrin Yoku is so popular there.

Shinrin Yoku is simply breathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through your senses. Shinrin in Japanese means forest, yoku means bath. Shinrin Yoku is not hiking, jogging or exercising, it is an experience. “Shinrin Yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses it bridges the gap between us and the natural world,” states Li. When this happens the body and mind can begin to heal.

Shinrin Yoku started in Japan, according to Li,  primarily because it is a forest civilization. The culture, philosophy and religion of Japan are all carved out of the forest. Japan is densely populated, but it also has over 3,000 miles of forest. Both of Japan’s official religions (Shinto and Buddhism) believe the forest is the divine. Buddhists believe the natural world is the word of God. Shinto believe the spirit and nature are one, found in rocks, trees, streams and the breeze. This spirit is called kami.

Nature is part of every aspect of life in Japan. Shizen, which means nature, is one of the seven principles of Zen aesthetics, meaning that we are all connected to nature emotionally, spiritually and physically. An example of this, is when in the fall, the Japanese have moon viewings or tsukimi. Family and friends gather together at a place they can clearly see the moon and decorate with autumn flowers and pampas grass.

In 1982 a national health program of forest bathing was introduced in Japan. The forest that was first used (Akasawa) had groves of Japanese Cypress or Hinoki trees. The wood has a scent of lemon and smoke.

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Olympic National Park Photo by Mark Ellison

How Shinrin Yoku Improves Health

The book transitions from focusing on the origins of Shinrin Yoku to discussing the many health benefits of utilizing this practice.

The science of the connection between nature and health is revealing encouraging results. Research studies have found positive correlations between time in nature and strengthened immune system, increased energy, decreased anxiety, depression and anger, reduced stress and improved sleep.

One of the key benefits of forest bathing is “breathing in the the forest’s natural aromatherapy. Plant chemicals known as phytoncides have been found to boost the immune system. Evergreens like pine trees, cedar, spruce and conifers are the largest produces of phytoncides. Li uses essential oils to introduce the smells of the forest into his indoor environments. His favorite is not surprising, Hinoki oil. Studies have found that exposure to phytoncides increases the numbers and activity of Natural Killer (NK) cells which help fight off disease, decrease levels of stress hormones, increase hours of sleep, increase mood, lower blood pressure and bring the nervous system into balance. Plug your Hinoki infused diffuser up today! I have.

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White Trillium, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina  Photo by Mark Ellison

Developing Your Shinrin Yoku Practice

One of the most important take aways from this book is how to incorporate the practice of Shinrin Yoku into your overall healthy living strategy.

Li describes the forest as being like our mother, a sacred place, a paradise of healing, which is the foundation of forest medicine. To experience nature he suggests finding a spot you enjoy going. Leave behind your phone and camera. Let your body be your guide. Be lead by your senses. Savor the sounds, smells and sights of nature. The key to unlocking the wonderful power of nature is found in the five senses. Let nature enter through your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, hands and feet.

There are many activities you can do in nature to promote health. Walking (perhaps barefoot), yoga, eating, hot springs therapy,  T’ai chi, meditation, nordic walking and plant observation. A very important point is emphasized: it is critical that you take the time to get to know yourself and about what you like to do. Learn how to relax in the forest.

We can not always get outside, but we can bring the power of the forest inside through the use of essential oils. Dr. Li recommends Hinoki oil and also suggests several others.

Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed reading this book. I have practiced Shinrin Yoku for several years and teach classes on it as well, and learned quite a bit. It provides a solid, informative plunge into the world of Shinrin Yoku. Li offers many suggestions that you will want to refer back to as your practice of Shinrin Yoku evolves, only a few of which are described here. You will not be disappointed with your investment in this book.

Let me know if you are interested in becoming part of a larger community focused on learning about and promoting the connections between nature and health.