The Appalachian Trail (AT) is a 2,184 mile footpath extending from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mt. Katahdin, Maine. The AT makes accessible the beauty of nature to millions of people, many of whom are seeking a refuge from the noise, numbing pulse, and pollution of urban life. In many ways the AT symbolizes the quest for balance, and freedom from the constraints of a technologically saturated world that fiercely demands our undivided attention.
The importance of the AT and other trails like it for our mental and physical health is evidenced by the veracity with which people defend it. In the recently published book Stand up that Mountain, author Jay Leutze shares his account of helping to save the AT viewshed on Hump Mountain, part of the magnificent Highlands of Roan in the southern Appalachian mountains. Leutze experienced the value of unspoiled nature for mental and physical health, and fought to preserve it. Nature offers us escape, and there are fewer places to find it with the encroachment of development into many of our forests. The AT is particularly vulnerable to development as a linear path with only a limited amount of land protected adjacent to it. Fortunately, Leutze and his colleagues at the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy have taken on this battle.
The mental health benefits of spending time it nature make it imperative that we protect these spaces. Individuals who spend time in nature experience fewer mental health issues. Forest therapy has been useful in treating depression. Another mental health benefit of nature contact is that it provides a setting for leisure activities that help in detaching from work. Research has shown that mentally disengaging or “switching off” results in higher levels of psychological well-being, more contentment and cheerfulness in the workplace, less fatigue, helping employees protect against the developing symptoms of psychological strain in response to stressful work situations, and more proactive work behavior. Time in an urban setting does not provide the same benefits.
Take time this autumn to meander along your favorite hiking trail, perhaps the AT, to get away from it all. Ponder how nature helps to preserve health and the importance of protecting its beauty and resources for future generations. Ask yourself, how can I stand up to protect this? After all, if we only take from the earth, eventually there will be nothing left. Where will we turn then?