The healing power of the outdoors

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By The Staff

Tom Brown says, “Exciting and fulfilling as our lives may be, most of us are cut off from our natural surroundings. We live in heated houses, drive automobiles on asphalt highways…we listen to a barrage of unnatural sounds…we live by the clock. We have lost our connection with the earth.”  

Those of us who live in Los Alamos are fortunate to live in a place where nature is at our doorstep- the mountains behind, the canyons below, the flowing river. However, we are not immune to being cut off from our natural surroundings by the requirements of daily life.

Studies have shown that children benefit from outdoor education and playing in nature. Author Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder shows how important being outdoors is to children’s physical, psychological and creative wellbeing.  He shows that in schools with outdoor classrooms, kids tend to do better in everything from social studies to standardized testing.  

But this benefit is true for adults too:  to some extent we all suffer from nature-deficit disorder. As adults we need time to explore, to become connected to the Earth. When we are locked into sitting in front of the computer screen or in a cubicle, we are not using all our senses. Outdoors, we use multiple senses – hearing, feeling, sight, smell. Studies show that people who get in touch with the environment around them feel less depression and stress.  

This year is the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, a day set aside to recognize the influence of the natural environment on our wellbeing. My belief is that the more we experience nature and all it has to offer, the greater is our desire not to litter, pollute, or otherwise harm the planet we live on.  

Recently I have been interviewing people about their experiences with the Cerro Grande Fire during the past decade.  My conversations included long-time residents and newcomers, adults as well as those who were children at the time of the fire. One underlying theme is a lingering grief about the loss of the trees on the mountains. But I have also found that those who have explored the areas scarred by the fire are finding hope in the abundance of wildflowers and the continuation of animal life. When one views the mountains from afar, the remnants of burned trees stand out. But when walking the trails, one sees the amazing mystery of how nature heals.

What better time to begin exploring our mountains and trails than during the spring of the year?  Pajarito Environmental Education Center (PEEC) is again organizing community Earth Day activities that can lift your spirits.

First, take a hike led by Rory Gauthier to the Duchess Castle and North Mesa area near Tsankawi on April 17. Rory, an archaeologist, will reveal past inhabitants’ connection to the earth by looking at the remnants they left long ago. He will also tell the story of the more recently inhabited Duchess Castle.

Two other hikes will focus on recovery from conflagrations that radically changed the landscape of the Pajarito Plateau. Chris Judson will lead a hike on April 18 into the area burned by the 1977 La Mesa fire. Participants will see an area that burned 33 years ago and be cheered by its recovery. Then hikers will have an opportunity to compare recovery from the La Mesa Fire to recovery of the Cerro Grande Fire of 10 years ago. On April 24, Michael Di Rosa and Craig Martin will lead a group into Rendija Canyon along the Mitchell Trail. Participants will see the difference a decade has made in vegetation growth and hear about restoration efforts such as tree planting.  

A fourth outdoor activity is the Earth Day Festival from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 24 A butterfly garden will be dedicated, booths will display earth-friendly products, and Clan Tynker will entertain the audience at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Begin the spring by getting close to the earth in the Earth Day activities.  But don’t lose your momentum—keep up your connection with nature by hiking with your friends and joining PEEC in classes like animal camouflage and walks that help you enjoy everything from warbling vireos to pasque flowers. Resolve that in 2010 your family will not be afflicted with nature-deficit disorder.