Summer is upon us! Something struck me when reading a post by my friend Therese Borchard about how lack of sun exposure has led to a Vitamin D deficiency crisis across this country: Our bodies are designed to need sun. We are built to be outside.
My dad loved camping and had summers off, so despite growing up in New York City, I spent a chunk of each year in Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, Banff and the Redwoods, the Smoky Mountains and the Rockies; I saw flash floods in the Sonoran Desert, a hurricane on Cape Hatteras.
While it’s more important to practice seeing that of God in the everyday, it sure helps to be hit over the head with the awesomeness of Creation every once in a while. I didn’t know it at the time, and my atheist father wouldn’t have seen it this way, but through the wonders of nature, he was introducing me to the Divine.
You don’t have to go on an expensive eco-tourism destination vacation. But if even a domestic vacation is impossible this summer, there are other options. In a place without light pollution, go outside on a clear summer night and look up at the Milky Way — the glow of billions of stars blurring together into a band across the sky. If you’re near a coast, find an empty spot and sit there facing the water; just pay attention to the sights and sounds of the whole scene — the waves, shorebirds, distant boats.
Back to those family trips… throughout it all, and this is critical, we were camping. There is nothing, absolutely nothing on this beautiful planet, better than waking up and stepping outside into the bracing morning air surrounded by nature. (I’m not saying you have to use a tent. Cabins work too.)
Urban, rural, North, South, East and West, you can make a life that completely avoids the outdoors. And conversely, wherever you are, you can take steps today to let in some sun.
Even in the big city, getting outdoors more is easy. For lunch, leave your desk and take your lunch with you. Sit outside, in a courtyard or city park. The benefit of this time away from the computer, with the sun beating down on your face, is tremendous.
One of the treasures of my hometown, New York City, is Central Park: a 2-1/2 mile x 1/2 mile rectangle of nature in the middle of the most expensive real estate in the world. (The estimated value of the land today is half a trillion dollars.) It’s big enough that you can totally detach from the city around you. Every city has parks, and it doesn’t take much.
If you’re lucky enough to have a backyard or deck, take your breakfast outdoors. And weekend brunch, and the occasional dinner. When I’m in the country, every morning I wake up, make coffee, and walk outside with it.
The next level, after you’ve got yourself in nature, is to slow down and shift your perspective. Pay attention. Notice the natural world. Reorient to its pace. It can help to have a focus — that’s why a lot of people garden, or hunt and fish, or learn about wildflowers. Mine is birding. Wherever I am, I spot tiny motions, splashes of color and birdcalls that most people miss.
Even a dusty city square has more activity than you realize. Just noticing the pigeons, squirrels and sparrows can be relaxing. And there’s usually a lot more than that going on if you pay attention. One of my favorite New York City photos is of people running in Central Park with their headphones on, while a hawk 20 feet away on the grass is busily ripping the entrails out of a chipmunk. I know it doesn’t sound very serene, but the juxtaposition of nature doing its thing in the midst of urban life is awesome. (I can’t find this photo online anywhere; if anyone knows where it is, please let me know.)
And sometimes, whether it’s on a weekend getaway, a longer vacation or near where you live, immerse yourself in nature — go someplace where nature’s in charge. Go to a nearby State or National Forest and take a hike. Even if you live in a city or suburb, almost everyone is within an hour’s drive of deep natural environments. Explore them this summer!
5 ways to get back to nature
You can add serenity to your life and connect more closely with God’s creation by getting little doses of nature whenever you can; and then, once in a while, really break away for a restorative vacation. Here are 5 ways of getting back to nature:
Eat outdoors. Take lunch outside to whatever public space there is. If you work in a city, find a little park and sit on a bench. If you work in an office complex, use the courtyard. If you eat at a restaurant and there’s outdoor seating, use it. Wherever you are, choose a seat in the sun. If you have a backyard or deck, take meals outside — certainly weekend brunch, but why not as many as possible? Morning coffee; grilling. Even if you cook it indoors, step outside to eat.
Take walks. A piece of ancient wisdom is that walking after eating helps with digestion. Taking a walk of 20 minutes or so around dusk is ideal, but do it whenever you can. For that matter, just walk more! For anything less than a mile, consider walking. And don’t stick your headphones on as you step out the door — just walk and let your mind wander with you.
Spend a weekend day in nature. On occasional nice summer weekend days, pick a natural destination within an hour’s drive and spend the whole day there. Walk in a state park. Sit on a beach. Hike up a small mountain. Go birding. Hunt or fish if that’s your thing. The point is to immerse yourself. (Needless to say, if you can avoid it, don’t be on call. Feeling your phone buzz with a new work email as you’re strolling through a pine forest can wreck the serenity.)
Consider a camping vacation this summer. I’m all for educational vacations, but this year feed your heart instead of your mind and go camping with no goal other than being in nature. If you have the money, a rainforest or tundra adventure is fine, but don’t be an ecotourist collecting sightseeing experiences. Remember, the point is to be fully present to the nature around you. And the U.S. has dozens of amazing camping destinations, like Yellowstone, the Everglades, the Grand Canyon, Redwood National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains.
Develop an outdoor interest. Most people find it easier to reorient to nature’s slower pace if there’s something to focus on. Like counting the breath or saying a word while meditating, putting your attention on something first helps break the pattern of ceaseless chatter; from there you can sink into deeper awareness. This can be anything from gardening to rappelling. Some hunt and fish, or learn about wildflowers. I watch birds. Whatever it is, remember the goal is not a specific sighting or accomplishment; it is merely a technique to help us let go and just be.
One more thing: Listen. Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, notice your surroundings. Leave the headphones in your pocket. If you’re in the woods, listen to the bird calls or rustling of foraging chipmunks. If you’re by the sea, that’s easy: listen to the surf while you’re watching it. In the city, it might be the chatter of background conversation. Pay attention. Don’t focus on one thing. Take it all in. Just be present. Have an amazing summer!