The Real Dirt on Dirt and Why You Need It

Have you held dirt in your hand for 20 minutes today? Did you know that simple act increases your happiness, chemically? When did you last feel the support of your back against a tree? Stopped and spent at least 10 full minutes watching one wild animal?

It’s exciting to see that the health benefits of nature, which we have always known intuitively, are getting a lot of attention in the press lately! Read on to find out what’s new in science and the healing nature of… nature!

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Did you know that studies show that positive immune benefits can last up to a month after spending time in the woods?

In 1982, Japan launched a national health program of shinrin yoku. Shinrin Yoku means forest bathing or spending more time in the forest with trees. No jogging or workouts, just quiet contemplation and connection. Japan has been studying the physical and psychological benefits of forest bathing since that time. It is not just about fresh air, the trees emit oils as a protection against insects and germs. These oils, called phytoncides, help our immune systems. They also found that being in a forest lowers our heart rate and our blood pressure. It also lowers your cortisol level, which is the stress hormone, lowering stress. That is huge. We know stress is a core cause and aggravator of many illnesses and lack of energy and joy. Being in nature is scientifically found to reduce depression, feelings of fear and anger, to boost energy, and even to accelerate recovery from surgery. Companies are adding “forest therapy” to their health plans in Asia and Europe. The Washington Post compares forest bathing for health to where yoga was 30 years ago.

One of the most significant findings to me is that scientists have found that spending time in nature increases the count of our bodies' “natural killer” or NK cells, which fight viruses and cancer, and stay active in our bodies for 30 days after being in the forest. What would happen if each of us dedicated ourselves to spending time in the forest at least once a month?

Being in nature is also gaining medical evidence that it helps significantly with ADD/ADHD symptoms. Allergies? Science magazine writes that the great outdoors is GOOD for allergies!

And from the head to the heart, let’s look at how nature changes the way we feel. Close your eyes and look back on a few of your happiest moments. Vacations, romantic times, road trips, times you felt your most creative or most free and wild self. How many memories involve nature? A beautiful natural view? A beach or lake or rainbow? Feeling the vastness of somewhere magical and wild? Feeling your senses heighten from sun on your face or rain?

What if this is a two way relationship? It is so easy with all this evidence to look towards dedicating ourselves to this healthy cause because it offers us so much.  What will happen if we take this information & move forward with integrity. Bit by bit becoming more familiar with, and caring more for the natural world we are simply a part of?

What if intentionally feeling grateful and appreciative of the forest and it’s creatures makes a difference to nature itself?  What if forming a relationship of reciprocity with nature makes a change both for me and for the natural world? What if our relationship with the natural world must be one of reciprocity if it is to remain able to heal anyone or anything? It makes sense, don’t you think?

Links to Research and References:

Must I Hibernate?... and other winter questions for humans

I guess I am a warm weather animal, at least that’s my natural state. Most years, as each winter has approached, I have felt a sense of dread, almost of panic, that I will be inside more, and less connected with nature on a regular basis. Camping out in the backcountry is on hold until Spring. Long hikes are dependent on weather for months. Parkway access to mountains is often closed.

Oh I don’t want to be a hibernating animal!

So this winter my partner and I decided we would research and prepare for any weather, at least in this part of the world, and go for it both hiking and camping. We read blogs about how people camped out in subzero temperatures, gathered up our thin warm layers and tried layering them all, worked to optimize light weight yet what we needed to stay warm in a backpack, carefully selected and bought a few key items, and out we went, excited about the weather forecast for temperatures in the teens! And guess what? It works!

I do run cold. I don’t like being cold for long, and guess what….I don’t have to hibernate! I can apply my old standard phrase “there is no bad weather, only bad clothes” even to icy, cold, temperatures. It works.

What do you get? Icicles shaped like upside down cones with lace dangling on them along streams, whole 50 foot waterfalls frozen on top with water flowing out beneath, hiking smoothly on top of a trail that is usually ankle-breaker rocky because the snow covers it like a carpet, and no crowds, even in the more popular places!

I have never claimed to be hard core. I am small, have life injuries, and can’t carry tons of weight on my back, so I’ve gone slowly, figuring out the winter mode step by step.

This is to inspire those of you out there who are ordinary folks, with worn places on your bodies and limited budgets. We don’t have to hibernate! Winter hiking and camping can be really exciting and comfortable, though it takes some work and determination! We need to be prepared for lots of changes like road closures, you can’t cross deep streams on trails so you have to bushwhack to get around them or change trails mid hike, and we don’t have as much light so be prepared for night hiking if you go a long distance.

Why I need to hike Solo

There is a process that only occurs for me when I hike solo for long stretches of time. Traveling alone also has some of these characteristics, some different, and I need that too. As I walk I begin just full, full, full. My mind goes and goes as I walk. It is emptying, emptying, emptying and it takes really long time. I just let it empty and I can't believe how much comes up and out. I picture it steaming out of my every pore like hot steam off a pond in cool air. I shake it out of my head, my hair, my palms, my feet, into the air and dirt. I like walking and stopping and going off trail at my own pace, my own whim, no one to consider. Gradually my thinking slows down, it's draining out. I start noticing the small things more and more. I have made this a practice, so I actually do notice earlier now. I spend time still, playing with rocks and sticks and marveling over bugs. The drops of water on the leaves, touchingly gorgeous. Black and red centipede with bright yellow legs flowing, the curls of fuzzy new ferns, and up up up the majesty of lichen textures on bark. I sink my fingers into the black dirt and smell it. I pile stones on my belly. I throw twigs into the air, then I throw leaves into the air and see how much slower they fall. I spend a LOT of time stacking flat stones. The intricacy of a spider web, and will the spider run towards my finger if I touch his web gently like a trapped insect? Sitting on a rock down with an enormous cliff in front of me, overlooking the valley, and hanging down in front of me is a 1/2" lime green inch worm dangling and swaying in the breeze on an invisible thread...crazy! Dried lichen tastes ok, I'll bet it would be delicious baked with butter and salt. I'm tricking the onslaught of mosquitos who found me now by curling up inside my rain poncho.....hahaha

this was written with no edits, in spontaneous spurts, along the AT

City Lot

Each morning I open my back door to the city yard. Three great trees are covered with vicious and straggly old vines. Drooping branches look downright dead, yet in April the yellow-green buds miraculously pop out of them.

And there you are, you busybodies.
Chattering each with its own tribal song. Bathing by packs in its puddles. 
Frantically selecting dry grass after tiny twig to fly to the mysterious hole in the rotted wood by the upstairs gutter.
Sometimes I can see you, high above, black and proud, head covered as an oil slick in the shimmering purple, and that yellow eye!

You, little browns and yellows and purples, fight like schoolyard children for each little perch on the feeder. Coming as a school group on a field trip in a frenzy, and then swoosh! you are gone. Majestic redhead, Cardinal so noble, picks up after you, watching wary from the grass. Grass, dappled with driveway pebbles, yet somehow birthing violets of whites and purples.

And life and change, adaptations and transformations continue. 
So why question it?