I can’t say that terrain or geography played any part in deciding where I’ve wound up spending most of my life. When I was growing up, my family didn’t do much traveling. I was born in Chicago, moved to Iowa as an infant and at age seven, returned to Chicago where I lived until leaving for college, attending school in my home state. I saw Michigan once when I was twelve, during the only vacation I ever had with my parents and my younger sister. We never traveled as a family when my older brother and sister still lived at home. When I was sixteen, I got to take a train from Chicago to Montreal, to see Expo ‘67, the World’s Fair. Despite that Canadian adventure, aside from the multi-cultural fair exhibits, my time in Montreal was just an urban experience without much exposure to varied topography.
I loved growing up with Lake Michigan as a backdrop for my childhood. I learned to swim in its chilly waters which I still prefer for swimming. I don’t find balmy seas, the water temperature feeling like the air, to be particularly refreshing. Except for swimming, I knew kids who water-skied, canoed and kayaked. In my family of earth-bound people, I was the only one who swam. When we went to the beach, everyone sat on the grass adjacent to the sand. My parents thought I was going to the Olympics. Oh my. Maybe I would’ve gone back to the city if I’d had more water-based skills and hobbies. As it was, the lake itself wasn’t enough to draw me back to the fast-paced, more complicated life of Chicago. I found pools instead of the lake and swam in them instead. Later on in life, despite always missing a body of water in my community, that geographical feature wasn’t enough to counterbalance the socio-economic factors that were key in determining “home.” I’ve spent practically my entire life in the “Prairie State,” away from my most loved terrain feature, the view across a big body of water.
As an adult, I’ve had the privilege of significantly expanding my travels. Although I don’t expect to see every place on my bucket list, I’ve dipped my feet into a couple of oceans and several seas. I’ve been in the mighty Alps and the Rocky Mountains, with other ranges in between. I’ve stood under the majestic soaring heights of the Sequoias and Redwoods, as well as experiencing the largest Cypress and Ponderosa Pine stands in North America. I’ve been in the tropics although despite the incredibly fascinating biodiversity, I’m not a fan of constant humidity. I live in the prairie.
I read about forest bathing some years ago. Evidently the Japanese government recommended that hardworking city dwellers, who spent lots of time locked in offices, head to their closest wooded area, minus their phones and cameras, to wander aimlessly for a few hours. Scientific studies showed evidence that two hours in the forest, using all five senses during that period, had significant health benefits for people. One of the papers describing these results can be viewed in the link below.
I don’t think anyone would argue that even a brief immersion in a natural environment is beneficial to everyone, regardless of age or career. I worry about the technology generation, the kids who’ve had screens in front of them since birth. In fact, a relatively new term has been coined to describe children who spend almost no time outside, at least in the U.S. – “nature deficient disorder.”
“These days, kids spend much more time inside, mostly thanks to technology. The average American child spends about 4 to 7 minutes a day playing outside and over 7 hours a day in front of a screen. Spending time outdoors isn’t just enjoyable — it’s also necessary. Many researchers agree that kids who play outside are happier, better at paying attention and less anxious than kids who spend more time indoors.” Article in Child-Mind Institute, 2/23.
I’ve even noticed that my three month old granddaughter is instantly attentive to a smart phone if it’s within her view. Her focus is almost eerie.
I worry about all the young people who are missing their opportunity to experience the wonders of nature. And there are the adults who lead inside lives, dictated by work requirements, time constraints and geographic limitations. We can’t all spend a few hours forest bathing, especially where wooded areas are scarce. If I’d been more cognizant of what natural environment would have best suited me, I’d be living near a beach. That’s beyond my reach now. But during my childhood, when video screens weren’t as pervasive as they are today, I spent a lot of time outside, even if that meant just hanging out on my block. I collected insects, gathered leaves, looked at weeds and flowers. I made bracelets and necklaces out of clover and blew my share of dandelion seeds into the air. I watched anthills, teeming with life.
I didn’t know that my activities were providing me with health benefits. Looking back on my robust youth, I now think I was silently feeding my immune system with what was readily available just out the front door, even in my urban neighborhood. Once I settled into adult life, I continued to make space for getting outside as often as possible. Admittedly, I’m more mindful about how immersion in nature, even for a short while, improves my mental state almost immediately. And I’ve realized that essentially, rather than forest bathing, I’ve been prairie bathing for most of my life. For the past few years, I’ve been carting my oldest grandson just about a mile out of town, so he can experience time away from those screens. He enjoys the prairie too.
The flat lands offer big skies and broad vistas. Standing at the edge of the prairie can almost feel like looking at the horizon from a beach. That kind of expanse is calming, a reminder that no matter how huge our issues might feel, in the overall scheme of the natural order, we individuals are quite small. Perspective makes a difference when life can feel overwhelming.
The prairie rustles in the wind. Animals graze and wander. Birds hunt for food and soar overhead.
In the early morning or late afternoon, when the sky is clear, remarkable colors light the clouds. The innocent sense of wonder, so easily accessible for children, becomes available to the more jaded among us with our too often tired and anxious brains.
Communing with the natural world, stepping back from stress, and generally soothing the soul, doesn’t require a forest, a beach, a mountain or an ocean. Mental vacations can happen for anyone, anywhere, including the plains dwellers, removed from the more spectacular geographical features of this planet. Prairie bathing may be the easiest holistic exercise you ever try. Bring the kids and the grandkids. It’s working for me and mine.