I’ve always been the first to say that I would love it if everyone went outdoors to be with nature. What a goal; what a dream come true. Now that everyone is going outdoors, mostly because there’s nowhere else to go, I’m a little less certain that it’s really what I want.
As a Master Naturalist and Certified Forest Therapy Guide, being outdoors in nature is the most calming experience I know; connecting with a tree or a blade of grass; feeling the breeze and letting it take me where it wants, watching the Connetquot river flow effortlessly into Nicoll Bay before becoming part of Great South Bay, and more invitations that are protocol from my ANFT (The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs) forest therapy training. Right now, it’s like bumper cars on our trails; it’s like the Long Island Expressway. Everyone is out, using the same trail, trying to stay in their lane, and it’s not as wonderful as I expected it to be.
I seek solitude in the forest, when I’m not leading walks, whether a park, preserve or arboretum. What happens when the parks, preserves and arboretums get really, really crowded? How can I maintain my recommended 6’ physical distance? My colleague, Mindy Block of Quality Parks and the Master Naturalist Program in Port Jefferson, concurred, “I need 600 feet when I’m in nature, not 6.” I agree with her wholeheartedly.
It’s like discovering your favorite restaurant, only to find that everyone else has discovered it, too, and now, you can’t get a table.
Here on Long Island, Quogue Wildlife Refuge just instituted a ‘one-way trail’ direction. I might be able to live with that. It’s certainly a step (no pun intended) in the right direction. Even though research says it’s not the passerby; it’s the prolonged exposure, are we willing to take that chance? Passing someone on a narrow trail means shifting our bodies, our pace in less than a 6’ area. Imagine supermarket aisles and add some generic vegetation. That’s what it’s like these days.
Still, to be fair, I’m excited that families are going out and spending time together in nature. Many people are in nature, just not with nature. What I mean by this is, they are outside doing something active, like jogging, bicycling or walking while listening to music or a podcast, earbuds in and eyes on their phones. They may be deeply engrossed in conversation or actively keeping the kids on the trail, off trees and grassy areas. I suspect many of those folks will go back to their normal routine once we are able to. It might be ages before they visit another park, preserve or arboretum. Nature doesn’t discriminate, so whatever immune system boosters it has to offer, it shares inclusively with everyone who ventures out. It’s like your mother, who loves you, even when you come to visit and spend most of your time on your phone or watching TV. Unconditional love from Nature.
I’m also excited to believe that some are stopping along the trail, noticing the Snowdrops or the Crocus, listening to bird song or, like me, feeling the breeze and wondering where might it take them if they let it? Across the grass, off the trail, winding around conifers or an old crab apple tree? I’m excited that someone might notice that there’s a tree that appears to have the eye of a dragon where a branch once was; excited that someone might notice that the bark from the London Plane tree makes a fun, natural mask if you find just the right piece. And, of course, there’s more; the Witch Hazel blooming, the bright green Spring tips on the fir trees … how the air feels when Spring arrives, then retreats, then arrives again.
I trust that some of those people will remember and return, deepening a connection with the natural world that we Long Islanders are so proud of, but don’t always experience personally. A deeper connection created out of necessity, and now, something we realize has always been a necessity.
In the end, I’m grateful that more and more people are coming to nature and spending time with their families. They are all welcome. I’d like to leave you with some forest therapy, no matter how you’ve experienced nature in the past. If you've ever walked with me, you've done some reciprocity breathing with the trees. A deep breath in with gratitude for the trees that made the oxygen you require to live; a deeper breath out to share the much-required carbon dioxide that the trees need to live, and also, to activate the vagus nerve. Research tells us that you can indirectly stimulate the vagus nerve by taking deep, deliberate breaths from your belly. Deep breathing activates specific neurons that detect blood pressure. These neurons signal to the vagus nerve that blood pressure is becoming too high, and the vagus nerve in turn responds by lowering your heart rate. The result, a calmer, more grounded you. So, try breathing with a tree today, even if it’s one that's in your own back yard. Make the connection. Be grateful. You are part of everything, and everything is part of you.