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Artwork by: Krupa Joshi, age 16

The thing about living in Maine is that it’s nearly impossible to get away from nature.

It is the most heavily forested state, after all, with a whopping 90% of its 22.7 million acres taken up by forest. Living here as I have for the past 13 years of my life (I was born in North Carolina, and moved here when I was three), I’ve been pretty thoroughly immersed in the bounty of nature at my fingertips. Not to mention that I live in a very “outdoorsy” household — my family spends ample amounts of time on the ocean, in the woods, gardening, hunting, skiing. My childhood has been full of nature for as long as I can remember, and I’ve always loved it. However, my childhood may have been unusual in this sense. Over the past six decades, humanity (especially children) has shifted away from nature and towards an urban, digital lifestyle. This has led us to disconnect from an evolutionarily fundamental part of ourselves, and is bad for individuals, and for the environment itself.

In the 2008 Recreation Participation Report (which measures, by means of survey, how many people in the US participate in outdoor activities at least annually), there was an 11% decline in how many kids (ages 6-12) spend time outdoors. That’s staggering. I know it may sound like statistics and meaningless numbers, but that 11% stands for millions of children who are spending their childhood indoors. They’re not experiencing the sounds of wind blowing through the trees, or catching frogs, or lying in the grass watching the stars.

We aren’t in the beginning phases of this issue. No, we’re actually approximately 60 years in, according to a study by Pelin and Selin Kesebir. These two women went through the most popular media from 1950 to 2010, including categories like movies, music, and novels, and tested each of them for nature-related words (from a list of 186). Their idea was that, generally, the most popular media should reflect what is most important to people. What they found was revealing: mentions of nature showed a rapid trend of decline over the course of those 60 years.

Okay, you may be thinking, sure. People aren’t super into nature anymore. They don’t want to hear about it as much in music and stuff. Why does it matter? Well, here’s the thing: humans didn't develop to live indoors. We were animals who lived outdoors for far longer than we’ve been “civilized people.” So, the outdoors is actually beneficial for us health-wise, and there are countless studies that say so. A few examples of those benefits are reduced stress, lowered blood pressure, accelerated recovery from surgery and illness, improved sleep and energy levels, and happier people. You have better brain function and will be more able to adapt to change.

Remember the last time you sent someone flowers while they were in the hospital? Those are actually proven to help people recover faster. I’ve found that biking to and from places is a wonderful way to wind down from whatever I was doing, and that sitting outside and watching the clouds for a few minutes is a perfect way to destress before I start my homework. I never feel better or healthier than when I spend a weekend mostly outdoors. I encourage you to try it: by the second day of walking in the park or swimming or sitting under a tree, you’ll feel clean and even oddly energized. It’s incredible how much a little time in the sun or under the clouds can do for you.

However, there’s a more pressing reason we need to be exposing children (and people in general) to the outdoors: our environment is crumbling. Every single day, we lose somewhere between 40 and 100 species. Every second, we lose an acre of rainforest. Just in the next 24 hours, 15 million tons of carbon dioxide will go into the atmosphere. It’s going to take the effort of billions of people to stop the catastrophe we’ve brought upon ourselves, and we may still be too late. But this planet is all we have, and if we don’t manage to save it, we’re going to watch the world around us die.

If the trend we’ve observed here continues, and fewer and fewer people develop some kind of a relationship with nature, the same people may feel less motivated to defend it. When people aren’t connected to something, they don’t feel as urgent a need to fight for it when it’s in danger. If people don’t understand where their fish comes from or love the feeling of salt on their skin, they’re less likely to feel inclined to fight to keep the oceans clean. If kids never fall in love with the stars and sky, why would they grow up to want to fight to keep their skies clear? Without the knowledge of all the different things the outdoors has to offer, why would anyone fight to stop global warming? It doesn’t take much: a walk in the park every now and then, where you can run your fingers over the rough texture of tree bark. A couple minutes of stargazing, cloud watching. Pausing, for just a second, to breathe in the cool zip of wintertime, the humid air of the summer, or the wet scent of fresh rain. Allow yourself just a moment, every now and then, to appreciate what our earth can give to us.

In the past 60 years, people have distanced themselves more and more from nature, and it’s hurting not only them, but also the planet around them. Please go spend some time outside. Build a relationship with the earth we all live on, and let your desire to protect it flourish. We have so much work to do, but it’s a start. If you can do nothing else, take a step outside and marvel, just for a moment, at how perfect this planet is. You may not have much time left.

Sources:

“FAQ’s About Maine’s Forests.” Forests for Maine’s Future. http://www.forestsformainesfuture.org/forest-facts/.

“Immerse Yourself in a Forest for Better Health.” New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. https://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/90720.html.

"Outdoor Recreation Participation Report 2008." The Outdoor Foundation, 2008. https://outdoorindustry.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/ResearchParticipation2008.pdf.

Egan, Timothy. “Nature-Deficit Disorder.” Opinionator, March 29, 2012. https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/29/nature-deficit-disorder/.

Kesebir, Selin, and Pelin Kesebir. “How Modern Life Became Disconnected from Nature.” Greater Good, September 20, 2017. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_modern_life_became_disconnected_from_nature.

Louv, Richard. “No More ‘Nature-Deficit Disorder.’” Psychology Today, January 28, 2009. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/people-in-nature/200901/no-more-nature-deficit-disorder.

Orr, David. “What Is Education For?” The Learning Revolution, Winter 1991. https://www.eeob.iastate.edu/classes/EEOB-590A/marshcourse/V.5/V.5a%20What%20Is%20Education%20For.htm.

Olivia Bailey is a junior from Yarmouth, Maine. She is on the track and field hockey teams and enjoys reading, writing, drawing, and listening to music in languages she doesn't understand in her free time, though she doesn't tend to have much of it. She would also like to thank you for reading this far and hopes you enjoyed her article.

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