“Think of a man’s swinging dumbbells for his health, when those springs are bubbling up in far-off pastures unsought by him!”
_ Henry David Thoreau, Walking
At an age when being quarantined became an imposition upon all of us, it offers the most appropriate time to ponder over the privilege of sauntering, the vagabond’s pursuit for the holy land, the homeless person’s quest to find a home everywhere, to quote Thoreau, when we are denied the very same.
Walking into the woods has always been a cherished activity for mankind. The occasional hunts for kings and emperors could have been a chance for a solitary stroll into the dense forests alongside its other purported intentions. Poets like Walt Whitman and Virginia Woolf exhorted the spiritual and psychological growth fostered by solitary trysts in the woods. Eminent Psychiatrist Carl Jung enjoyed sitting on a stone and thinking whether he was thinking about the stone or if the stone was thinking about him, a deep and foundational introspective experience that echoed throughout his quest to explore the human psyche. This way the rewarding experiences of being alone in nature are rich and countless in personal anecdotes, history, and literature.
Environmental Psychology, an important field that addresses human behavior in relation to the environment discusses something along this line, called restoration. Restoration means the transformation of negative antecedents such as stress and accumulated tension by living in crowded and noisy areas into positive outcomes such as relaxation (Hartig, 2004). The theme of restoration was frequently touched upon by writers like Wordsworth who emphatically resounded the harmony of nature, an experience exclusive to the solitary reaper. J.B. Priestley exhorts us to do nothing and lose ourselves in the blissful oblivion of nature. He claims that this activity of nonaction could have prevented catastrophic world wars. Years later, Neruda’s “Keeping quiet” is more significant and timely than ever before, when a minute pseudo living virus forced us to keep quiet, do nothing and reap in solitude the richness of our being that we forgot in our rat races, by getting intoxicated by the chaos of our times, our lives.
According to what is popularly known as the favorite place studies (Korpela, 1992), people tend to relax and better deal with their negative emotions in natural settings that guarantee solitude and unsolicited opportunities for self-reflection. Like the ancient Mariner who had self-discovery in the middle of the ocean beside a dead albatross or the old man in the sea trying to catch his largest fish, a solitary date with nature is an integral archetypal ingredient to self-discovery and actualization.
According to Laufer and Wolfe, 1976, the availability of privacy is crucial during the development of an individual as it is a vital link to one’s identity and esteem. Personalizing privacy gives a sense of uniqueness to adolescents and children. (Sobel,1990). Occupying space is asserting power, individuality, and dominance. The massive literature on personal space expands over this experience. When this is done in a favorite place, in a natural setting, the behavioral implications brought about by the activity is quite rewarding.
According to Australian sustainability professor, Glenn Albrecht, alienation from nature brings about dire consequences in terms of mental health, a phenomenon that he calls psychogeriatric. With new literature and a rush of neologisms that open up new alleys into environmental psychology, our understanding of the relationship between mind and nature is expanding. For instance, in his book, Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World, Albrecht condenses concepts that capture the tension between our minds and nature into terms like economy, which describes environmental ignorance or indifference to the ecology and solastalgia or the psychic pain of climate change and a sense of losing our home.
Amidst such theoretical developments, case studies of initiatives like shinrin yoku, or “forest bathing” by the Government of Japan during the 1980s where people of Japan were encouraged to use the woods to improve their wellbeing will serve as blueprints to implement and execute management of our microcosms and macrocosm sustainably and with optimal outcome in terms of progress and overall well being.
This theme of being alone in the womb of nature is recurrent in our monomyths and heroic tales. According to Joseph Campbell, a hero archetypal figure has to go through a stage of solitude and self-discovery which is dense with natural elements called the belly of the whale. Be it Gautama Buddha’s initiation to enlightenment under the Bodhi tree or Newton’s awakening of gravity, we have always realized the importance of a solitary tryst in the woods. Only, that we often forgot to remind ourselves that we were missing out on it.