My grandfather was known to all his friends and family as being an avid hiker. I only remember climbing a handful of mountains with him when I was young before he retired to smaller, local hikes. I really didn’t enjoy hiking.
I didn’t enjoy nature that much, overall. My family has a house on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, a far cry from the suburban Boston life. Weekends at the lake house were spent in the woods and hiking some local trails. But, although I loved going there, I always enjoyed the city more.
Nature was something I wanted to avoid. I’m not sure why. It probably had something to do with a lack of TV and video games. I would much rather spend my time inside, hooked to electronics, than be outside in nature.
There are plenty of other comforts that come with staying inside. A hot shower at the end of the day; a soft bed to sleep in at night; plenty of food; tons of clothing.
The simple reason why I disliked nature was because I loved the comforts of home more.
I was in for quite the shock when I agreed to go on a 3 day hike with some friends up Mt. Lafayette in Franconia Notch, NH. I was 15 at the time and had only ever camped outside with my family once, when I was too young to remember most of the details. It had also been a number of years since I had hiked a mountain. But my friends were going, so I tagged along.
The three day, two night hike up a 5,200′ mountain wasn’t easy. Even though I considered healthy by any standard at 15, I wasn’t in any kind of shape. We stayed at the Appellation Mountain Club’s cabin for those two night, located just bellow the summit.
There were no showers, little food, and I was perpetually covered in sweat. On top of that, this was in mid-October, so the nights were freezing. The hike down was equally painful, if not more so, than the hike up. I was so relieved to get back to civilization.
But something had changed in me.
Over the next few years I found myself outside more and more. And not just running along the Charles River, but driving 3 hours into the heart of the White Mountains in New Hampshire to hike. This was coupled with sailing in the summer and skiing in the winter.
Today, I am very much at home in ever sense of the word when I’m immersed in the raw nature of outside. It wasn’t the hiking trips with my grandfather or the lakeside weekends with my family that did it. It was something that I had to discover on my own.
The Golden Age of Isolation
To discover something great in your own time is much better than being forced to enjoy it in someone else’s time. As children, we are led by the hand into select experiences the world has to offer. How can we possibly experience everything in so few years? It’s up to our parents to introduce us to what they see fit for us to know; that’s the great responsibility of every parent and guardian in the world.
As we get older, we start to see the world through our own eyes. In the beginning, these eyes are clouded by naivety, and so the process of discovering the world for ourselves is slow, awkward, and sometimes dangerous.
But, for those brave enough to plow through, it’s through these experiences help us to develop our own taste for life independent of our parents.
This is an act of great courage. It’s far easier to fall back on what’s tried-and-true; what we already know and are comfortable with. Learning anything new is an uncomfortable experience because we admit that we previously didn’t know everything, and there are a great many people who think they know everything already.
Those who would rather stay comfortable in the world they already know are living in the golden age of isolation. We have an endlessly selective stream of information and entertainment, constantly streaming content into our minds. Just like ancient farmers, we live for the cloud.
With so much information and entertainment, there is no need to ever leave our comfort zones again. It’s far easier to scroll through social media or watch something new on Netflix than it is to leave our home and have a new experience in the world. And even that is easier than picking up a book.
It would be false to say that this quite state of isolation is the end of learning. We continue to grow and learn as the years go on. But the rate at which the growing and learning occurs is slow, and the purpose to which it occurs isn’t our own.
In isolation, we are led along by those who create the information we consume. The writers and directors of our favorite Netflix shows dictate our world; the songwriters we listen to change our thoughts; the content creators we follow on social media alter our minds as we sleep.
So, learning does occur, but it’s the same type of learning as a child. Helplessly, the media takes us by the hand and leads us into the worlds that they have decided is best for us. We willingly give our minds over to faceless brands just as we gave our minds over to our loving parents.
Viewing the state of the world today through this lens, the result is nothing short of what you would expect. We are living in a nation of children, governed by the media — our parents — and are too afraid to cross the street unless they hold our hands.
Memento Mori — Remember Your Death
As much as a child likes staying inside to watch TV and play video games, he still finds time to play outside.
For me, this moment of sudden longing for the outdoors happened at 2:30pm every week day, the time that I would be let out of school. After six hours of being locked up against my will, I was finally free to play with my friends. If time allowed, I would be playing for an hour in the school playground after class.
That is really a memory that I have all but forgotten until the quarantine began. Now that people are being forced to stay home from work and school, there is a great sense of urgency to get back outside in even the smallest ways. Cabin fever seems to be the cure for our inward lifestyle.
The benefits of being immersed in some form of nature have been studied and affirmed, and so have been found as true. The BBC noted the effect of nature on our children, especially in emotional well-being and creativity:
…children exposed to the natural world showed increases in self-esteem. They also felt it taught them how to take risks, unleashed their creativity and gave them a chance to exercise, play, and discover.BBC
What I’ve seen since the quarantine began is a resurgence of the desire to step outside and leave at least some of our creature comforts at home. The trail along the Charles River in Boston — which I spend a lot of time on — is packed with people. Some are jogging and some are bird watching, but most people are outside simply for the joy of being outside. And that’s a really beautiful thing.
I think the world is confused. There is so much importance attached to certain things, and almost no importance at all attached to others. Working over 40 hours a week and getting less than seven hours of sleep are worn as badges of pride, supposed symbols of a hard worker. Buying uncessecary goods isn’t even given a second thought as we turn a blind eye to the untold amounts of money we waste every year.
The time we invest isn’t as well planned as the money we invest. We spend our time on task that other people tell us is important while suppressing what we actually think is crucial. The path most of us end up on was laid out by faceless people who don’t know the first thing about us.
Why are people like this? I mean, why do people fall back on the opinions of everyone else without making up their own minds?
I think the reason is because it’s easier. It’s far easier to travel the tried-and-true(?) path than to forge our own. But the real kicker is that, often times, we delegate the task of mapping out our own path down the road of life. We say, “I’ll do that later,” never realizing that later may never come.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shocked the world out of its imaginary utopia where we never die. “Other people die, and I’ll die someday, but that day is so far off it’s not worth thinking about now.”
This is the great lie of the times, and one that is being disproved thousands of times a day. Covid-19 poses an absolutely real threat to old and young, sick and healthy. For most people, myself included, this is the first time in their lives that they realize how real of a possibility death is on any given day.
The government has forced us to take a step back from our daily lives, and in turn given us all the opportunity to meditate on life and death. How many people will use this time for meditation, I don’t know. But the effects of such thoughts are already being seen.
People are getting outside and enjoying the day simply for the sake of enjoyment. It’s a leisurely activity that has too long been taken for granted. Through the awful state of the world today, people are discovering what our grandparents knew all along.
That was what happened to me in my late teenage years. I discovered the joys of hiking that my grandfather had spent decades enjoying. I thought that I had discovered some great, unknown pleasure. In reality, I was one the last person to discover it.
Conclusion: Remembering Temperance
Getting out into nature teaches us the virtue of temperance. In order to walk into to woods we have to walk away from our responsibilities, comforts, and media. These are things that we all too often get caught up in.
The key is to return home from nature. If we stayed in the woods forever, the economy would fall apart. Instead of taking one of the two extremes, the ideal is to enjoy hard work and relaxation.
Temperance is scheduling relaxation along with work; it’s watching a couple episodes on Netflix without binge-watching a series; it’s walking around outside after being inside all day.
When given time to reflect, it’s easy to see where we need to practice temperance more. During the Covid-19 quarantine, take some time to think about what areas in your own life you’re over-indulging. Maybe all you need is to rediscover nature.