“God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore….He described plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also taught about animals and birds, reptiles and fish” (1 Kings 4:29, 33).
For most of us, the novel coronavirus has meant lots of time at home over the past several months. It may mean an increase in anxiety. Work-from-home and school-from-home have resulted in more screen time than normal, as meetings and classes are conducted over Zoom or a similar platform. If you have read articles online about how to cope with these changes, most of them mention the importance of spending time outside.
The benefits of being outdoors
Time outdoors benefits us in many ways. In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv describes physical, mental, and spiritual benefits from spending time outside. We tend to be more physically active when we are outside. Time in the sun allows our bodies to produce vitamin D and helps to stabilize or reset our bodies’ circadian rhythms. Being in nature is also a natural form of stress relief and offers a mental break. Louv quotes a young woman who described how much she appreciated time alone, outside in a natural setting: “…when you are in [nature], it makes you realize that there are far larger things at work than yourself. This helps to put problems in perspective. And it is the only place where the issues facing me do not need immediate attention or resolution.”1
Neurologist and author Oliver Sacks also acknowledged these benefits (and observed and wrote about neurological benefits experienced by his patients). He commented, “As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. All of us have had the experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit. The importance of these physiological states on individual and community health is fundamental and wide-ranging.”2
Time spent outside can help us learn to be present in the moment, creating a welcome antidote to the distraction and anxiety that plague so many of us. When outside (and unplugged from devices), we tend to feel more grounded in our bodies, as we hear birdsong, feel the warmth of the sun, smell spring blossoms, and see various hues of green as trees and plants unfurl their leaves. We fully employ senses that can start to atrophy in our digital surroundings. Time can even seem to slow down, as we step away from deadlines and screens. As Louv comments, “Unlike television, nature does not steal time; it amplifies it.”3
Spending time outside can nurture a sense of wonder. This world is so full of marvels for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear! My oldest son used to bring a little chair into the garden and quietly watch the plants and insects around him, including ants that tended and milked aphids on a garden plant. My daughter recently told me how, one fall, she accidentally uncovered a hibernating queen bumblebee in our yard when she moved a clump of moss. Such quiet moments of discovery are precious!
I asked several friends if they find it peaceful to spend time outside, and if so, why. All of them said yes, but each listed different reasons. One said that the constancy of trees and landscape is reassuring, restoring a sense of perspective and reminding us of God’s promise that “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, and day and night shall not cease.”4 Another friend commented that, in the face of grandeur and diversity, we can let go of the illusion of control. A third pointed out that the color green, displayed by plants of all shapes and sizes, is peaceful.
Christians have even more reasons to prioritize time spent outside. First, God cares immensely about all of his creation (not just about people), and by learning about his other creatures we can come to learn more about him and to love this world more like he does. In the creation account, before humans were yet created, God blessed the creatures of the sea and sky, “saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’”5 Later, when God made the covenant after the flood, he spoke to Noah but made it clear that the covenant included animals as well as humans. God told Noah, “….behold, I establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you: the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you…”6 God cares for all his creatures, and so should we.
Second, when we spend time in the woods or by a lake or in a garden, we are reminded that we, too, are part of creation. Our tradition makes a big deal of the fact that humans were made in the image of God. That is a big deal; God breathed his very own breath into Adam and Eve and gave us immense responsibility because of it. However, we are also part of creation, formed by God from the dust of the earth. Remembering our created-ness can restore some much-needed humility to our species. We forget, to our peril, that our own flourishing is closely tied to that of the land and creatures around us.
Some people are naturally drawn to the outdoors and will spend as much time outside as possible. My husband is like this; he loves to garden, and time outside is his default way to spend free time.
I am not like that. After spending time outside, I come in feeling refreshed and renewed–but I do not instinctively head outdoors on a regular basis. Maybe it is because books and screens are easier. It is probably more because I get distracted by busy thoughts and internal pressure to be productive. Perhaps you can relate?
When we found ourselves at home starting in mid-March, I thought about the benefits of outside time and decided that I would get outside for a walk every day. I chose a short 15-minute loop in my neighborhood as my default route. A few weeks in, my daughter got very interested in birds and started joining me on my walks, reminding me to get out on days when I might otherwise have skipped it. As we walked, we watched birds and took note of changes in trees and plants as they leafed out. Our route takes us past a pond where we pause to greet a goose that has been sitting on her nest for several weeks. One evening we saw a muskrat swimming in the pond.
Even closer to home, my youngest son recently asked if we could make a map of our yard. We measured and sketched in the house and driveway, then started to plot the location of various trees and plants.
I am no stranger to natural history. I studied biology in college and graduate school, did field work for my master’s degree at the edge of a tropical forest in Southeast Asia, spent several months as an environmental intern, and led nature programs one summer at a Michigan State Park. Until the COVID lockdown, I hiked with my kids every week in the forested conservation areas in our city. But, during this extended time at home, learning about the plants and animals in my yard and neighborhood—taking time to slow down, observe, and learn—has grounded me in a new and beautiful way.
Establishing natural habits
If you already spend a lot of time outdoors, I applaud you.7 If you are more like me, here are a few ideas that might help you establish a new habit, slowly and steadily. Those of us who live in cities and/or don’t have a yard may find it more difficult to get outside and to experience something of the natural world. However, even in small spaces it is possible to experience something of the outdoors.
See what plants and animals you can find close to home. You might bring a lens with you, to focus your attention. Take photos on your phone, bring binoculars, or carry a pocket microscope, to encourage you to stop and take a closer look. Even one tree, observed regularly over time, will have much to teach.
Grow something! If you don’t have room to plant a garden in the ground, plant in containers on a patio or keep a few pots of herbs on your kitchen windowsill. If you do have room for a garden, find someone with a green thumb and ask them to help you get started.
Consider taking notes and making sketches as you explore. Journaling really helps encourage careful observation and a sense of connection to the world. There are many options: a perpetual nature journal; a phenology wheel that incorporates sketches and/or information through the days of the month or the months of the year; a “Calendar of Firsts” in which you keep track of when you see changes throughout the year. With all of these, the point is not to end up with a work of art. As John Muir Laws writes, “The goal of nature journaling is… to develop a tool to help you see, wonder, and remember your experiences.”8 The point is to slow down, observe, and learn to record what you see. In the process, you will come to know and love God’s creation in a new way.
My final suggestion is to invite a child to walk with you—or, since that may not be advisable with physical distancing guidelines, try to see with the eyes of a child. There may be no better way to nurture a sense of wonder.
I hope you will take time outside to carefully and quietly observe the plants and animals in your neighborhood. Then, may you join the Psalmist in praise, exclaiming with him, “How many are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.”9
Genesis 8:22. ↩
Genesis 1:22. This blessing was given before a similar blessing was given to Adam and Eve. They were also instructed to ‘have dominion.’ Theologian Ellen Davis comments that ‘have dominion’ might best be translated as ‘exercise skilled mastery’; she cautions that our fulfillment of God’s mandate to humans must not happen at the expense of other creatures’ ability to fulfill their own. (Ellen Davis, interview with Krista Tippett, On Being podcast) ↩
Genesis 9:9. The term “every living creature” is reiterated in verses 12, 15, 16, and 17. ↩
You might want to investigate the 1000 Hours Outside blog—something that sounds very worthwhile but overwhelming to me in the sheer quantity of outside time it advocates (an average of almost three hours per day). ↩
Psalm 104:24 ↩