I never really gave much thought to the fact that I grew up in the woods (in Maine, more specifically).
The other night, however, my partner was showing me their white noise app (Relaxio). It has a bunch of sliding bars in it that are marked with icons. There are a couple for rain (either how it sounds if you’re outside or how it sounds inside hitting the roof). There are waves, cars driving by.
And there’s even one, shockingly, that sounded exactly like my bedroom did growing up. In the morning during the warmer seasons when I had the window open (because no one had AC when I grew up in Maine). I was amused to note that the icon for that one was a tree.
I honestly never really thought about what being close to the woods did for me in those days. I was instead more fixated on how isolated I felt, stuck 10 miles away from the nearest town out on a trucking route. A road with a 45 mph and no shoulder.
Walking along that road wasn’t safe. Not that I could walk far enough to really go anywhere.
And I was too young to drive.
As the years wound on and I learned to drive and bought my first beater car, I found isolation was a constant issue in severe winter weather with many roads not treated or plowed. Important social plans were frequently canceled.
I can remember two fellow classmates dying my freshman year of college at the University of Maine, having been killed trying to come into the school for an exam. Because the school didn’t close when the roads were bad. And some professors wouldn’t let you retake exams for any reason — and not for something they saw as foreseeable like bad weather in Maine winter.
Maintenance Exposure to the Outdoors
Because of these reasons, I was thrilled when I had the opportunity to move to a city in my late 20s. Sure, it was Cleveland, hardly a glamorous choice, the butt of many jokes — but that actually made it easier. Cleveland was an excellent starter city for someone who had never lived in one, had no idea how to navigate one, and wasn’t sure she belonged there.
People weren’t pretentious. And while it was a lot bigger than what I was used to, it was far less intimidating than others I’d visited. There was still a bit of small town about it. The parts I’d actually liked. Not the isolation. And not the weird nepotistic gossip that followed you around, blessed or cursed with whatever last name you had inherited (in my own case, it was a mix of both).
Hilariously, I ended up with a partner in Cleveland who loved to camp. Enjoyed the outdoors. Went to parks frequently.
And despite growing up in the Maine woods, I had never been camping. Not in a tent, living on island time. Doing the shower house thing for a week at a time.
I was thrilled about roads being plowed. And having a public transportation system. (Sure, it wasn’t perfect, but I was used to having no alternative if my car broke down.) Restaurants other than Denny’s that stayed open 24 hours. A constant stream of social events I could attend if were so inclined.
I didn’t move to the city looking to go camping.
But I kept an open mind, and because I try to be a good sport, I went camping with them. Spent time in parks. Went to picnic concerts.
And while I had never really initiated these events, I found that when I did, I had a really good time. Camping was particularly fun because it was just us, relaxing, telling weird campfire stories, and losing track of a schedule that was normally quite oppressive when we were in the everyday grind.
Staying Connected to Nature, Even in a Large City
I never realized until recently what a big favor my partner was doing for me, by bringing me outdoors, making sure I stayed in touch with nature.
I see now that it was a kind of maintenance. And that if they hadn’t, I might have very well found myself getting depressed and not knowing why.
I recently moved to the Dallas area, and I’ve found that I’m obsessed with the wildlife down here. There’s a huge variety of plant life — it’s quite extraordinary. Oaks next to palm trees. Magnolias. All sorts of flowering bushes that I’ve never seen before.
I’m frequently saying to my partner, “I wonder what that’s called,” only to find that they’ve looked it up and have an answer.
I love the wild call of the great-tailed grackle, wicked birds. When they really let loose sound like they’re gleefully gloating about getting away with a terrible crime. I’m looking forward to my first winter here as I have it on good authority that a wide variety of birds winter down here. So if I keep my eyes open, I’ll probably see just about every bird I can imagine (and some I can’t, as I don’t know them yet).
And then there are the house lizards. Seriously, didn’t know it before moving down here, but geckos bop around (and sometimes in) houses in Dallas, eating bugs and thankfully not selling insurance.
A Hospital Room with a View
Anyway, I’m not just imagining it, that nature is good for my mental health. It would appear that research shows that nature can actually be quite soothing and actually good for your health. There’s a large body of research in this area, but one of my favorie was conducted by researcher Ulrich: A study in 1984 found that patients who are in postoperative recovery and healing from surgery recover from their procedures more quickly and also experience less pain if their hospital room has a view of a tree.
I can’t believe I’m saying this — after how many years I took it for granted — but nature can be soothing and good for healing.
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.