My family moved from place to place eight times before my 11th birthday. As an electrical engineer in post-WWII America, my father was contracted by some of the great industries in the 1950s. Entities like General Electric, Sperry Rand, and others would sign up teams of engineers and scientists for a year or two as they worked on their latest defense projects. My father built his career on the development of microwave technology (experimenting in front of an open microwave unit until his body would heat up) and guidance systems for the Trident submarine, among other more pedestrian work.
It was the 1950s and as a family we went along for the ride, moving from Long Island to several locations in upstate New York, over to two locations in New Jersey and finally west to the heartland in Indiana. At which point, I declared we had moved enough. "If you need to move again, leave me here to live with my girlfriend's family" I said. Cheeky, even at 13 years of age.
I was the oldest child and so I did not even have older siblings to turn to as friends. Every time we moved I would gaze out the back window of our station wagon as we pulled out of the driveway for the last time, car loaded with my younger brother and sister, our three shelties, houseplants spilling out the back windows. And I would weep as I waved goodbye, to my friends, to my home, to my neighborhood. And to the latest bit of nature I had embraced.
There is great loneliness in moving around as a child. You are always the "new kid" in class. The schools are never the same and must be relearned in layout and in expected behavior. You lack the history and friendships that date back to kindergarten and you lack the comfortable circle of affection afforded to a close knit group who have been raised together.
After each move, lonely and in need of some small relief from the emotional demands of younger siblings, I found my solace in nature. Some of my earliest memories as a toddler were of blades of grass under my bare feet when I was put outside in the grassy dog run with our first sheltie. From house to house, as I grew up, it continued. There was a slip of a stream that separated our back yard from an abandoned farm meadow and barn in Whitesboro, N.Y., where I would wander.
In New Jersey, there was a small bower in the slim woods that bordered our home in Mountain Lakes. This slim clearing, cloaked from the encroaching lawns by bush and small trees, was a protected place, safe and secluded. In the spring this bower was graced with the addition of "my new best friend" -- a Jack-in-the-pulpit wildflower. I visited it every day that spring.
The next New Jersey home had real woods behind it, and a pond. The woods was the first place I explored when we arrived. Although I missed the Jack-in-the-pulpit (and spring had passed) I was enchanted to find a large living tree that had grown in the shape of a natural bench -- three feet vertical, then four feet horizontal and then vertically another 30 feet, providing a canopy overhead. I later learned that native Americans often staked saplings to grow in this manner as "sign posts" along trails. But even without this knowledge, I considered this tree magical. It welcomed me into its lap and cradled me there in the privacy of our woods as I sat and read one book or another until dusk fell.
In our final move to Indiana at the age of 11, nature once again provided comfort. Outside of my family and our dogs, nature was the one common element that remained constant for me wherever we relocated. A wild and unmanicured parkland made up of old willows, an irrigation stream too wide to jump, and baby toads that hatched each spring in a massive abundance greeted me when we arrived. I found a new natural environment in which to immerse, and so I was home again.
My parents deserve great credit for my love of nature, and I cannot separate the countless life lessons they provided from my own childish explorations. We had annual camping family vacations, the Saturday trips into various natural parks or countrysides, a house full of books and magazines in a time before the Internet existed, and we were encouraged as children to participate in enjoying and observing nature. A classic example was any trip down a country highway where Mom or Dad would call out, "look kids, a sharp-shinned hawk!" Dad would pull over, out would come binoculars, the Audubon bird guide and a general stirring throughout the car as we each got to take a look.
So the discussion I saw mentioned on Twitter while reading through tweets recently drew my attention. Titled "Your Brain on Nature Vs. Life in a Box," this essay spoke to me of that awareness imprinted on my soul... that humans grow hungry in a specific way, and that nature is the food. Thankfully the fellow writing the blog offered some references and quotes from scientific papers discussing this human need for nature. And that need has a name: Nature relatedness. The upshot of this psychological perspective is this: "NR -- the affective, cognitive, and experiential connection with the natural world -- may contribute to psychological health."
What a great irony: that I would discover such a profound reminder of the importance of the natural world to my own and to general human well-being through the cyber-world and infinitely complex and technological realm of Twitter.
The global thoughts of Man and Nature I shall leave to others. I'm not abandoning the comforts of home to live in a tent or the delight of reading tweets on my iPad... But I am more mindful again of how deeply my soul is fed by the sights of nature. They flood my mind's eye as I remember them and ignite a pilot light of happiness I had half-forgotten...
Somber and hungry thoughts can arise in the last days of February. That is when darkness falls at 4:00 in the afternoon. Snow and cold force us to retreat indoors while cloaking the living world outside. The human heart can yearn for nature like a yearning for a lost love.
Now, in the full blush of spring, my heart is filled again. Nature abounds. The trees are in full leaf, hiding the nests of Baltimore Orioles, robins, House Wrens and Catbirds. The leaves provide shade for hostas, ferns and other sun-shy things. We have a patch of rare native Bloodroot wildflowers growing on our hillside, broad leaves and creamy white flowers forming a carpet. Lawns and gardens are filled with domestic blooms, scented and bright with color. The sun is warm and comforting upon my skin and the air is fresh, full of the cries of the birds and the sounds of insects. In the distance the lake glistens and laps the stony shore. I am practically drunk with all the life that has burst forth.
Remember this, when beset by the endless days of February or by other of life's burdens: Nothing is forever. Life brings change. Nature is nearby.
For more by Ginger Ross Breggin, click here.
For more on mindful living, click here.