Service of Nature
“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”
Nature has always been a source of wonder and awe for me. Growing up in the Rocky Mountains, I got to be immersed in nature almost anytime I wanted. Taking a hike, skiing, heading out on a bike ride, wandering, just taking a simple walk really do wonders for my peace of mind and stress relief. There is majesty in the mountains, no doubt. But the powerful delight I find in the mountains can be found across this great planet. I find solace at the ocean, in old growth forests, in the desert, in the wilderness. Each of these have the power to remind me that I am small, I am only a tiny fraction of what is going on in the complex and buzzing eco symphony of our planet and beyond. And that, right there, that feeling of awe is now shown to be healing!
This past weekend, my adventure partner and I headed out on the last backpack of the year—one last sleep under the stars before the frosts get too intense, the snow too deep, and winter activities begin. Hiking through Indian Peaks Wilderness in autumn is a striking experience, expansive vistas, wooden bridges over cascading creeks, and the last vestige of fall foliage. The feeling of being out, away from the dings and alerts, with the creatures and flora, is an extraordinary experience. It is awe. According to psychologist, Dacher Keltner who heads Berkeley’s Social Interaction Lab, “awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast or beyond human scale, that transcends our current understanding of things.” Awe is now being studied as a necessary component of happiness and even basic human need.
Keltner’s research suggests that awe connects us and it is likely that we are wired to feel awe in order to act in more collaborative ways, ensuring survival. When we are faced with the majesty of awe—in the midst of wildflower fields, or in a surge of ocean waves, often our me mindset turns to a we mindset as we are reminded we are a part of larger systems.
In a recent article written by Paula Spencer Scott, University of Toronto’s Jennifer Stellar’s research has shown that awe actually alters our bodies. “Awe is the positive emotion that most strongly predicts reduced levels of cytokines, a marker of inflammation that’s linked to depression”. So in case you weren’t tempted by the great outdoors for any other reason, it’s now proving to be a key to health—mental, emotional and physical. And it is my strong opinion that without vital health, our service to others is severely diminished.
I’ve been reading more and more about the increase in what is now being called Nature Deficit Disorder. There is evidence that not having regular access to nature, not experiencing awe, can add to stress and health issues - especially in low-income and urban areas that often have little to no greenery. Early studies completed by researcher Craig Anderson exhibit the power and service of nature. Anderson’s studies include taking veterans and underserved adolescents white-water rafting, after which, the participants showed marked improvements in “psychological well-being, social functioning and life outlook. Veterans’ stress dropped 30 percent. It’s a compelling pattern,” says Anderson.
These studies are encouraging and show tangible results for what some of us known from experience—being in nature, feeling awe, and being overwhelmed by the beauty on this planet makes us feel better. And when we feel better, less stressed, more available, we are able to be of service in ways in which we may otherwise be too self-consumed. I have a dear friend who used to look at pictures of galaxy when she was feeling overwhelmed or stressed, the hugeness of the universe brought her back to realize that she was so small, that her worries, although real and valid, were not going to be the end of the world. And don’t we all need that reminder sometimes? Doesn’t that help us act more magnanimously? We are not the center; we are pieces of a whole that is utterly complex!
We don’t all live in easy access to wilderness areas, national forests or oceans, but many of us can make the effort to get to a park, hang out in our yards or community gardens, go for a walk along a creek instead of a coffee to catch up with friends and let the service of nature feed us to serve others more wholly.
Where do you find your delight? How is nature serving you to serve others better? I would love to hear your stories, see your pictures and try something new. Hope your weekend is filled with awe!
“Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better.”