by Caleb Carlton, Teacher Naturalist at Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont
I like to think of human beings as living murals: each person is the sum of their life experience. As we pass through the various stages of life, we become who we are. We are ever-changing, becoming more complete with each passing moment and the accompanying experiences – the human mural is never finished.
An mural often consists of several individual pieces that, when viewed as a whole, express something greater than the parts through their interconnectedness. To move through a mural successfully, one must find the connections that make transitions between the pieces possible. Life plays out just the same.
The question is, in each of our own murals, what are those common themes, those connectors that can help to guide us through transitions and onto the next phase of life? Certainly there are family, friends, mentors, faith, and determination. What about nature? Does the natural world connect all of the phases of our lives together? Can time spent in nature ease or even prevent the discomforts and difficulties brought on by transition? The answer to these questions is, unequivocally, yes.
The great American author and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau, put it this way, “I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” Turns out, he had it right 150 years ago.
One of the best gifts that parents can give to a child is a consistent immersion in nature.
In the last decade, a body of research has emerged examining the benefits of time spent with nature. The findings show numerous ways in which the natural world can positively affect us, both physically and mentally, at all stages of life. Intuitively, it’s easy for many of us to recognize the soothing contentment of forest shade on a hot summer day, the excitement for life brought on by seeing wild creatures, or the familiarity of the changing seasons.
Day by day, we live within the rhythms of nature. But we are raising a generation that, from the beginning of life, has very little exposure to the benefits of experiencing and feeling a part of earth’s rhythms. And it is only now, when the modern lifestyle has made (nearly) inaccessible the consistent time and space to experience the natural world, that we are rediscovering the truth in Thoreau’s words.
A recent survey of teenagers, taken by Stage Of Life (www.stageoflife.com), found that 88% of teens believed their generation to be disconnected from nature, while 73% of respondents said they went outside more as an elementary student than when in high school. These statistics are worrisome, considering the frequency and magnitude of transitions that this age group experiences. How can teenagers take advantage of the guiding power of the natural world, if they don’t have a relationship with it to begin with?
A personal connection to nature is a gift that can help to guide us through life’s transitions. Nature can soothe and deliver contentment, stir and excite the imagination, teach the mind through the senses or careful observation, draw people together, imbue awe and wonder, support a healthy lifestyle, and foster personal growth. It is an injustice to rob our youth of the positive associations formed through experiencing nature. We are failing to give young people some of the essential experiences necessary for developing into a complete individual.
We have some important work to do, and the Knoxville area offers several powerful contexts for that work, such as Ijams Nature Center and the Maryville Alcoa Greenway. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a quick drive away from a vast and wondrous wilderness. The Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont (www.gsmit.org) offers in-depth experiences in nature for youth of all ages. For teens, we have backpacking and science research camps throughout the summer, designed to foster immense personal growth and a genuine relationship with the natural world.
Being in nature or choosing a career pertaining to the environment is not the be-all and end-all of true happiness or success. However, nature can be a lifelong companion, and it will be there, unwaveringly, to help restore the mind, body and spirit during even the most difficult transitions in life. One of the best gifts that parents can give to a child is a consistent immersion in nature. In doing so, they will be creating a forever-guiding hand for that developing person. We cannot see what challenges the future holds, but we can share the gifts that guide us toward the bigger picture along the way.
A Michigan native, Caleb holds a degree in Environmental Studies from Michigan State University. Recently he was a naturalist with the “Inside the Outside” Outdoor Science School (Orange County Department of Education, California). He has also worked on an organic farm. An avid backpacker, he has hiked portions of the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest and John Muir Trails. He is a Wilderness First Responder.