Surrounded by enormous mountains, I become painfully aware of my insignificance, and everything seems to fall back into perspective. My problems and worries seem much smaller and not only more manageable, but even absurd. I take a deep breath and exhale a big sigh of relief, and everything I’ve been carrying but no longer need is expelled with it. This is why I love the mountains, why I need the wilderness, and why it is a great tragedy that more and more of these sacred places are disap- pearing each day.
Last summer, not only was I dealing with the stresses that came from being in the middle of a seemingly never ending global pandemic–homeschooling kids, trying to work from home in a full, noisy house, struggling to support my family after nearly all of my paid work was cancelled for the time being–but I was dealing with a number of other things that would have been plenty difficult to manage all on their own. People have always remarked how laid back I am, and having grown up in Southern California, I guess that kind of carefree view towards life rubbed off on me. But that summer I didn’t feel very laid back at all.
Before last year, I really can’t think of any time in my life where I was ever dealing with constant, heavy stress. Then I was hit with everything all at once; a pregnant wife, buying our first home, my biggest project going horribly wrong in every way possible, legal custody battles with the father of my two step daughters, while the global pandemic was in the background of it all. By summertime, I could no longer ignore my unstable mental and emotional state; I desperately needed a reset. I wasn’t used to being cooped up at home for such an extended period of time. Knowing what makes me the most happy in life, I started getting back on the trails.
Whenever I go hiking, before anything else, I always notice that first breath of clean, fresh air. I feel it go deep into my lungs and slowly dissipate throughout my body, already working its magic. That feeling always gets me excited to strap on my boots, throw on my pack, and head into the wild. I’d be hard-pressed to think of anything else that makes me feel more alive.
I started my healing process by hiking the local trails in the mountains near my home, revisiting familiar places in search of wildflowers. I started going out more and more often, and hiking further and further each time. Even when I would come back home without any photos, it never felt like a waste of time. I was doing something more important than photography, I was reconnecting with Mother Earth.
By the time it was late enough in the summer to head into the mountains of Wyoming, I was already feeling much better. I was both physically and mentally prepared to be able to enjoy the scenery as much as possible.
While our species once lived in the wild, we have now become significantly disconnected as we have separated ourselves from our ancient home. We build four large walls around ourselves now to escape the natural climate, as we heat or cool our homes and create our own year-round climate. In the pursuit of comfort we have paid a hefty price, not only have we become softer and weaker now, we have created a system in which there is very little time for rest, relaxation, or pleasant idleness. When we do have spare time, many of us reach for our adult pacifiers, smartphones, to fill any brief moments of idleness, avoiding boredom by all means.
I have found that the best moments in life are the ones where I am fully present, completely fixated on what is going on in front of me. People are losing the ability to clear their minds, to empty themselves of thoughts and focus on what is at hand, always worrying about the future, always planning for tomorrow instead of enjoying the fruits of today. The wilderness is the perfect place to find balance once again, both in mind and body, as trivial pursuits and tasks fade into the background, and the only thoughts are of what is most necessary–food, water, and shelter.
It doesn’t take much to be happy in the mountains. On stormy days one becomes grateful for a small tent, where they can sit and remain dry; after a long day of hiking, finally being able to sit down and enjoy a simple, warm meal; while out walking under the blistering heat, and being able to drink crystal clear, cold water from a flowing stream. In these kinds of places, nothing is more satisfying, and it makes you aware of everything you have been taking for granted. We need the wilderness for our own sanity.
Psychologists are now looking for new ways to treat mental illness, stress, depression, and anxiety, instead of just prescribing the soul numbing pills created in laboratories. Experiments have shown that being in nature has positive physical effects on the human body. Heart rate slows down, cortisol levels drop, and feel-good chemicals like oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins are released almost immediately. With such a visceral raw experience that equally engages all of the senses, the brain regains equanimity and balance once again. Nature is proving to be the healthiest form of stimulation.
As new data supports these claims, more and more doctors all over the world are beginning to prescribe time in nature to the sick and weary. Even the term ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ is being taken more seriously. A short stroll through the woods, a hike in the mountains, looking out at the ocean, or sitting quietly in the desert can quickly begin to heal a troubled soul. Studies have shown that even just having pictures of nature around us can help us to calm down and even recover from illness much faster.
With all this new evidence, people are beginning to trust more in nature. For exercise, diet, medicine, sleep, and overall wellness, people are now looking into our past for the answers, instead of into the future. The importance of pristine nature is becoming overwhelmingly obvious. I only hope that we will come to truly understand its value before there is no more left.
If you would like to read more essays and see more images by Eric Bennett, you can check out his new book “Conversations With Nature.”