Getting out in nature is a necessity, not an option.

by John McManamy


THIS ARTICLE is a bit different than my others. Elsewhere, with regard to our understanding and recovery, I make every effort to provide scientific backing. Thus, meditation and yoga - we have brain scans for that. Stress - scientists have been on the case since at least 1905. Sleep - studies, studies, studies.

This time, with regard to the healing benefits of nature, I'm going to eschew the science and write straight from the gut. In the process, I think I can make a much stronger case. To demonstrate my good faith, I am writing this outdoors, out of internet range, in a mountain valley in southern California. The wild grass is sparkling with fresh dew from the winter rains, and the loudest sound I hear is that of birds chirping. The other day, eleven wild turkeys greeted me at the door to my trailer.

It's a bit colder than I would like it to be, but I'm feeling cozy clad in layers of clothing, wrapped in a blanket, steaming hot tea by my side. In a matter of days, I will be hitting the road, where I look forward to collecting more insights.

For the last ten years, soon after arriving in southern CA, I became a strong advocate of getting out in nature. But I offered commendable restraint in not shoving it down readers' throats. We're all different, after all. My nature paradise may be your hell-on-earth. Besides, humanity is neatly divided into city people and country people. Right?

Wrong. Dead wrong. Two or so years ago, I came to the realization that in one important aspect we are really all the same, all of us. That millions of years of evolution have wired us to be out in nature, connected to its subtle and not-so-subtle cycles. This is particularly important with regard to bipolar. If we view bipolar as a cycling illness, one where we are out of phase with our internal and external rhythms - sleep, the seasons, and so on - then to be disconnected from nature is to be disconnected from ourselves.

In NOT JUST UP AND DOWN, in the context of undertanding the cycling nature of our illness, I quoted Kay Jamison:

We are, with the rest of life, periodic creatures, beholden for our rhythms to the rotations of the earth around the sun and the moon around the earth. The chemistry of our brains and bodies oscillates in adaptation to the earth's fluctuations in heat and light, and probably its electromagnetic fields as well. Like other mammals, our patterns of eating, sleeping, and other physical activities sway with the seasons, varying in accordance with changes in day length and temperature. A master biological clock, genetically determined, controls the cycling of our brain's constituent chemicals and shapes our responses to our physical environment.



In a different context, I heard Dr Jamison bring up the naturalist John Muir in a talk she presented at Johns Hopkins in 2002. John Muir, she said, went out for a walk but stayed out till sunset, for "going out was coming in."

My realization that we are wired to be synced to nature was accompanied by the twin realization that we're also natural musicians and drummers and dancers (even if you have a tin ear and two left feet). The connecting link with nature is rhythm. When we are in sync, in harmony, we are happy people. (Check out my article on vibration, rhythm, and music.)




City life and creature comforts offer their advantages, but we always need to be mindful of the tensions between the lifestyle we take for granted and the one we were born to thrive in. It is only in the last 10,000 years or so ago, with the advent of agriculture, that we started settling into permanent villages and cities. Our genes, simply put, have not had a time to adjust. This is one reason we are prone to stress and stress-related conditions, physical and mental.

Yes, our caveman ancestors had to put up with stresses of their own (such as neighborly differences of opinion with lions and other predators), but we can make a strong evolutionary biology case that their brains were built to handle the situation. Basically, the same neural wiring that primed our ancestors for fleeing from a lion (albeit unsuccessfully a good deal of the time) is not optimized for negotiating a delicate situation with your boss. If we are further burdened with certain genetic vulnerabilities (as all of us with bipolar are, in one form or another), we are doomed to a city life fraught with daily challenges.

Getting out in nature, then, is a necessity, not an option. This is where we are restored, become whole. It may be a short walk in the fresh air or a longer one in the park, but then we have to learn to build longer excursions into our routines. A day away from it all. A few days. A week. Maybe more.

In my experience, I feel a sense of instant relief once I am out of cell phone range. But then it takes at least an hour before my brain really settles down, before I feel release from my day-to-day crap and and I start connecting to the earth. One way of interpreting this is that I am becoming a nature mystic. But I don't see it that way. I am simply getting in touch with my core, with who I really am. In being out in nature, I am being true to my own nature.

Some may see it as a nature high. I see it as natural, running true to millions of years of evolution.

On the second or third say of getting away from it all, major shifts occur. I am shedding my city identity. Since I always felt like an outsider, anyway (as do just about all of us, I submit), this comes a form of blessed relief. Now I am truly healing, becoming whole.

Hold on, I hear you saying. I'm a city person. I'm energized by the hustle and bustle. I thrive under pressure.

Okay, I hear you. In the old days, I would have said that maybe nature is not for you. But if you're reading this, then you (or your loved one) are not exactly thriving in that urban utopia of yours. Maybe you are experiencing depression. Maybe anxiety. Maybe you're struggling to keep your emotions in check. Maybe you're drinking too much.

C'mon. Let's be honest.



So you do the city fixes: Medication, a gym membership, yoga classes. Don't get me wrong. It's a good idea to be on these routines. They are definitely helpful. But here's the money question: Are these practices merely keeping you in your current holding pattern? Or is there more to life than just this?

At the end of the day, are you feeling empty?

Wait! you're telling me. I'm really not a nature person. I hate nature, in fact. Bugs, mosquitoes, bad weather. You name it, you can have it.

Again, I hear you. Perhaps your one time out in nature was a disaster. My answer to this is that everything good in life deserves a second and third and even fiftieth chance. Everything from the food we eat to the music we love tends to be extremely different than what used to satisfy us at a younger age. You need to give nature the same chance.

You know the drill. That true satisfaction does not come from instant gratification. Nature isn't about to adjust to your whims. Not at all. Rather, it's the other way around. We need to adjust to nature. Again, it bears emphasis: We have an illness that is characterized by cycling and being out of phase with nature's cycles. We are out of phase with the earth. We are out of phase with ourselves.

The only remedy for this is to sync up with mother nature. We need to become tree-huggers, fall in love with a tree. If this sounds weird to you, then you probably qualify as "normal." But "normal" is never where we want to be. Aim for enlightenment. The "normal" there is much better.

Then, I submit, the city life you return to will be far more tolerable, enjoyable, even.

The day around me is warming up. The dew is disappearing. A new phase to the day begins, part of that mysterious interplay of cycles that you and I were born to be part of.

Jan 8, 2017




Follow me on the road. Check out my New Heart, New Start blog.



Bipolar Stuff in the Shack with John and Maggie