In the rafters of the historic home I live in, there is a bird’s nest which has provided a snapshot of nature in the past three months. While I sheltered at home, I studied the wren who built the nest through my bathroom window. She attempted to warm her eggs during the March drizzle and snow, and gave up in April. And in April, an opportunistic robin moved in. Now we have four nestlings, who’s maws gape from dawn till night. I became so intrigued by the bird street theater, I likened myself (to myself) to the bird-man of Alcatraz. But, as I read more about him, I discovered we had little in common. He was a murderer, who had his “good thing” revoked by the authorities for using his bird medicine equipment to build a still.
I am no longer a drinker of moonshine. I do; however, relate to the bird-man’s interest in nature. For someone like me, used to hiking in Michigan as a recovery practice, a snippet of bird behavior went a long way to making a period of confinement bearable.
And the Pure Michigan woods are full of gorgeous, remote trails, so when I wasn’t communing with my robin family, my activity of choice was exploring one of the remote trails close to Grand Rapids. Now that the world is opening up again, I am broadening my reach. On a recent trek along Lake Michigan, I started thinking – what is it about hiking in the great outdoors that makes one feel so good?
We all know that exercise is good for us. It’s great for blood pressure and heart health, weight maintenance, muscle mass, cheery disposition and rosy cheeks. But why has my interest in flora and fauna increased my happiness level? Why has hiking (or even strolling and sitting on a bench) in the woods become my number one go-to when I’m feeling low – my savior in recovery?
Your Brain on Nature
There are always reasons, my friends. Hiking in nature is actually good for the brain. And for those of us in recovery, repairing the brain and building healthy neural pathways is key to long-term success.
Growth of the Hippocampus
In fact, studies show that walking will grow your hippocampus, a part of the brain that produces new neurons and supports important aspects of memory. And walking in nature has added benefit, because it requires constant attention. Stepping over roots, or ducking under a low hanging limb is the kind of activity that keeps the brain young.
Creativity & Productivity
Trekking in the Michigan woods inspires creative thought. And according to Neuroscientist, David Strayer, unencumbered time in nature, without using a cell phone, enhances higher-order thinking, restores the brain, and boosts creativity. It also effects restorative benefit to the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which manages decision making, and impulse control. No wonder, after all the time I spent watching the news and stressing about the pandemic, I felt less anxious when I was on the hiking trail!
I will admit I am a bird nerd, a nature geek. While hiking in Michigan, I pause to watch black squirrels scamper or inspect a patch of emerald green moss on a fallen log. Bird song, sun dappled leaves, the crunch of pine needles underfoot, a path winding its way through poplars make me feel alive and part of something larger than me. The more I pay attention to my senses while in nature, the more I can bring the experience home. I am more aware of urban birds, bunnies and squirrels. And writing about those nature walks prolongs the feelings of well-being.
I am in good company as a nature lover and hiker. Charles Darwin, Steve Jobs, Claude Monet, and of course Henry David Thoreau all knew the restorative benefits of immersing themselves in the wild. And during this time of uncertainty, it’s nice to know that birds still chirp. Baby robins still cry for food. And all of God’s bounty still emerges in myriad shades of spring green.