Nurtured by Nature: How the Great Outdoors can Help us Find Ourselves

Words: Jenni – Palette
Illustrations: Aryadevi Bhargavaraman

In 1995, Cheryl Strayed set off on a 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail – a route as unforgiving as it is spectacular. Over 94 days, Strayed traversed the Mojave Desert, California and Oregon, eventually finishing in Washington.

The sudden loss of her mother to cancer, followed by the division of her family left Cheryl in a deep depression – the pain of which she attempted to numb with frequent anonymous sex and heroin, which eventually destroyed her marriage. After a shock pregnancy and subsequent abortion, Cheryl decided to walk over 1000 miles in an effort to restore balance and ultimately heal her traumas of the past.

Cheryl’s desire to hike the trail was not a physical one. She was not a hiking enthusiast – in fact, she had little to no hiking experience before embarking on this trip. Yet, she still felt an unquenchable compulsion to do it. She was not compelled by fitness, but rather the fervent and inescapable need for self-discovery.

The resulting journey was both emotional and spiritual, one of redemption and healing. Barely meeting another soul for the duration of her hike, Cheryl was forced to overcome difficult emotional and physical hurdles on her own – or as she put it ‘bear the unbearable’. Relying solely upon herself, her personal power and strength became apparent, and Cheryl was able to find a certain peace with her loss – and ultimately forgive herself.

This pilgrimage narrative is not a new one. Throughout history individuals have ventured far and wide on spiritual or religious journeys, crossing expansive landscapes, rolling mountains and meandering rivers. Whilst the destinations differ, the overarching aspirations remain the same. We wish to ‘step out’ of ourselves. To connect with something bigger. To gain perspective – to learn – to discover.

So why traverse the vast and wild natural world? Why not hold a social gathering, explore a new city, or take a long solo drive to gather our thoughts and affirm our identity? What is it about the great outdoors that specifically helps us (re)discover ourselves?

The link between human beings and nature is strong. In fact, as Edward O Wilson stated in his book Biophilia, our desire to connect with other living beings and natural environments is biologically innate. Nature is integral to our wellbeing, or as Edward Abbey once said, “wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity for the human spirit”.
To put it plainly; we simply cannot thrive as living things without being in regular contact with other living things.

But it goes further than that.

In a 2009 study, Weinstein, Przybylski and Ryan discovered that spending time in nature doesn’t just aid our survival, it actually encourages us to think about and develop our ‘intrinsic aspirations’ – that is, our most valuable life goals.

These goals primarily satisfy our basic – and often most important – psychological needs, such as personal growth, intimacy and community.

In other words? Nature helps us find our inner self.

So what does this mean for our modern society?

It has been reported that we are in the midst of a disconnection pandemic. Screens have replaced sunshine. Gaming is our green space, and Instagram our outside world. Children in particular are at risk of a dwindling relationship with nature, with a recent study finding that 8 to 12 year olds spend three times as many hours with computers and televisions each week as they do playing outside.

The long-term impact of this on our mental health is staggering. Those of us that do not have access to the outdoors are at greater risk of developing anxiety disorders and depression. Screen time itself can be damaging to our health, with blue light disrupting our sleep cycle. There is also evidence to suggest that the amount of time spent indoors has a direct correlation to the development of myopia in children.

Our disconnect impacts on nature too. If we don’t spend time in our natural environment, the less likely we are to appreciate it, and ultimately feel impassioned to save it.

When Cheryl Strayed walked 1,100 miles, she immersed herself in what she described as ‘the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness’. She walked and thought about her entire life. She found something inside of herself – something growing, ‘strong and real’.

This is the unflinching power of nature.

Without it – we risk losing ourselves entirely.

About The Artist

Aryadevi Bhargavaraman

“Though I’m not a trained artist, I like to paint; especially nature’s beauty.
I have always been fascinated by the enchanting beauty of nature. 

I’m from India and continuing my studies at RMIT University, Australia.”

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