How to Be Outside

In 2014, a United Nations study revealed that for the first time more people live in cities than in the country. Humans have officially become an urban creature, with an increasing number living near city centers every day. Many of us are more familiar with sirens, subways, and smog than the deep woods, open plains, or desert.

Like anyone anywhere else, city-dwellers acclimate to their surroundings. The pace of life, the smells, the organization and interrelationship of streets and buildings, the sounds, the dialect, the level of optimism, and the rest. Much of it becomes so ingrained and habitual that it’s unconscious. This is the way things are. This is the way the world works. But the gradual fading of awareness to surroundings does not mean they don’t have a significant impact.

We’re only beginning to understand what things like traffic, pollution, and frenetic days of production and consumption do to us biologically. Sometimes, we’ll get a clear signal from our bodies that we need more rest, less stimulation, cleaner air, less noise, or other conditions that will allow us to return to homeostasis. We know that somewhere out there–5 miles or 500 miles–we could be in greener and freer places. In a bit of fresh air that might clear our minds and blow away the accumulation of stress and urban artifice. Not everyone is an outdoors person or longs to get away from the city. But the woods and plains and desert represent a kind of Eden that we could return to and find rejuvenation if we wanted.

The trouble is a lot of us don’t know how to be outside. Even if we choose to go there. The city clings onto us as we venture miles away, with smartphones acting as a tether and transporter no matter how far we travel. The forces of the city that have shaped urbanites often causes them to–at least initially–continue to act like they’re in the city when they’re in the midst of the outdoors. Anxious activity and reactivity, big speakers and constant out-loud commentary, and an expectation for comforting amenities of every kind. It overruns cabins, campsites, and hiking trails.

Unless you consciously try to let the outdoors act on you instead of you acting on it, there’s a good chance that most of the reason to get outside will be lost. You can even ruin the outdoors itself in the process. A littered plastic bottle in a random bush along a trail seems much more out of place than one on the sidewalk on Main St. We know in our bones that the outdoors is relatively pristine and elemental (without trash here and there), which should be a reminder that its benefits are available to us if we’re able to get out of our own way.

Even a short time in a natural setting can be incredibly invigorating and restorative. Better mood. Clearer vision. Easier breathing. Lower cortisol and overall stress. A more open and focused mind. A natural high (aerosols from forests of evergreens act as a mild sedative).

So let the outdoors tell you how to be there and do to you as it will. Do what you can to leave things as they are, rather than bringing in all kinds of gear and imposition. Let the outdoors make the sounds instead of your voice and streaming music, and let your ears tune into what’s there. Let your eyes relax and adjust so they can see things in ways other than what the pixelated light of a smartphone presents. And try to learn to be OK with the unexpected (while making sure you’re safe, obviously). An outdoor environment will present you with a whole variety of things you didn’t see coming, and it’s good to be reminded that we’re not always in control and able to predict what happens next. Something near a campsite or just around the corner of the trail may uplift you and stick with you for a long time.

It can be awkward and a little unsettling to be outside if you’re not doing it often. And it’s natural to carry with us what we’re used to–needing time and reminders to break out of it. Knowing that it’s restorative and rewarding to be outdoors, we can all learn how to do it a little better for the benefit of ourselves and the places we visit.

This Week in Upgrades: June 27

Hello there! How’s your Monday? Have all your 4th of July plans figured out (if you’re celebrating)? Nothing like a new week and a new month to hit the refresh button. I know I’m ready to be better at some things than I was in recent days.

You catch some of the happenings on the Internet this week? Crazy, inspiring, tragic. A typical week of the spectrum of humanity and the world we live in. Check some of these out:

Millennials are side hustling because there’s no other choice. Thanks, Neoliberalism.

Here’s another reminder about the importance of self-compassion. A future Upgraded Humans post on it may be in order.

Buenos Aires is closing their zoo because animal captivity is degrading. Well done.

Ludovico Einaudi plays a dirge for the Arctic while floating through. Haunting.

There’s a new climate change podcast called Warm Regards. Listen here.

Matthew McConaughey teased the possibility of another Rust Cohle True Detective season. Please!

Here’s a great profile on Faviken–one of the world’s most remote and creative restaurants.

Why is everyone drinking La Croix?

What were humans like before we started recording our history? Great video.

Wear glasses? Half of the planet will be nearsighted by 2050. Put a new pair of contacts in today, myself.

Rest in peace to a delightful human.

Here’s a moment of Muir to remind you to get outside.

Have a brilliant week!

 

 

A Connected Childhood

Joshua Tree Desert
Baldukas2015

My wife, Amy, and I spent the weekend in Joshua Tree National Park. It was incredible. Unseasonably comfortable weather for the desert. Total silence. No electric lights for miles, so we were able to see the Milky Way amongst countless stars. Little, if any, cell signal. Coincidentally, one of the first things I came across upon our return home in the city was this video from Nature Valley.

Three generations of family recall their favorite activities of their childhood. The elder two generations are all about the outdoors. Fishing, forts, picking fruits, team sports, sledding, wild animals. The youngest generation, those who are kids right now, convey a preference for tablets, texting, binge-watching, and a lot of digital connectivity overall.

Now, of course, the main purpose of the video is to sell granola bars. Nature Valley is trying to get you to buy a product by amplify a sentimental feeling of the wild and restorative qualities of nature, as well as nostalgia for the simpler way of life you experience when you’re small. To be honest, Nature Valley granola bars are not one of the first snacks I’m looking to buy when I’m going outside. They disintegrate and piñata onto the ground once you open the package. You’re more likely to feed a bird or a crawling creature than you are yourself. But let’s set aside the whole commercial, marketing side of the video for a second. When marketing works well, it’s expressing some kind of truth, some kind of feeling that already exists in the air such that when they tell it in a crafted bit of storytelling you want to buy their product because it seems like a necessary solution.

What is the video trying to say about how people spend their time, especially as children? Does that correspond to how things are?

It’s undeniable that children are spending more time in front of screens than ever before. The average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly 8 hours a day with different media; older children and teens, more than 11 hours. A lot of that time is television, but other devices are catching up fast. For some children, the media use starts as early as just months old, with toddlers who do not yet even speak poking around on their parents’ phones and tablets.

So simply based on a few statistics and general observation of kids’ habits, it makes sense that today you are more likely to find a 13-year-old on the couch multitasking through apps with the TV on in the background than hiking a trail or throwing a ball. That’s not inherently bad. The amount of hours, however, is rather startling—particularly for older children. If you’re spending 11 hours of a day in front of a screen, there’s only 13 other hours available for sports, non-digital activities with friends, eating, sleeping, pooping, and activities of personal interest—including any outdoor ones. The sleeping part alone should take up 7 or 8 hours of those 13, so that really only leaves about 5 for all of the rest. Not a whole lot to work with.

It’s particularly concerning when any child is starting to lose touch with reality. The online world has an “intense pull” and is definitely “highly addictive.” As the one youngster observes happens while he’s gaming, “I forget that I’m in a house, that I have parents, that I have a sister, that I have a dog. I just think I’m in the video game.” The merits of the outdoors aside, when you start to lose track of the reality of even the physical space inside of the house, and your relationships with family who live in it with you, that’s a genuinely disturbing situation. I don’t think the grandmother’s tears are for show.

But before any adult gets too judgmental about the habits of a little dude like him, we’d better stop and take a look in the mirror ourselves. Any current adult’s childhood may have been filled with campfires and tee-ball in the city park, but we’re all just as active online now as any child is. Our social situation, especially the available technology, is prime to enable digital absorption whether you’re an actual kid or just a kid at heart.

Parents and Grandparents—and adults, in general—as the more seasoned and (hopefully) astute among us, “have an opportunity to guide our kids so that they can learn habits that help them make use of the digital world without being swallowed whole by it.” Kids learn by example, and often imitate the patterns and activities of those older than them. Adults should first take a look at their own device use.

How’s that going for you?

When you’re chastising children for binge-watching, are you leveling your critique at yourself too for watching a whole season of a show in just a couple days last week? Are you as quick to check your phone’s notifications as a child is with theirs? Do you interrupt the people you’re actually with in person to prioritize a call or message from someone far away? How often do you make time for fishing or fruit picking or pickup sports now?

Does Nature Valley’s technophobia hold up? Sort of. Today, childhood is irreversibly shaped by devices. They’re not going away. We have to figure out how to raise children to use them with healthy limits. And healthy limits are possible. But it’s not just children who need them. How long was it off-camera before the older two generations in the video reached for their phones to respond to a text from a friend or see what their sibling just tagged them in on Facebook? By the end of the 1950s, there were several million televisions in the United States, so those were entrenched in society well before the current generation of kids. We’re all culpable.

We all need to evaluate the hours we’re spending with screens, and how we might bring that back into balance. Nature is undoubtedly a helpful corrective. For myself, being in a National Park, in the midst of the tranquility and inability to connect through my phone even if I wanted, was deeply refreshing. I still snapped some pictures with my phone’s camera. And I had much tastier trail snacks than a Nature Valley granola bar. As the trip progressed though, I felt less of an urge to grab my phone out of my pocket and simply take in the scenery with the lenses I was born with. I felt my habituation for constant connectivity start to dissipate into the same stillness as the gentle breeze drifting through the California desert. I wanted to simply talk and laugh and tell stories and be present with Amy. No digital addiction could ever compete with the joy, complexity, and allure of being with her—especially while exploring the wilderness together. There are memories and recuperation in the outdoors, whether it’s a neighborhood park or preserved backcountry, that will long outlast a shared photo on social media or a Netflix retreat.

Perhaps the most important thing we should take away from reflecting on the Nature Valley video is to do whatever we can to retain an unspoiled, childlike sense of adventure with the world. At 9 or 90, there are more things out there and places to go than will ever sate the desire for amazement and entertainment. And they’re best shared together: with parents, siblings, friends, or anyone else. Let the digital be a bridge only if necessary. When you can’t get out of the house or the office. When others are across the city or on the other side of the world and you aren’t able to be there. When you need a reprieve from the insanity of your day and your only escape is a streaming video. Otherwise, grab a legit snack (and some water) and get outside somewhere. The online world only seems closer to a child’s fantasyland than the real world does if we forget nature is there for adventuring.