These snippets from the Walt Whitman poem Song of the Open Road has been popularized by a recent car commercial:
“Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.
All seems beautiful to me.”
So, aside from the irony that a car company is using a poem that extolls the virtues of walking the world to hawk the idea of driving through the world, I love the use of these words to advocate going out into the world. Because humans were not made to be stuck in buildings all day.
Elsewhere in the poem, Whitman says he is “Done with indoor complaints, libraries…” This man understands that he needs to get out from under roofs and GET OUTSIDE. It’s something that we instinctively know but that many of us don’t act on. And much of the stress of the world ensues.
Almost every set of tips for overcoming stress I’ve seen includes the recommendation to go for a walk in nature. Not a run. Not “Roll your window down during your commute.” Actually take to the open road, afoot and light-hearted.
Why is this such a universal recommendation? Well, I recently listened to a lecture on why most people are stressed out, and it provided some insight. I’m paraphrasing, but here’s the gist: humans have been on the Earth for thousands of years, but it’s only been relatively recently that we’ve been cut off from a direct experience of nature. When humans were hunter-gatherers, they didn’t have to think about 12 things at once. They didn’t have to check to make sure the appointment they just scheduled on their phone synced with their Google calendar. They were focused on getting food. To get food, they had to pay close attention to the signs and seasons of nature. They spent the bulk of their lives outside.
Well, I believe in the concept of cell memory and that we therefore carry around in our cells this closeness to nature. If cell memory seems too weird to you, call it epigenetics. Another factor is that both we and all that is around us share a Creator. There’s an often unrecognized affinity between people and nature that stems from the fact that we are all expressions of God’s infinite creativity. There’s a deep place in us that recognizes we belong with what God has made.
At the risk of sounding hippy-dippy or unorthodox, I will say that it’s as if all that God has made hums together. Different notes of the same song of creation. If we will take the time to go out into nature and be present to it, we can feel that hum. It feels like connection. It feels like how life should be.
That’s why, in my estimation, nature is healing. It’s drawing us back to the sacred quiet of connection. There’s a true reverence in it. I recommend that we all get out into the world as often as we can, even if it’s just for a few minutes a day. Especially if you’re experiencing stress, but also if you’re not.