The Healing Effects of Nature
“The stars are apexes of what wonderful triangles! What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment! Nature and human life are as various as our several constitutions. Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant? [...] I know of no reading of another’s experience so startling and informing as this would be.”
~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden
In my opinion, nature has an incredible emotional healing effect. I’ve seen this effect personally in my life many times, seeing as since middle school I’ve grown up surrounded by forests. I moved to Arizona when I was 11, and my family lived in the northern part of the state, which was a lot less desert and cacti and a lot more ponderosas and rain. Now, living in Bozeman, I am surrounded by forests that are, fortunately, a lot prettier than those in Arizona.
This past summer, I went to Emerald Lake on a backpacking trip with my two closest friends. It was spontaneous, and I didn’t know I was leaving until four hours before. I almost didn’t say yes, but am so glad I did. I got to bond with these people in a way that I am unable to in typical day-to-day life: we hiked high into the mountains, set up camp, and told ghost stories until we freaked each other out. I recall waking up in the morning and believing that we were truly invincible, an idea that does not often enter the mind of an anxiety-riddled teen such as myself.
The drive up through Hyalite to the trailhead was a familiar one to our group; we had all gone on many hikes up there in the past. However, this was my first time backpacking in the Montana wilderness. I’d been backpacking before with my father, but those trips were when I was younger; I had not recently spent more than a couple hours’ time away from any trace of civilization. Don’t get me wrong—the entire summer I had been dying to get away from the modern world of advanced technology, going as far as to purchase a dual cassette player, an artifact that is unfortunately obsolete to today’s youth. I despised the time wasted on checking notifications and social media posts that would in no way benefit my health or mental well-being. In short, I was in desperate need of a break from the daily hassles of modern life.
As the roads curved and the music blasted from the speakers of the Jeep Renegade we had taken (it was the least likely of our cars to falter on the journey to the trailhead), I wondered what I had gotten myself into—and frankly, for lack of a better term, I was scared as hell. I had heard horror stories of the Montana wilderness—stories of bears, getting lost, and all sorts of other tragedies. This was my first backpacking trip without my father, and although he had helped me pack my backpack and I was carrying his supplies, I was frightened by the very real possibility that the wilderness could throw us a challenge we had not yet anticipated. The excitement of the spur-of-the-moment trip was quickly becoming overshadowed by the anxieties that took root in the pit of my stomach. Nevertheless, I had committed, and in the world of teenagers, words are binding (mostly due to the fear of the judgments that come with backing out).
And so we trekked.
Armed with bear spray, good spirits, and a disposable camera, we left the car behind and began our journey into the forests of trees that had calledthe land their home far before any human had stepped foot on their soil. We quickly fell into a groove, our feet finding the patterns and rhythm of the ground, stepping over rocks and roots in order to carry our increasingly taxed bodies along the trail. Looking back, I think it might have been better that the lot of us were relatively inexperienced compared to other avid backpackers in the Gallatin Valley; we were simply there to capture a breath of untouched air, and we weren’t worried about every step being calculated for survival. We were there for the thrill of being in nature, not the experience of reliving the same hardships that we, as humans, had made the desperate attempt to free ourselves from several millennia ago. To some, this attitude may seem foolish. To me, foolish this is how we should be living our lives.
The hike was extremely long, and the running joke that the lake was “just after this next clearing” did indeed get old after a while. We almost gave up and stayed at Heather Lake, but a group of equally tired and somewhat more cheerful day-hikers assured us that Emerald Lake was just after the next clearing, which reluctantly restored our hopes and fueled the next half-mile or so to our destination. When we finally saw the lake, two of us were relieved, and began to take off our packs; then we realized that our companion was not stopping until we found the perfect spot. After about a half hour of searching—and some stern words of warning about losing daylight—we finally decided on a spot and began to set up camp. We quickly split up the work between tents, water, and food, in order to avoid stumbling around with flashlights in the dark—an expedition we nonetheless ended up undertaking.
With the tents set up and the freeze-dried food warmed, we finally got to sit down and enjoy the fruits of our labor. We sat around on logs left behind by those who came to this spot before us, and ate and talked and laughed. We discussed our lives, our aspirations, and all of the ghost stories that had kept us up at night when we were children. One would think that being hours away from modern civilization would carry an air of loneliness with it, but that would be a misconception. Out in the middle of the woods with nothing but the stars and those closest to me, I felt surrounded by the warmth of love that comes from Mother Nature herself. I could sense the residue belonging to the outpouring of power that resulted when God breathed out the masses of water, creatures, and plants from heaven above almost as clearly as I could sense my feet on the ground. I was not alone, because I was within nature.
At night, when the sun had fully sunk into its sleep, and the moon had tenderly risen above to watch out for the creatures of the dusk, we attempted to sleep, to rest for the day ahead. However, when I stirred in my sleep, it inevitably awoke the rest of the party, our senses heightened by the deafening silence of the wilderness around us. It was no loss to any of us. We poked our heads out of the tent we had all piled into, and picked out constellations we could recognize. Non-discernable forms we left to the vastness of the midnight sky for those smarter than ourselves to lay claim to. Eventually, slumber once again claimed our weary souls.
The next morning, when we began to pack up, there was a sense of understanding among us that this experience would not soon be forgotten. We cut down our food from the tree we had hung it in, somehow managed to fit all our things back into our packs, and set off for the trek home. We talked, we laughed, and we made sense of all of the thoughts that found their places buried deep in our minds. Finally, we made it back to the car and began the drive out of the canyon.
Looking back at this experience, I have no doubt that I am romanticizing it. It was cold, and we had to stop many times in order to catch our breath, and it was difficult. However, I think I’m okay with romanticizing it. I learned a lot from this experience, and if the photos back up both my statements and memories, I see no reason why they should not continue to shine like the morning sunrise in my memories. I see no reason why these memories should not hold me like the winter harbors the cold during the months when the outdoors are unexplorable.
Henry David Thoreau was right. There is no greater miracle than to look through someone else’s eyes for a moment. Unfortunately, that is not a reality. I hope this article gives you a glance through my point of view, because I truly believe this idealized adventure gives a perfect image of why life is beautiful. Life is explorable, and reachable, and there is absolutely nothing on God’s green earth that could halt you from experiencing it to its fullest. Therefore, go explore. Reach out. Take every breath of fresh air into your lungs, because you have no time to waste. Happy spring, dear reader.