The Power of Taking a Walk Around the Block
Over the past week or so, my world has been very high-energy, productive, and busy, busy, busy! I have been maximizing my time at A\J by writing, thinking, creating, editing, and giving as much of myself to my work as I can – not only because I have obligations, but because I love it! I am someone who thrives on busyness. I want to have my foot in every door and I want to check off every box on the to-do list – these things energize me and move me forward. But recently, I came to a point, after a lot of constant creative output, where I was left with a mental block. I sat down to write this article, which was going to be about how nature relieves eco-anxiety (we’ll get to that later), and I could not think of anything to write. I had zero ideas, and when I dipped into my creative pool, it was dry.
My brain felt like an internet browser with 25 tabs open, tons of information whizzing around, and all the softwares working at once – and it was starting to get slower and slower, lagging and loading… loading… loading … I actually did have tons of tabs open on my computer and its functionality was diminishing. My screen was exhausted and my eyes were sore from staring at it; I literally felt connected to my computer. So, when I finished work the other day, I closed all the tabs, shut down my computer, and walked away from it. And funny enough, I was unintentionally doing the same thing to my brain – disconnecting and unplugging.
After finishing up my work for the day, I decided to go for a walk around the block. It was around 6pm, so the sun was no longer in the sky, but the light of day remained and blanketed the world in a golden hue. I stepped outside, took a deep breath of fresh air, and the first thing I heard was the call of a mourning dove. It instantly calmed me. I heard its familiar call and it had a very real, very immediate effect on me. For a moment, the only thing occupying my brain was the sound of another living being. It was as if all the other thoughts that usually have intense bumper car competitions in my mind were temporarily wiped away – the bumper car ride at the amusement park was closed for maintenance and it was finally quiet.
I walked a little farther down the street, then stopped for a moment by a giant pine tree. A little identification trick that I learned in school popped into my mind, so I picked up a fallen needle and tried bending it between my fingers – snap! It broke in half, indicating that it was a red pine. Then, I heard tiny chitter-chatter noises coming from squirrels in the trees as they sat exchanging their latest news to one another. I also heard another unknown bird – chip! chip! chip! And then I heard the whirr of bikes as a few people sped past me, and I decided to keep walking before I looked weirder than I already did, standing alone on the sidewalk, looking at squirrels.
I turned around a corner onto another street and was boldly met with the sky – bright, royal blue fading into deep, golden orange on the horizon. No clouds were in the sky, which made the colours even more striking. All of the sudden, after stepping outside and noticing a few mere suburban elements of nature, I realized I felt inspired again. I had been giving so much of myself in my life and work that there was not enough left for me to draw inspiration from. It was time for me to refill myself, so I could once again have the capacity to give and share again, and being in nature was what allowed me to do so.
I have often turned to nature for inspiration and healing when I feel empty or distant from my own self. I stop looking at the screens that so often dictate my every move. I get away from the obligations, the voices, the lists. And I go outside. I listen and look closely, paying attention to minute details. I clear my brain of the constant reel of information and thoughts that run through each day, and start making room for new thoughts that are meaningful, that spark inspiration, and that allow me to reconnect with my physical surroundings. These types of thoughts can come in when I stop thinking about all the how’s, why’s, when’s, and where’s of my day. I had been pondering how I was going to write this article for a couple of weeks, then in one moment, it all came to me – just from going for a walk and intentionally NOT thinking about it.
Tiny fungi rainbows // Credit: Siobhan Mullally
Nature as a Remedy for Eco-anxiety
I have found that there are a great many things to befriend in nature that can heal, inspire, and give us peace in our lives. It’s quite known these days that nature greatly benefits mental health. There have been many studies that show how interacting with nature can be therapeutic and calming, and help relieve stress, anxiety, and depression. Even bringing nature indoors by listening to recorded nature sounds or having images of natural spaces in our homes can help improve our moods. So, we know that nature is beneficial for a healthy mind, but what if the state of nature is the core reason for mental negativity?
As a young person today, a main source of anxiety for me is the state of the world. I’m sure many others are with me on this who experience this eco-anxiety on the daily. The world is on fire, species are dying, our natural world is becoming trashed and artificial, but greed seems to win the fight every time. The people fighting for a better world are exhausted and the young people inheriting it are terrified (and most of the time these two groups consist of the same people). This isn’t the kind of stress or anxiety that goes away after finishing a project at work, submitting a final assignment, or giving a major presentation. It’s a constant, looming anxiety that will never go away because it is about holding the world together.
The people fighting for a better world are exhausted and the young people inheriting it are terrified (and most of the time these two groups consist of the same people).
Imagine the world is a giant broken vase. Some people are actively contributing to the breaking, and some people have no active role in either the breaking or fixing, but the rest of us are all working together to hold the pieces in place and fill in the cracks where we can. Older generations are starting to let go of the pieces, passing them onto younger generations, but the pieces are breaking more than ever, so young people are having to use both hands. They can’t let go or it will fall apart. But wait! My nose is itchy and I can’t scratch it; I can’t take my hands off because I have a duty to hold this world together. I must ignore my own natural, normal needs (i.e. my hopes and dreams of pursuing my life goals, having a full career, starting a family, having a functional planet to live in, etc) to keep it from falling apart. Eco-anxiety is fully real.
Climate Strike at the University of Waterloo // Credit: Siobhan Mullally
As young people who deal with eco-anxiety, we need to be taking breaks from work and screens to be in nature to help sustain our mental health. By being in nature, we can reconnect with it, feel like we are a part of it, rediscover our innate thirst for the beauty of the natural world and our dependence on it, feel it in our own hands, and be grounded in it. Nature’s great peril is what drives eco-anxiety, so it makes sense that nurturing our relationship with the Earth by physically being with it can help aid this.
Connecting with nature can look like a lot of different things: growing plants in your garden, digging your hands into the soil, going to a local forest and feeling the bark of the trees, learning the names of the birds in your backyard, laying on the grass and watching the clouds, or even simply noticing living things that you might not have noticed before, like lichens, fungi, and moss. I think all of these small actions can help alleviate greater anxieties about the world. It’s about bringing your mind from the global picture and scaling it down to the hyper-local microclimate where you physically stand, honing in on the small details. I believe that we may be more able to continue advocating for a better world in a global sense if we devote time and energy to connecting with the natural world around us on a more intimate level.
A closer look at a Citrus Flatid Planthopper (Metcalfa pruinosa) // Credit: Siobhan Mullally
By stepping outside, not only are you getting a good dose of fresh oxygen, serotonin, vitamin D, and maybe a pretty sunset out of it – you’re reconnecting with the earth. The ground you’re walking on. The plants and animals that you coexist with. The little delights that live and thrive and breathe and walk and live all around you. And if we keep connecting with these things, I hope we will feel a little bit more grounded in our own backyards, realizing that we’re part of nature and we can take care of it in the footsteps of people who have done so for many generations. We can get to know the names of the species around us, the bird calls, the texture of the grass outside, the smell of the soil in our gardens. These details are important – they are vital to upholding the connection we have to the Earth. And we will be able to fight for this planet and remedy our eco-anxiety if we keep tending to the relationship we have with nature.
All you have to do is shut down your internet browser brain, close all the tabs, and let it rest. Shut down the cranial bumper cars for maintenance. Embrace the quiet in your mind to feel inspired and rejuvenated. Go outside and find treasures in nature that calm you, reconnect you, ground you, and inspire you. Listen for your mourning dove call.