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Nature heals, and reminds us of how much is at stake

For a few days, I was reminded of how much peace we surrender — and how much beauty we miss — with our faces buried in our smartphones.

A view from Shenandoah National Park.
A view from Shenandoah National Park.Read moreHelen Ubiñas / Staff

Until recently, I had all but forgotten about the unexpected wave of emotion that came over me as our rented camper van pulled into Shenandoah National Park in Virginia last month.

As I felt my chest tighten and my eyes well up, I chalked up my uncharacteristic weepiness to the residual effects of COVID-19 that my household had managed to dodge until just a few weeks prior to our trip. Or maybe, I rationalized, I was all up in my feels because this was the first real vacation my husband and I had taken since the pandemic began.

Whatever the reason, there was no denying how just driving into the park lifted a heaviness we seemed to be trying to outrun since we left Philly. With every “Mastriano for Governor” lawn sign we passed, every “Let’s Go Brandon” bumper sticker we saw, and every “Trump 2024″ flag we watched flutter behind a pickup truck, everything seemed to get a little bit lighter. (Although if all that signage isn’t enough of a reminder, I’ll say it directly: Vote.)

When we finally arrived at the park after hours of driving, it felt like we’d crossed some sort of finish line. The serenity and sweeping vistas, our reward.

As we set up camp (or glamp, given our accommodations), I could feel my shoulders soften. The ever-present pit in my stomach seemed to grow smaller with every lost bar on my cell phone.

Mother Nature wasn’t having any part of my usual doomscrolling — shootings, wildfires, fascism … repeat.

For a few days, I was reminded of how much peace we surrender — and how much beauty we miss — with our faces buried in our smartphones. (The End Times will be tweeted, my friends.)

As I inhaled the fresh air, I thought maybe — just maybe — as the old saying goes, reports of the world’s impending implosion have been greatly exaggerated. Because how could a planet this magnificent, with skies this blue and miles of majestic mountains, really succumb to ugliness?

Of course, I knew it could, and had, and probably would again. But I was riding high on nature, man.

As we left the park after a few too-short days, that joy and optimism faded as those emerald treetops retreated in the rearview mirror. Nice while it lasted and all that.

But then, last week, I was suddenly reminded again of that sense of elation, of that overwhelming relief after I came across a news story recently about scientists unlocking the secrets of why forests make us happy.

The Guardian article was about a Treefest research walk, which is part of a $16.7 million Future of the UK Treescapes program that examined the public benefits of forested landscapes.

Now, there have been plenty of scientific studies that reveal the physiological and psychological benefits of time spent among the trees.

Nature does, in fact, heal — even if we continue to do next to nothing to protect it as climate change causes wildfires, heat waves, floods, hurricanes, and all kinds of chaos we’ve yet to imagine.

The article quoted Miles Richardson, professor of nature connectedness at the University of Derby, who hopes that the data he gathers from Treefest walks will help us learn more about how the age, size, and shape of trees and woodlands benefit well-being.

“We need to find ways for everyone to have a closer relationship to nature because it’s good for well-being and it’s good for a sustainable future,” Richardson told the Guardian.

While in Shenandoah National Park, I thought a lot about my future and the future of a world that seems ever closer to collapsing under the growing weight of hate and lies and cruelty.

But I wasn’t there to wallow in the doom. Instead, I spent the quiet hours nurturing back-to-the-land fantasies — because who among us hasn’t dreamed these days of quiet (or loud) quitting our jobs and going off the grid? I was all in — at least until I remembered that I was fantasizing about all of this while sitting inside a very comfortable camper van. (I was able to make ham and cheese sandwiches on my mini-kitchen counter in the back of the van while my husband drove! The mini-fridge kept the beer nice and cold! We. Had. A. Bed!)

I made it until the last full day in the park before the ugliness of our times intruded, and I was stopped in my tracks by a truck parked at a nearby campsite with a huge “Let’s Go Brandon” flag hanging from the back.

Whyyy? I felt like wailing. Just why had this person felt the need to sully such a sacred place by dragging the mess of the outside world into this woodland bubble — especially on the very weekend when President Joe Biden signed a historic climate bill?

(”You there,” I imagined saying to my flag-flying fellow camper while clinging to my Shenandoah-inspired optimism, ”you seem to like nature — so maybe this Brandon fellow isn’t as bad as you think!?”)

Instead, I sulked. With just a day until we’d be back on the road again, I resented the intrusion, the stark reminder of what awaited us when we returned to the outside world. Was it too much to want a little uninterrupted time of thinking that there might be some apolitical place to run and hide?

It took a while — and reentering the reality of the world, and the job of bearing witness to it all — but the answer was yes. It is, in fact, too much to ask because it is my responsibility and your responsibility and the responsibility of us all to not lose sight of the hate and lies and cruelty that we can’t wish away or leave for others to deal with.

Breaks are necessary — for our happiness, our sanity, and for the kind of perseverance we will need for what lies ahead. But escape is an illusion and a luxury that those of us who care about the future of this world just don’t have.

Nature is healing. But it is also a reminder of how much is at stake.