When Sam recently asked if I would write a guest post for this blog, my first response was, I don’t work out that much. Then Sam pointed out that I hike in the woods most weekends, and I realized that I’m probably more fit – and fit in non-traditionally female ways – than I give myself credit for.
Raised a city kid, I’ve been hooked on being out in nature since I was about eight or nine years old. I grew up in the suburbs, near a conservation area – my first elementary school backed onto it, as a matter of fact – and I loved regular class expeditions down the ravine and into the woods where we might see snakes, frogs and turtles, as well as Ontario’s provincial flower, the trillium.
One of my best friends lived right beside the ravine, and we would play for hours among the trees, making up stories, building makeshift forts out of dead branches, and concocting pretend meals out of tree leaves and wild plants.
When I was about 12, I had the chance to take a guided hike with a naturalist one weekend at a family camp-out. I was fascinated by the different species of trees and birds – many whose names I’d never heard of.
Fast forward about 17 years; I’d moved from my childhood home and was now living near a river. I’d just lost my brother to suicide, and I was devastated and suicidal myself in the aftermath of his passing.
That first summer after my brother died, I made a point of visiting the woods along the river every night after work, slowly pacing the winding footpaths and wading through the shallows to a small island in the middle of the river where I would sit and cool my feet in the rapids, away from the prying eyes of the world.
I saw herons and swallows, in addition to the ubiquitous mallards and Canada geese. I picked up smooth round stones along the riverbank, and occasionally found worn clamshells or driftwood that I took home with me to remind me of my hikes.
After a few months, I realized something miraculous was happening. The woods and the river seemed to be healing me. I didn’t know why or how – to this day I still don’t – but no matter how crazed or anxious I felt during the day, being in nature every evening calmed and restored me. I felt like I reconnected with my true self on every one of my hikes.
Fast forward another 17 years to the present day, and I still hike through the same woods of my childhood, or along the river paths of my young adulthood. I’ve learned the names of most of the trees and plants; if I’m lucky, I still see snakes and frogs. I know where the river bass spawn, and where the ducks nest. I know where there are wild apples, tart and hard.
As woo-woo as it sounds, the trees have become my familiar friends. I touch them when I pass; I notice where beavers have gnawed at their trunks. I know where to find a firefly show that would make you believe in fairies. I lie on the forest floor on perfect autumn Sundays every October, and weep at the fleeting cathedral canopy of red and gold overhead.
“Time in a wild setting, studies indicate, unleashes a powerful cascade of hormonal and cellular responses. Salivary cortisol, for example, dropped on average 13.4% when subjects simply looked at a forest setting for 20 minutes. Pulse rate, blood pressure and sympathetic nerve activity decreased as well. Even more remarkable is the significant – and lasting – impact on so called “natural killer” cells, powerful lymphocytes known to fight off infection and attack cancer growth. A longer three day trip in the forest with daily walks resulted in a 50% rise in NK activity as well as an increase in the number of NK cells! The forest exposure, researchers found, also resulted in increased anti-cancer protein expression.”
Are we hard-wired to respond positively to nature? I have no idea. But it works for me.
I love that my hiking gear needs are few: a sturdy pair of rubber boots (I like to go where there’s water, and I hate wet feet), and a sturdy pair of pants are all I need (I’ve been known to go off trail – shh! – and sweats or yoga pants can’t take the assault of grabby undergrowth or thorns). Layers on top, that peel on and off quickly, keep me warm or cool enough. I’m also usually never without a camera or few (including a waterproof point-and-shoot for rainy days or river wading), because I love photographing what I see.
I hike in nature because it’s the one place where I feel most like myself. I hike because it’s never boring. I hike because it gets me away from city life and my daily worries. I hike because I’m addicted to the smells and the sounds and the exquisite beauty I see everywhere. I hike because when I leave the woods, I feel better than when I entered. I feel, dare I say, like I’ve been home… and leave regenerated enough to bear the “real world” once again.
Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.