Why Nature?

My last couple of posts, spaced over a year apart, were topically less about nature than most.  Whether I look at page view charts, new followers, or general positive feedback they were also by far my most successful. While I don’t want this to become a mental illness or travel blog, I thought that at least deserved some acknowledgement and follow-up. Why exactly is nature my topic of choice? This thought led me to more deeply consider what about nature is so alluring to me. What is it that drives me to experience it as often as possible and to learn all I can about it? Why is it the balm that sometimes nothing else can be? I thought these answers would be easily teased out of phrases like “staggering complexity” or “majestic beauty,” but they are proving much more nuanced. Beauty and complexity certainly have something to do with it, but even after much thought I can’t settle on a single definitive root for this passion.

I may as well start with the concepts that first came to mind. So: beauty. Nature has it in spades, from the most expansive landscapes to the tiniest creatures. Land, sky, and water; animals, plants, and fungi – all these things hold beauty in varieties to satisfy every aesthetic. It is self-evident that the most beautiful views and sightings are among the most treasured. Beauty can’t be all of it, though. I am equally fascinated by some of nature’s least conventionally attractive offerings. Beetle larvae, termites, house centipedes, carrion beetles: all of these creatures repulse many but hold my interest. Some of this could be re-framed as finding beauty in unexpected places, but it would be disingenuous to say I find all the aspects of nature that interest me beautiful.
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What of complexity? I marvel at macro-level natural processes like the water cycle, the progression of seasons, evolution, food webs, etc… and at the adaptations of living things to them. I am equally impressed by the smaller interactions I can discover if I really get down in the weeds (sometimes literally). I can’t talk about the complexity of nature without another significant keyword: connection. Beauty draws me in, but I think it’s the connections among living things and nature’s cycles that keep me engaged.

To cite a favorite example, consider the ash tree bolete. This mushroom doesn’t appear to be anything special, except for the gregariousness with which it sometimes grows. It is found only near ash trees, but not because of a direct relationship to the trees as with many other mushroom species. It is actually dependent on a specific species of aphid which itself feeds only on ash leaves. This mushroom can then be food for squirrels (and for humans, although having tried this once I can’t recommend it). This entire system, as well as anything else which may specialize on ash trees, is threatened by the encroachment into the United States of a single insect species: the emerald ash borer.

I’ve probably mentioned that here before and it’s probably tiresome by now. But if one investigates far enough, everything in nature has such connections to something else. Bird migrations, timed to coincide with specific plants’ fruit or seed-bearing windows and covering thousands of miles, are astounding. Diversity among bird beaks to exploit specific and widely varied food sources is no small wonder, either. Insects, spiders, amphibians, and more overwinter in leaf litter. The leaf litter is broken down by microorganisms and other small creatures, enriching the soil for new plant growth. Many of those plants wouldn’t survive without pollinators – bees, butterflies and moths, hummingbirds, etc. – which in turn wouldn’t survive without the plants.

This is all pretty basic, Naturalism 101 level information, but when one stops to consider even these well-understood relationships and how they have developed over eons, it is incredible and wondrous. In these and other, more subtle interactions I see a reflection of my own – and humanity’s – connection with nature. It’s a reminder that our cultural tendency to separate mankind from nature is in many ways misguided. As with beauty, complexity and connections are definitely part of the story. These ideas still come short of fully explaining my deep and abiding love of nature. Plenty of things are complex and connected, and I’m not obsessively devoted to all of them. I don’t keep up with the Kardashians, follow cricket, or study the three-body problem.

Challenge is the next concept that comes to mind, and I think I’m getting somewhere. This is of course closely tied to complexity in some ways, but more inward-facing. A cynic might say this is how I fool my brain into believing that nature is all about me, thus making it interesting. Nature can present challenges both physical and mental, and combinations thereof. In exploring the natural world, there are countless ways for me to feel accomplished while enjoying myself,  but with each accomplishment there is always another to strive for. It’s the same dynamic at work in free-to-play mobile games: rewards are doled out at precisely the right pace to keep users playing (and paying). In nature, there’s no need to part with money to tackle the next task – not as often and not as directly, anyway.

From a very early age the challenges offered by the natural world appealed to me. First were the purely physical: hike from here to there, climb this rock or that tree, ford the stream. They progressed to the combined physical and mental: catch the critter or fish, or seek out the really cool thing. Then I was introduced to the more purely mental, in increasing complexity: identify the tree from its leaves, learn what animals to expect in which habitat, understand the relationships between the animals and interpret behaviors. I never lost interest in the physical challenges – I still love a good hike, kayaking trip, or bike ride. I still like to catch things, too, although I like to believe I do so more responsibly as an adult. Each new type of challenge layered atop the old, resulting in a bottomless well of potential challenges to draw upon.

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My latest challenge: taking better photos of birds like this American robin.
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Another challenge: gradually turning this…
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…into this

The more I pick at this thread of “challenge” the truer I realize it is. I have chosen specific naturalist hobbies with high degrees of challenge. Soon after college I became fascinated with mushrooms. Identifying wild mushrooms can be a complicated proposition, and it was largely that difficulty which drew me to it. There are many aspects to consider and no hard-and-fast rules except “proceed with caution.” Through experience, one can learn how to consider the myriad factors and arrive at an ID sometimes. More recently, I have adopted birding as my prime outdoor hobby of the moment. Here there are the challenges of finding and identifying specimens, as well as challenges of patience and visual acuity. Perhaps as important are the available data and tools for analyzing it. How many bird species per year, month, or day? How many in Maryland, North America, Montgomery County, or my yard? Which bird is the rarest for its location? If I examine any of my hobbies closely, I eventually discover that I have turned it into a personal challenge.

So, have I figured it all out? I’m probably missing an accent or two, but I think the cocktail’s primary ingredients are beauty, complexity, and challenge. The beauty is the initial taste, while the complexities and connections keep me coming back for that next sip.

 

Nature and Anxiety/Depression

A recent emotionally difficult situation has triggered a return of some anxiety and depression I have lived with off-and-on for a decade or so. Many others – celebrities, acquaintances, and unknown strangers – have used online outlets to share their experiences with these types of mental illness. These have helped me become more comfortable with this part of me. They have also pushed the zeitgeist regarding mental illness to one of mainstream acceptance. Now is the time for me to fulfill an obligation by adding my voice to the chorus.

To those close to me, this is not a cry for help. I am fortunate in that I recognized my old nemesis early. My therapist already has me on the path to recovery that has worked before, and I can feel it working now. Of course support is always welcome, but I will be OK.

IMG_6646One thing to understand about anxiety and depression is that the triggering event doesn’t matter. It’s not “I’m very sad or upset about this thing.” In my case (this time) it was a sudden serious illness of a much-beloved dog. I am very sad about it and the continuing maintenance and care is stressful. That’s not depression, though, nor is it exactly the source of the anxiety (in my case, the more pronounced of the two issues). My mental illness is not caused by having other intense life problems. I live a very comfortable life. It’s aided by straight white male privilege, only lacking the “obscene wealth” checkbox (but neither do I live in poverty). None of this matters to anxiety brain. The knowledge of the utterly incomparable suffering of so many others layers guilt for feeling bad in my position of comfort atop the existing depression.

When my brain gets word it’s time to be anxious, everything becomes difficult. Work is hard: can’t focus, feels pointless, seems overwhelming. The same applies to home obligations. At the worst moments, it even applies to carrying out basic bodily functions and routine daily tasks. Escapism into my hobbies doesn’t really work – too transparent for that asshole brain. It knows I’m trying to fool it. The anxiety and slowdown of accomplishments makes me depressed, which leads to additional anxiety about the depression itself. Anxiety about depression makes me feel stupid, which depresses me – you see where this is going. It’s all a big ugly feedback loop of nothing. Since it’s not rational to begin with, rational thinking is no escape.

What does help – for me, and for many others – is the right combination of medication and psychotherapy. In general those of us suffering from these conditions do not need non-professional advice, except for this: if you think you may be experiencing mental illness, seek help. Call a licensed therapist and explain what you are feeling. They’ll know whether you should come in, and once you go they’ll know whether you need continuing treatment. It’s not an easy step. You may go down many other avenues of identifying your problem first (I sure did, the first time). But calling for and accepting help is the single most important step.

There’s no instant fix, and progress won’t be wholly linear. But while the meds and/or the therapy are still taking hold, I’ve found some tricks that help. Keeping myself busy is one, to occupy my mind and keep it from spiraling. Most human contact – even when I don’t really want it – helps some. If I enlist rational brain in the fight firmly enough, sometimes together we can subdue anxiety brain for a time. All of these methods can be draining and hard to keep up for long. Of course different things will work for different people, and we all have to find our own allies against our demons.

It’s my intense appreciation of nature which may be my own strongest ally. Whether it’s getting some exercise in the fresh air or just basking in the immensity and complexity of the natural world, it can ground me. It brings a feeling of significant insignificance. I am so small, and yet connected in so many ways to such elegant and harmonious beauty.

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One such boost came while taking our other (healthy) dog for a walk in a local park. It was a lovely day, and I was enjoying the sounds of the birds. We took a familiar route along a paved path and past a small lake. Nearing the end of our loop, we passed a family with a little girl who pointed and said “what dog?” or some similar question. All I got from it was “dog!” so I smiled and kept walking. The father said, “I think it’s a dachshund mix.” I turned around and said, “Oh, sorry. I didn’t quite catch the question. Yes, he’s a dachshund and… ‘something.'” We all laughed and I moved on. Such a tiny interaction, but my spirits were nonetheless lifted.

Another instance involves my medication. The short-term fix, Xanax, does its job. However, the first few days of taking it, while my body adjusts, keep me pretty sleepy. For now I need a couple doses to productively get through a work day. So one of those first days I timed a dose around lunchtime, took my lunch to a local park and ate quickly. Then I let the birds sing me through a thirty-minute nap and returned to work much fresher and clearer.

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It doesn’t always work. I’ve tried gardening, which usually leaves me fulfilled and energized, but sometimes even that feels as pointless and overwhelming as anything else. Right now I am in an adjustment period, and during that time there doesn’t appear to be such an animal as a thing that always helps.

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Still, yesterday’s brief trip to McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area was another success. It was a hot day, but beautiful. A Washington Post piece Laurel shared with me reminded me of the huge sunflower fields they plant there. The section known as “Hughes Hollow” is also one of the better birding sites in the county, so I was all-in for an excursion. We went around midday, so the birds were less active than I’d hoped, but I saw quite a few common yellowthroats and two yellow-billed cuckoos as highlights. Of course the sunflower fields themselves were filled with darting goldfinches. The Post article did its job – quite a few people made the same journey on Saturday, but not quite enough to make things feel over-crowded.

I do think that when my brain chemicals are in the right balance and my mind mostly settled, my love of nature is one of the major factors keeping them that way. Combined with the medication, anxiety brain is no match for hikes through the woods with the sights and sounds of other living things all around me. Trees, mountains, lakes, streams, oceans and beaches all confer a placidness I would otherwise struggle to find.

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