Lifestyle feature: Why are we drawn to the great outdoors?

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This month, John Rhyder from the Woodcraft School tells us why we can all enjoy going down to the woods today

Anyone reading the articles I write will undoubtedly have developed, to some degree, an affinity with woodland.

Some may be able to articulate this connection vividly, but for others it may manifest itself in the subtlest feelings of profound wellbeing.

All we woodland lovers would recognise a positive sensation that sends us back into the forest at every opportunity.

It is interesting to pause and explore the possible reasons so many us are drawn to the outdoors.

Physiologically and psychologically we are, I believe, designed for woodland life and although this design is more than capable of adapting to other environments, we are ‘at our best’ among the trees.

For example, the colour-sensitive cones in our eyes register a majority of three colours: blue, green and yellow-green which are obviously forest colours (the yellow-green receptor also registers red and is often called the red cone, but we are talking mainly about the predominance of colour reception here).

With respect to our physical association with the landscape, animals and humans differ greatly with their position of the fovea, the most sensitive area of the eye.

For plains animals, this is arranged in a long strip for scanning the horizon for danger or conversely prey.

In humans, it is arranged in a much narrower fashion, ideally suited to seeing tall vertical structures so it is small wonder that we find such solace and peace among what some Native American tribes called ‘the standing people’. Most people would agree one of the main differences between humans and the vast majority of our mammalian relatives is our ability to manipulate our environment by the production and use of tools.

Tool use goes back so far in our history that our earliest ancestors were producing tools way before they can be realistically called human and most certainly before homo sapiens.

With this in mind, it would seem that taking people into the woods and giving them some tools should be a recipe for success.

Indeed, I have been taking people of all ages into the woods for years and I can attest to this success.

Although now a cliché, the benefit of reconnecting with nature is evident and fills an often indefinable hole in our urbanised lifestyles.

Making fires, carving, studying natural history, exploring trees and plants and animal tracking are all, I would suggest, the very activities we are adapted to perform.

Woodcraft skills work our body in a way that is now being recognised by health and fitness professionals and has given birth to the natural movement ethos.

It suggests the best way to maintain a healthy body is through relatively low-impact activity, walking, some running, climbing trees, crawling under branches, balancing on logs.

In fact all the things you may easily envisage anyone living in the outdoors performing.

The potential for physical and mental satisfaction through immersion in nature, I like to call the badger mentality.

I read a few years ago that animals receive an endorphin burst that rewards specific activity.

In the case of badgers this would be digging, a badger digs because it is rewarded by pleasurable sensations in a way which seems to be different to mere instinct.

If we give a badger a suitable home, food and everything else it needs, it will still dig because it loves to.

This makes sense that activity that leads to evolutionary success should be something an animal enjoys performing.

If we apply this to people, we can provide all we need to cope with our physical wants, but ultimately we receive the greatest reward from engaging in the very activity our bodies and brains have evolved to carry out.

Time spent in nature, using our brains and bodies.

n John Rhyder teaches at the Woodcraft School.

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