The Risks and Benefits of Nature 

The Risks and Benefits of Nature

I just finished reading Richard Louv’s The Nature Principle. It’s one of the most constructive and inspiring looks at our need for nature, not just as children (as in Last Child in the Woods) but every bit as much as adults, too. There’s a really wonderful quote about the risks vs. the benefits of being out in nature:

From the backyard to the backcountry, nature comes in many forms. The negative impacts of the risks that do occur in wilderness (from large predators, for example) should be balanced by the positive psychological benefits of that risk (humility, for one).

And yes, most research on nature and human health has focused on pathology and natural disasters, but this preference by researchers has something to do with where the research funding comes from. Researchers looking at the health benefits of nature are, in fact, addressing a knowledge imbalance. (Louv, 2012, p. 52)

I am 33, and I am of the last generation of children who got to play outdoors unfettered, for the most part. Between helicopter parents, overzealous lawsuits, and stranger danger, kids these days are more and more discouraged from venturing outdoors–and this is in the safest, quietest neighborhoods. Adults, too, fear the risks.

Television shows, even those on channels that are supposedly nature-friendly, often focus their reality-TV-flavored shows on the biggest, scariest, and most dangerous animals as something to fear and control, not wonder at. We’re a long way from Wild Kingdom.

Newspapers and stations pick up stories of isolated incidents of hikers being attacked, and so then everyone (especially women) questions whether the trails are safe. This completely ignores the fact that the overwhelming majority of wilderness experiences are positive and without any danger beyond, perhaps, a bit of mud or a brush with a nettle. Good news isn’t good news for the news-makers, though.

The problem is that if we scare people away with all the doom and gloom of risks, however unlikely, then no one ever gets to enjoy the benefits, to include the benefits of taking risks. Some of my most memorable hikes were ones that had big challenges, things that could have gone very wrong if I hadn’t been careful (and prepared) at the time.

Some of those hikes, though, also saw me being a novice trying something new for the first time, and even though hiking up Dog Mountain with a storm up top wasn’t as safe as, say, a leisurely stroll to Multnomah Falls, the experience of nearly being blown off the trail (and learning when to turn around) was an important lesson.

Even more, though, I felt a great sense of victory, not over the mountain, but as a tiny being who managed to learn a little more about how to live with that mountain, however, briefly. That was my positive humility–not kowtowing before the spirit of the mountain because I am just a lowly worm of a human that deserves to be crushed, but the humility of being a very small part of an integrated system of mountain, flora and fauna, and weather patterns on that day.

I felt closer to the world as a whole because of feeling closer to that mountain and its companions. (This isn’t even including the general benefits of being outdoors, some of which I outlined in my last post here.)

I can safely say for myself, then, that the benefits have far outweighed the risks. When I was young, one of my wilderness places was almost entirely destroyed. For years afterward I felt disconnected and depressed because of this; the anchor I’d had in that place was gone. It wasn’t until I discovered paganism as a nature religion in my later teens that I began to rebuild those connections.

It took a lot of time and effort, and yes, I took a lot of risks, not just in physical trips outdoors, but socially, culturally, and spiritually. Every risk I successfully faced was one more victory, an additional benefit to the positive experience itself, whether I was hiking or camping, or learning something new about the path I was walking.

We can’t protect ourselves from everything, nor should we. Every risk we successfully take gives us strength to face the next, and in the event that such risk-taking goes badly, we’ve built up resources to help us deal with it and even come out ahead. Risks connect us more deeply to ourselves, as well as to the world around us. That, I feel, is a benefit well worth taking a chance on.