If you see or communicate with me at all on a regular basis, you know that we found a house to rent in May. I’m over the moon about it for a number of reasons, the primary one being that we can soon adopt a dog.
The little white house comes with a sizable fenced-in backyard for the dog and extensive garden plots all around the side of the house. Our landlord, the owner, is a prodigious gardener and we have inherited the pleasant charge to care for her garden. (I am presently reading Barbara Kingsolver’s farm memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and I am chastened by her simple observation that the vast majority of us couldn’t grow our own food if our lives depended upon it. It’s now a partial motivator to learn a lot about gardening.) The house is also a short walk to vast forest trails that take you into a 280-acre park, the crown jewel of the town’s park system.
I am excited about the prospect of living here and the house’s self-contained exhortation for us to live outdoors. It will be an especially marvelous place to live in warmer months. We don’t spend a lot of time outside now. Our current apartment is on the second floor of a giant old house, situated on a busy street. We share a front porch with our housemates and our backyard is small and mostly inaccessible. But this place? It’s practically crying out for us to be outdoors at every possible opportunity. Adopting a dog will be just another big motivation to develop a closer relationship with the outdoors.
A close relationship with nature is not common these days. I spend eight hours a day at a computer at work. Then I come home, make dinner, read, and go to bed. I am ashamed to admit that there are some weekends when I don’t even go outside. My relationship with the outdoor world has been diminishing ever since I left the free university life and got a full-time job, a phenomenon that I suspect many of you may relate to.
I know that living too much indoors is bad for my body, but I’m beginning to suspect that it’s also bad for my soul.
A book I recently read reinforced this thought. I just finished reading Nicholas G. Carr’s short treatise, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. In sum, the Internet is not doing great things to our brains; our memory and powers of concentration have shrunk to depressingly miniscule levels. The following passage is an excerpt of a study he cites about concentration:
The people who looked at pictures of nature scenes were able to exert substantially stronger control over their attention, while those who looked at city scenes showed no improvement in their attentiveness. “In sum,” concluded the researchers, “simple and brief interactions with nature can produce marked increases in cognitive control.” Spending time in the natural world seems to be of “vital importance” to “effective cognitive functioning.”
There is no Sleepy Hollow on the Internet, no peaceful spot where contemplativeness can work its restorative magic. There is only the endless, mesmerizing buzz of the urban street. The stimulations of the Net, like those of the city, can be invigorating and inspiring. We wouldn’t want to give them up. But they are, as well, exhausting and distracting. They can easily, as Hawthorne understood, overwhelm all quieter modes of thought. One of the greatest dangers we face as we automate the work of our minds, as we cede control over the flow of our thoughts and memories to a powerful electronic system, is the one that informs the fears of both the scientist Joseph Weizenbaum and the artist Richard Foreman: a slow erosion of our humanness and our humanity.
Carr’s summation of this study resonated with me. I feel better about myself when I’m not on a computer. I feel more centered, whole, and focused when I’m outside. A simple walk suffuses me with feelings of peace and joy and goodwill on earth to men. In short, I feel more human outdoors. I am busy, distracted, and anxious inside. I also love the peace of our home, but it is a distinct feeling from the peace that nature lends me. I can’t find it anywhere else.
These are a lot of disjointed thoughts, but I really just wanted to tell you that I’m looking forward to living outside come May.