“I knew when I had looked for a long time,” she writes, “that I had hardly begun to see.”
~ Nan Shepherd, quoted in Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane, 2015
When I drive, I try to be conscious of my surroundings — other traffic, buildings or pedestrians and the surrounding scenery. But in traffic, my attention stays (mostly) focused on the road.
Our junior high school coach taught Driver’s Ed and was adamant that we learn to drive defensively. That means we stayed aware of the other traffic and tried to anticipate what they were up to. On my commute I used to watch other cars for for cell-phone users, rabid conversationalists, make-up appliers, parents with rowdy kids and zoned-out drivers. What were they going to do next?
My cross-country trips and recent experience driving in England and Scotland reminded me that I am pretty easily distracted by what’s happening off the road. I like to spot antelope in my trips across southern Colorado or Wyoming. I look for deer, elk, mountain sheep or other critters while driving in the mountains. I can always be distracted by the big bird soaring over the highway or commandeering a nearby field from a telephone pole or fence post. Of course, my wife helps me pay attention if I’m driving.
When I was a kid, the advertising guys had figured out that driving could be boring, so they scattered ads along every roadway. They ranged from small, sequential Burma-Shave signs (one of the last: “If you / Don’t know / Whose signs / These are / You can’t have / Driven very far”) to product-oriented, lighted billboards to message signs (“Jesus saves. Do you?”). We watched for the signs and enjoyed reading them aloud to each other. By 1965, the signs were so ubiquitous that the government started regulating them. Lady Bird Johnson, the president’s wife, campaigned to eliminate the roadside billboards and replace them with wildflowers.
The wonder of the world is pretty amazing and you can glimpse it from a moving car. My father encouraged us to look for and see the interesting things. That’s one of the best of many gifts I got from him, the urge to look and actually see things in the world.
On my various road trips I’ve seen interesting things:
- I saw a funnel cloud, bright white in the sunlight above a distant lake. I ultimately determined that it was a flock of white pelicans circling in a spiral on an updraft.
- I often get distracted along I-70 near Georgetown, Colorado where you can occasionally see mountain sheep near the road or looming on the adjacent cliffs, presumably surveying their domain.
- I enjoy seeing prairie dogs guarding their burrows or scampering around their town near DIA or in some highway cloverleaf.
- Once, driving in the mountains a woman riding with us yelled, “A moose! That was a moose!” Unfortunately that was years before moose were reintroduced into Colorado, and on our return trip we observed a herd of horses in the field she indicated. It did get us all looking and seeing, though.
While you can cover much more ground in a car, to actually see things you need to slow down. Slow down to a walk. Walking gets you a more intimate experience with the world. You can actually stop and smell the flowers, get pricked by a rose thorn, and speak to others you encounter. Walking provides the opportunity for a tactile interaction different from the passive experience in a car. Being in a car is like watching a movie — you can see and sometimes hear, but cannot touch. (I will note that the video game experience is far more interactive than movies or TV, but still lacks sensory contact.)
Interaction with others is our key to emotional health, and interaction with nature is a key to our physical and mental health. Melissa Breyer notes, “Most of us know that taking a hike in the woods or a walk in the park makes us feel good. Until I started researching more about the physical health benefits of time spent outdoors, I figured it was just because greenspace makes treehugging me swoon and do embarrassing happy dances – so of course it makes me feel good. But ever since the development and spreading awareness of Japan’s shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing”), science has been increasingly backing up all the positive ways in which the body responds to nature.” She cites studies that analyzed data from over 290 million people from 20 countries to confirm what we know in our hearts, “living close to nature and spending time outside has significant and wide-ranging health benefits.”
Whether walking through nature or through a big city downtown, you get to see, hear, smell and feel the world. Of course, that experience can be both positive and negative. It can be too hot or too cold or too humid or dry to be pleasant. It might be windy and dusty, or smell of petroleum, sewers or unwashed bodies, or maybe all you hear is birdsong rather than the traffic. It all adds up to sensory stimulation, and that’s what being human is all about. We use our senses to find our place in the world, and when we cut ourselves off from that experience, we can easily lose our way.
So, maybe it’s time to be a little distracted; to take your mind off our daily troubles or the problems of the world. Nature is all around you; take a walk and take it all in.
Melissa Breyer, Vast New Study Confirms Significant Health Benefits of Nature, July 9, 2018, Treehugger Daily News