Health and Wildness
“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. Now, physicians and scientists are suggesting that wildness may be the preservation of good health as well
Editor Rick Broussard
Photo by John Hession
Our claim to Thoreau here in New Hampshire isn’t very substantial. While his famous seclusion at Walden Pond may have echoes in the people who move to the Granite State to “get away from it all,” our primary connections to the naturalist are that his mother grew up in Keene, and he based his first book on a trip that traced the Merrimack River to its source in the foothills of Mt. Washington.
On the other hand, our claim to “wildness” is quite strong. We lead the nation (right after Maine) in the percentage of our state that is “tree-covered,” the top third of our state has a population that hovers around one to 25 people per square mile, and then there’s that berserker of a state motto that we’re always so proud to quote.
A story we ran a few months ago about a health trend called “forest bathing” stirred up a lot of affirmative comments. Somehow we instinctively know that our own nature is revived when we expose it to real nature, and real nature, by definition, is wild. Science seems to concur, even if you’re going outside without seeking to get fit. Forest bathing, for instance, involves merely hanging around with trees in their natural state, not hiking through them. Studies at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo suggest that simply breathing air rich with the oils and ions of a natural forest can enhance the immune system for a month or more.
Maybe such wildness accounts for the fact that we can be one of the very healthiest states in the country and simultaneously be a “drug-infested den” of opioid abuse, as was so inelegantly noted by President Trump.
In this issue, we quote an expert on mindfulness on how to be more attentive and centered. One technique he recommends is simply to walk barefoot in your own backyard. That’s one way to discover how much wildness exists even in our groomed spaces.
Speaking of wild, an angry letter sent by a woman from Alabama to the editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader back in June drove a number of locals pretty wild.
“The trails in the White Mountains are a disgrace,” wrote Mary Altz-Smith, who said she and her husband are “veteran backpackers with 40 years of hiking experience.”
“You have to negotiate boulders and, basically, hike rocky stream beds to gain the most meager vistas and distance. These trails are dangerous and limit safe use to only athletes,” she wrote, recommending that boulders be “reduced to proper steps.” The letter was loudly mocked, but according to a response by David Brooks in the Concord Monitor, she had a point. Trails laid out west tended to have horse travel in mind and were graded accordingly. Our hiking trails are generally quite old. “Most famously,” wrote Brooks, “the Crawford Path on Mount Washington, first cut in 1819 for tourists, is often called the country’s oldest hiking trail in continuous use.” Standards change over time.
Here’s more of that essay from Thoreau:
“Every tree sends its fibers forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sail for it. From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind. Our ancestors were savages. The story of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf is not a meaningless fable. The founders of every state which has risen to eminence have drawn their nourishment and vigor from a similar wild source. It was because the children of the Empire were not suckled by the wolf that they were conquered and displaced by the children of the northern forests who were.”
Stay wild, New Hampshire.