Lying horizontally in my chair, I hear the amazing whisper of the trees. I can sense them towering above me, grounded in strength and branching in protection. I imagine the view of sunlight streaming through every leaf and limb — light, bright and then diminishing to a translucent stream.
In the distance, the soothing sound of water centers my mind. With a bubbling, gentle flow, the water moves tenderly through its passage. The ripple effects of its tranquil movement soothe my soul. I visualize its blue-green essence, its steady movement with no boundaries other than shorelines embracing the course.
The chirp of a bird catches my attention, bringing me to the present. Then, I realize an opposite chirp — two birds now harmonizing in communication, one repeating the other. The birds’ chatter, the babbling of the stream, the stir of the breeze — a natural symphony that keeps my mind mesmerized, treasuring the natural distraction and drawing to this very moment in time.
Suddenly, I feel a tap on my shoulder and remove my left earbud.
“Hey, whatcha doing? Can I turn on the TV?” My husband saunters through the living room wanting to surf the sports channels. I’m in his favorite brown chair by the window, where the light gently filters in. I take a moment to check in with my right earbud, still hearing the birds, water and breeze, but now half the volume and much less vibrant. The startling finger tap brought me back from my virtual time in nature, but even though it was just less than 10 minutes, I already felt more relaxed, less stressed and better connected than when I had closed my eyes to escape.
As an athlete who has spent a lifetime gaining all I can from physically indulging in nature, through my father’s eyes I’ve also learned that nature is a multi-sensory relationship, one that can be just as powerful when heard as when seen or touched.
My dad suffers from macular degeneration; I’d dare to say he probably has lost approximately 95% of his vision. Now almost 93, he and my mom still live in the same home I grew up in on Lake Austin. My dad can be found on his dock each day, swinging in his hammock, right about sundown. Not too long ago, I interrupted my dad’s quiet time.
“What’s up, Dad?” I asked as I strolled out on the dock.
“It sure is beautiful, isn’t it?” he responded. I glanced at him to see if something had changed, and it hadn’t. His sightless eyes were looking beyond what they couldn’t see, relying on his mind to provide the memory of all he knew.
I looked up. He was right. The preserve across the lake was as gorgeous as it has been for the past 65 years that he’s lived there. The water, although not quite as clear as it was when he moved in, was still as inspiring and reflective as always.
“Yes, Dad, it is beautiful,” I said fondly, knowing he wasn’t seeing what I saw, but his brain was still reflecting on the beauty he knew was there — his mind not forgetting the gorgeous green preserved land across from him and the tranquil, green waters that separated him from it.
Science tells us the beauty of nature can still have the same powerful, cognitive effects when we hear it, remember it and sense it. Dopamine releases, cortisol decreases, blood pressure and heart rate also drop — the fundamental wellness aspects we could all use a positive dose of in this day and age. Sensing Nature was an amazing two-year study of visually-impaired individuals that documented those same cognitive effects from nature with sight eliminated from the sensory experience. So, just like my dad, they were as fully immersed in the experiences as anyone else.
We don’t have to actually “go to” the outdoors; we can bring it to us in different senses, just like my earbuds. Not having time to trail run, paddle or hit the lake, just 10 minutes virtually immersing in its natural audio power can have an amazing effect on my mind, body and spirit.
Having physical or visual contact with the outdoors is not always possible. I’m fortunate that I share the same gorgeous location with my parents, a natural green backdrop of land that grades into the shoreline of Lake Austin. I know that landscape with my eyes closed, just like my father. Having that beautiful image of nature stamped in my mind, I can take it with me anywhere in the world, any time of the day. When I need to calm myself, I can close my eyes, breathe deep and move into the same relaxed state as if sitting in my yard.
In an interview with HealthDay News, Dr. Rachel Buxton, a research associate and conservation biologist at Carleton University’s Department of Biology, explained the significance well: “From an evolutionary perspective, humans are hardwired to attend to signals of danger and security. And an environment that is filled with natural sounds feels safe and allows us to let our guard down.”
So it makes sense that providing those natural sounds intentionally to our day can play a strong role in stress management, improved health and even longevity.
Similarly, technology can bring the benefits of being outdoors to the indoors. If going outside is out of reach, having my own virtual experience or listening to nature can be just as powerful after an exhausting, stressful day.
I know my dad will not ever see the hills and lake that surround him with the same clarity that he once did. But the fact that every day he intentionally follows the call of the great outdoors to go sit in nature, breathe in its aroma, hear its melody and sense the beauty around him inspires me daily. At almost 93, we can all learn something from him.
About the Author
Cindy is a native Austinite with a lifelong pursuit of providing experiences to individuals that positively affect mind, body and spiritual fitness. She is director of fitness and water sports at Lake Austin Spa Resort, co-Founder of Operation Get Out and Get Out Girl, and an ambassador of Blue Mind Life. Cindy has a full resume of podium results in Ironman full and half distances, Xterra, marathons, paddle boarding, waterskiing and adventure racing.