“We need the tonic of wildness, to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground.” — Henry David Thoreau
Ever since Henry David Thoreau wrote about the “tonic of wildness” in his 1854 book Walden; or, Life in the Woods, Americans have had a love/hate relationship with the outdoors. While we tend to idealize our “untouched” wildernesses, when given the choice, it seems we like to spend most of our time indoors.
We want what we don’t have.
I wonder if this dichotomy in the American psyche is due to our proclivity to want exactly that thing that we don’t have; our penchant to place more value on what is rare rather than what is common. When our immigrant European ancestors started to arrive here in droves in the 1840s, they saw the great American wildernesses as something to “tame.” When they crossed the ocean, they brought their gothic fairy tales with them, viewing the new land’s thick woods as the “dark unknown.” After all, in the fields they had cleared with their own hands, everything was out in the open; the land had been controlled and their will asserted over it. But in the nearby forests, they were not in control, enclosed and surrounded by scary things unseen.
As we developed and domesticated more and more land and pristine areas became more and more rare, they seemed to increase in value and we began to regard them with nostalgic eyes. By the 1960s, the baby boomer, hippie generation initiated a back-to-the-earth movement that still lingers in our hearts today. The first Earth Day happened in 1970.
We spend 95 percent of our time indoors.
But if being in natural places is so restorative, why, on average, do we Americans now spend more than 95 percent of our time indoors, separated from nature?
Perhaps we like the idea of being in the wilderness more than we actually like being there. While in any city today you’ll easily find people walking around in Patagonia and Columbia fleece vests and L.L. Bean hiking boots, I wonder how long it’s been since those same people actually slept under the stars — if ever.
While writing a book titled Explore Wisconsin Forests, I stayed for two nights in the rustic Camp 20 Cabins in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Owner Denise Smith told me the story of a couple that had checked in, took one look at their rental cabin, and immediately checked out. The reason, said the male half of the twosome, was that “my wife thinks you’re too far out in the woods. There are too many trees here.” However, says Denise, the cabin was located only two and a half miles from town, the lawn surrounding the cabin was mowed, and there was a neighbor just one backyard away.
And while I consider myself an avid nature enthusiast, I have to admit that after a few days spent outside, I long for the comfort of my whirlpool bathtub and plush mattress. Although I like the thought of camping in the Wisconsin woods, I sometimes eschew the opportunity because the task of taking ticks off myself yet again is something I really don’t want to deal with this weekend.
Is a shot of the wild, then, really a restorative tonic, or a myth we tell ourselves precisely because having such an experience is so rare today? Please share your thoughts below.