It all started when I stopped being able to sleep at night. It was bad. Three nights of insomnia, followed by one good night where I caught a few hours of blessed oblivion, followed by three more endless nights of staring at the ceiling and greeting the dawn like a zombie.
There were plenty of reasons for it: job loss, some health issues, but really nothing catastrophic. Still, the sleepless nights racked up to the point where I thought I was going to lose my mind.
I tried all sorts of things or combinations of things: over-the-counter sleep aids, a glass of wine or two (I know, bad idea, but I was desperate), therapy, hitting the gym daily. Everything helped a little, but there never seemed to be long-term solution. Insomnia rushed back the minute my body acclimated to whatever dosage of sleep cure I was giving it.
I hadn’t realized how much structure my former job, or any job, had given me until it was gone. My routine was out the window. I needed something to anchor my day—anchor all my days—something I loved to do that I could build my day around.
The view from my window is of conservation land including a small mountain, part of a local Boy Scout reservation, and it occurred to me one morning to actually take a walk there, instead of my usual around-the-block routine.
Clutching a map, I drew out a short, half-hour walk that took me up the mountain, along a rocky ridge that afforded a great view, and circled back down. I was a little frightened being by myself in the woods, but I made myself do it.
That night I slept like a baby.
The next day I did my forest walk and same thing happened: slept all night. So I started taking away the other things, like the sleeping pills and the wine (well, most of it). I still made sure I did hard exercise at the gym several times a week, but this plus my daily walk became my formula for sanity.
Why did this work? I have my theories. For one thing, I wasn’t staring at a screen all day. I could feel my eyeball muscles literally stretch out as I gazed through the trees or up into the sky. There’s also something about the air in the woods; it’s always a little bit better: cooler, fresher, greener; it even has information to impart if you pay attention: what’s coming into flower, what’s falling into decay. I started to crave that air, as well as the way the uneven ground felt under my shoes: the roots and rocks, or leaves or soft earth.
And I began to notice things. Every day I saw or felt subtle changes in the forest. Maybe the air was a little dryer, or a little colder; maybe more leaves had come down, a tree had fallen overnight, or a big fat mushroom bloomed on a mossy trunk. Seasons didn’t just change with a calendar page’s flip; they were the sum of a thousand observable shifts happening before my eyes. I was mesmerized. I began to feel part of the world around me, part of the cycle of life, even though I was this clumsy two-legged creature with little understanding of all the complex communication between spore and mold, root and soil, branch and leaf. Still, I experienced on a deep level the drought we are suffering in the Northeast: the disappearing streams, the loss of wildlife. As much as it broke my heart, I was grateful to be witness to it with all my senses, instead of–again–just reading about it on some screen.
I began to walk at all different times of day: dawn, dusk, a few times by the light of a full moon; I knew the route that well. I walked in downpours—the electric charge of rain!—blinding winter snowstorms, intense heat, cracking cold. I did stupid stuff like walk in thunder and lightning storms, trees crashing all around me, in awe of it all. I couldn’t—and still can’t—help myself. Hiking in the rain at dusk is the best time to see wildlife: The ground is wet and if you’re careful you’ll make no sound. I go by myself. I don’t want to talk to anyone, I want to listen to what the woods is trying to tell me.
This daily walk was a gateway drug to doing much longer hikes; to camping in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, which brought me the joy of new experiences and new people. My mood improved; my outlook brightened. Walking in nature was a door I opened out of desperation and boredom, but it ultimately led to conceiving, writing, and having the energy to finish my novel. Not to mention sleep at night.
So open nature’s door: Walk outside and take a look around. It may change your life in ways you can’t imagine now.