Durham News: Opinion

Into the wild – Pam Saulsby

Pam Saulsby
Pam Saulsby

“Take a hike!” Those might be fighting words for some people, but not for me. Hardly affronted, I’d heed the order, and head for the Eno.

Hiking is my new obsession. I love the way it fills my soul, and how once on the trail, I suddenly find myself free of everything except my own ideas, thoughts and feelings. When I get home, I’m soon yearning to return.

Eno River State Park in Durham is an antidote for overloaded brains, and I keep asking myself, “What took you so long to find it?” I mean, I’ve lived in the Triangle for 20 years! It takes me less than 30 minutes to get to the park, and once I have boots on the ground, there are more than 30 miles of trails to explore. That’s a lot of room to let your mind wander.

I keep going back because I like what hiking does to my brain. You see, there are days I strongly feel the fear, angst and uncertainty that come and go with changing careers. It has its highs and lows. I feel more grounded, happier, and calmer when I’ve completed a hike. It’s therapeutic. Just the work of writing this column has put me in a great mood! Real talk!

There are psychological benefits to taking a hike. Park Superintendent Keith Nealson told me that’s a fact. He and many other folks who’ve spent great time and focus on nature have known this for a long time. They’ve just never had much science to back them up – until now.

I’ve been looking into research on what’s called “ecotherapy.” Dr. David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah, says “We’re seeing changes in the brain and changes in the body that suggest we are mentally and physically more healthy when we are interacting with nature.”

Researchers have attached electrodes to people’s heads and actually mapped brain activity. (Brains on nature!) The findings are preliminary, but there’s definitely something there. Strayer, who teaches a course called Cognition in the Wilderness, believes being in nature reenergizes attention circuits, which can then help us be more open to creativity and problem solving. He’s optimistic that science will eventually catch up to what people like Nealson have intuited all along – that time spent in nature away from cell phones and the strain of urban life can relax the brain’s central command center.

Nealson’s been overseeing the Eno for seven years, but he’s been interacting with nature all of his life. Growing up his parents didn’t believe in keeping kids cooped up all day. His mother encouraged, even required him to explore the natural world. It seems he’s hard wired that way now, because even on his own time, Nealson’s doing wilderness work.

“I take a lot of ‘busman’s holidays’ in that I spend quite a bit of my spare time on the Eno and in other state parks, even though that is where I work,” he says. “Any opportunity to commune with the natural environment is time well spent, in my opinion. For me being outside among the trees is emotionally calming and very spiritual. I work most Sundays and don’t make it to my church as often as I should, but have never had an issue with that because I have always felt closer to God outside than in any building, even inside a church.”

There’s something about nature that renews the spirit. I told Nealson it brings me a measure of sanity and serenity. I joked about maybe experiencing brief moments of Zen.

He says, “I am not really a Zen person ... I am much more of a Taoist by philosophy. I don’t disagree with it at all. I think the Eno is a wonderful place to practice any of it. I just don’t believe in trying to do away with distractions, because I find so much joy in so many of those distractions.”

Agreed. I haven’t reached a perfect state of Zen. I may never get there. Just know, I’m loving the journey and ceaselessly striving.

You can connect with Pam at pamsaulsby@gmail.com or PamSaulsby.com; follow her on Twitter @pamsaulsby or facebook.com/pam.saulsby