Growing up in rural upstate New York, I didn’t realize until I was a young adult and moved away from home that very few people in this country live a life in which they consistently spend several hours a day outside. As a child I regularly spent entire days outside–playing baseball, fishing, doing chores, and playing in the forests and creeks that are so abundant in that part of the world. None of this was done for the primary purpose of spending time outside; it was just what you did living in a rural part of the world. If you stayed inside you generally knew what to expect, but when you ventured outside you might find dozens of things in a day that you could never anticipate, many of which you would then become excited to explore further in the days and weeks to follow.
I wouldn’t expect that this would all change too much in my lifetime. Kids I’m sure still tend to spend a lot more time outside than adults, and people in rural areas still tend to spend a lot more time outside than people in more densely populated areas. As I near 40, though, I do start to see that this has, in fact, changed a decent bit in my lifetime. Furthermore, when I am offered a glimpse of what life in this country was like decades before I came along (in books, movies, or talking to people from older generations), I see that this has changed even much more so since the decades before I was born. More and more, being outside has become something that people do because they know it is good for them, or because there are activities that they like to partake in that must be done outside, and less something that people do because it is simply how their life is structured. More and more our lives have become structured in a way in which being inside is our standard routine and we need to choose to be outside, as opposed to the other way around.
There are certainly many things you can point to that have brought about these changes. As I write this article on this beautiful spring day, it’s hard not to notice the irony of doing so when I could instead be out walking through the forest, preparing a garden for the growing season, or sitting in the sun reading a book. Technological advances and the culture that has been created around these advances has certainly led to a lot of products and options which tend to take away much of our time that might otherwise be spent outside. The structures that we spend our time inside have, over the past 100-plus years, become much larger, much more accommodating, and much more inviting to hunker down in and spend most of our time. Whether or not this is a cause or a result of spending more time inside is hard to say, but certainly the distinct divide between being inside and being outside is more pronounced than ever before.
One of the most unfortunate results of all of this is how much we tend to become detached from the natural world around us when we don’t spend time immersed in it. I’ve always believed that we have a much easier time having compassion and respect for the things which we understand than for those that we don’t. I also believe that as we have more compassion and respect for anything in our lives we become more and more likely to have compassion and respect for everything in our lives. In this sense I think we can start with getting to intimately know the natural world around us, and end up subsequently having more compassion and respect for everyone and everything we come in contact with. I’ve always found this to be a very powerful and uplifting reality. I’ve always taken a lot of comfort in the knowledge that getting to intimately know the natural world that surrounds us is something that nearly everyone has an opportunity to do. Unfortunately our culture has become structured in a way that seems to encourage fewer and fewer people to take this opportunity.
Moving through the natural world has always been special to me, and has always been my preferred method of coming to know the land around me. Even as a small child I think I preferred to be on the move when I was outside. I didn’t typically sit in one place and observe the outdoor world as much as I liked to come to understand it by moving within it. Years later this proclivity has made it very easy for me to enjoy long runs through the natural world. Every time I spend time in a new place I like to get to know the land surrounding me by moving through it, and my preferred method of moving through the land has always been running. Or rather, my preferred method has always been human-powered travel that is the most efficient and effective for the land that I am moving through, it just so happens that for me running is the most efficient and most effective method for moving through the vast majority of places I tend to spend time.
To me, then, one of the most exciting and potentially worthwhile things about being a long-distance runner is that it is one of the few activities that is a popular and growing part of today’s culture that gets us outside and more in touch with the natural world around us. Even if you spend most of the day at a job in an office, or inside with other pursuits, when you build the habit of getting out and running several miles most everyday you can create so much substance and value simply by going out and moving through the land that surrounds you. You understand the world in a different and more complex way when you spend time immersed in the land around you, and I think running in this day and age is a nearly perfect way to do this.
I find myself sometimes wishing I lived 100 or 200 years ago when nearly everyone had a deep connection with the land around them due to spending huge amounts of time immersed in that land, and when the divide between the outdoor world and the indoor world was nearly non-existent. In running, though, I feel so fortunate to have found a habit that I enjoy as much as I do that gives me a fairly regular connection to the land around me. Yes, it is a much more contrived way to connect to the land than if I simply had a lifestyle, and lived in a culture that required me to be outside to survive, but it’s also a very intense and very effective way to come to understand the natural world. You can see so much of the natural world when you go out and run through it, and you can learn so much about this world if you take the time to really pay attention. Once you gain this knowledge it makes all of our time spent anywhere (including indoors) so much more worthwhile and satisfying.
For me just knowing which way a creek in the woods is flowing, which grove of trees seems to lose its leaves first in the fall, which gully deer like to bed down in, and the hundreds of other nuances you can observe within a few miles of your front door is something whose value is beyond measure. Running is certainly not the only way to learn these things, but it is most definitely a very effective way to do so, and this is certainly one of the main reasons I like to go out for a run each day. I’m excited about the growing popularity of running (and especially trail running) over the past several years. It makes me really happy to know that more and more people are taking up a habit which gets them outside exploring the world around them and learning what is happening in the natural world. It certainly isn’t offsetting all the trends in this culture which are pushing us in the other direction, but at least it’s doing a small part to keep us still connected to the excitement, energy, wisdom, and health of the natural world around us.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Does running help keep you rooted in the outdoors? If so, in what way? Specifically, to which elements of nature do you find yourself connecting most closely while running?
- What do you think about Geoff’s thoughts on the trend of our culture toward an indoor life? Do you agree or disagree with him? How often do you naturally find yourself outside without choosing to intentionally go there?