We have all marveled at the purple sky as the sun was coming up over the horizon, savored the feeling of dewy air hitting our face as the temperature began to rise, and enjoyed the sounds of the birds awakening. I would even bet that many of us began trail running because of our love for these awe-inducing outdoor moments. If you’re like me, you’ve also hit the trail with your head down, simply trying to fit training miles into a hectic day that overflowed with responsibilities.
What would happen if we all leaned into the inspiring moments more profoundly and took the time to share those experiences with people who may not have had the opportunity to be moved emotionally by the natural world?
Whether you think about it or not, every time you head out to the trail for a pleasant run (barring any unsafe feelings or traumatic events), there is healing happening on a deeper level. Immersion in the outdoors helps us improve our physical and emotional well-being. There is evidence that time in nature helps reduce stress and anxiety and their physiological impacts, boost the immune system and improve mood. Developing this connection into affection can amplify these benefits by enhancing our love for ourselves and our bodies. As renowned feminist Bell Hooks writes in the opening of her essay “Touching the Earth,” “When we love the Earth, we are able to love ourselves more fully.”
Nurturing our feelings for the Earth can also expand the sense of connection beyond the self and into our communities and the planet. Researchers have found that spending time in nature leads to stronger, safer communities and encourages environmentally friendly behaviors. With the Earth warming at a highly concerning speed, and many of us feeling disconnected following years of a global pandemic and political uncertainty, our favorite trails need our love, awe and respect more than ever before.
If you’re reading this, you might be thinking. “I’m a Trail Sister! I love the Earth!” I have no doubt this is true and what if we all took steps to deepen this love and then broaden its radius. As women who spend as much time outside as possible, we are leaders in the movement to reconnect with each other, the Earth, and ourselves. How can we take this intrinsic love for being in nature that we experience on our runs and amplify it to support our community — a network that I would argue includes humans as well as the plants and animals who live in our lands. Through nurturing our personal relationship with the environment and sharing that love, we can help pave a path towards healing for us all.
There are so many ways to connect with the land, and I would be remiss to think that my personal methods are the only or best way. However, if you need inspiration for enhancing your relationship with the natural world, I offer you some of my favorite nature-loving practices:
Getting sensual – Standing in awe of a sunset or how a small animal skitters across the path are delightful experiences that can become even more marvelous by engaging all of the senses. When I see something beautiful, hit the summit or find myself alone in the depths of a forest, I stop and soak in every sense. Taking a few deep breaths and turning my attention inward, I ask myself “What do you hear? What do you see? What do you feel? Can you taste the air? Are there smells wafting across the trail?” This is a great exercise to do with someone who might not get outside as much or with small children who are learning to navigate the world around them.
Learn about Indigenous cultures – Most Indigenous cultures view the lands that surround us not as objects, but as living breathing organisms. This concept of an alive Earth can take some time to become acquainted with, as it often differs from the ideas of nature with which so many of us were raised. This is by no means the most extensive list out there, but here are some Indigenous voices that have helped me begin to reshape how I think about the world around me. I’ve found inspiration in Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Buried in the Sky by Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan (the authors are not Indigenous, but the book gives voice to Himalayan Sherpas), movies such as Spirit of the Peaks, featuring Hunkpapa Lakota skier Connor Ryan, and Instagram accounts such as @bearsearscoalition, @indigenousfieldguide and @nativelandnet. I also like to visit Native Land to learn about the native tribes on whose ancestral lands I run. Many tribes have organizations which you can research or contact to learn more about their specific beliefs and practices.
Express gratitude –Not only does giving gratitude support mental and physical well-being, it also helps form and strengthen relationships. Before I head out on the trail, I take a moment to give thanks to the plants and animals who live there for allowing me to do what I love in their home. Again, this is a wonderful exercise to share with your community. It will not only deepen their connection to the land, but also the connection between you.
Learn about the surroundings – I love signing up for nature walks with naturalists and foragers in my area. Awareness of the local ecosystem helps me both better understand my surroundings and increases my feelings of safety in case of an emergency. Restorative trail work has been another great way to connect with the trails where I run. Trail running unfortunately isn’t always great in terms of trail and ecosystem health, as trail races have been shown to degrade protected areas pretty seriously. Trail work offers an opportunity to give back to the land and to gain knowledge about what helps and hurts our trail systems. Plus, when I slow down to walk, explore, and work I notice all sorts of things about the world around me that tend to pass me by while I’m running.
These are just a few tools that have helped me deepen my relationship with the natural world, create stronger bonds with my community and inspire me to do my part to protect the environment. I’d love to hear about how you like to get in touch with nature and how you share that love with the people around you in the comments below.
Robbins, J. (2020) Ecopsychology: How immersion in nature benefits your health. Yale E360. Retrieved from https://e360.yale.edu/features/ecopsychology-how-immersion-in-nature-benefits-your-health
Weinstein, N. et. al, Seeing Community for the Trees: The Links among Contact with Natural Environments, Community Cohesion, and Crime, BioScience, Volume 65, Issue 12, 01 December 2015, Pages 1141–1153, https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biv151
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Lindberg, E. (2020, November 2). Practicing gratitude can have profound health benefits, USC experts say. USC News. https://news.usc.edu/163123/gratitude-health-research-thanksgiving-usc-experts/
Pedersen, E., Lieberman, D., (2017) How gratitude helps your friendships grow. Greater Good. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_helps_your_friendships_grow#:~:text=A%20great%20deal%20of%20research,to%20be%20more%20helpful%20coworkers.
Ng, S-L, Leung, Y-F, Cheung, S-Y, Fang, W. (2018) Land degradation effects initiated by trail running events in an urban protected area of Hong Kong. Land Degrad Dev.; 29: 422– 432. https://doi.org/10.1002/ldr.2863