What follows is a condensed excerpt that I wanted to share from a longer essay that I have been working on. I would greatly appreciate hearing your thoughts, personal experiences, and other articles that resonate with these ideas! Feel free to leave a comment below, or send me an email.

It happens to all of us, probably more than we’d like. After trying to concentrate on a difficult task for several hours, we become mentally exhausted, leaving us easily distracted, irritable, and impatient. That familiar state of mental exhaustion is referred to by psychologists as “directed attention fatigue,” and is the biggest obstacle we face when trying to lead a productive and meaningful life. It may seem peculiar that something so integral to the human existence would suffer from fatigue, but from an evolutionary perspective it is in fact quite reasonable. Being in a state of intense concentration for an extended period of time makes one rather vulnerable. Should a bear suddenly appear, we would like to know about it immediately. Being easily distracted by such events would have been crucial for survival several thousand years ago. In modern times however, for most people most of the time, bears and other dangers are no longer a concern. Instead, we are distracted by interesting, yet often unimportant events – advertisements, spam mails, tweets, phone calls, cute cat videos, etc. These distractions have gotten significantly more common thanks to the Internet (which, ironically, was a product of countless hours of directed attention).

Fortunately, there is a simple, free, and universally available solution to this unfortunate predicament: spending time in nature. This is not a recent idea, in fact, Frederick Law Olmsted, a landscape architect, journalist, and conservationist, recognized the cognitive benefits of nature in the 1800’s when he wrote:

“Natural scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system.” (Olmsted, 1865)

More recently, this idea has been formalized and dubbed Attention Restoration Theory (ART) by Stephen Kaplan in a 1995 paper. ART asserts that “restorative environments” (eg. nature) catalyze the recovery of directed attention fatigue, and the theory is supported by several scientific studies. Incredibly, similar results have been found by showing participants images of natural and urban environments. In a 2005 paper, Rita Berto summarized that for an environment to be classified as restorative, it must be:

– a place that is away from everyday demands
– a place that is fascinating, where you can discover and be curious about things
– a place where the activities and the items are ordered and organized
– a place that is very large, with no restrictions to movements; it is a world of its own
– a place where it is easy to orient and move around so that you can do what you like

Directed attention is critical to our ability to step back, synthesize information, make a plan, reflect, and even act appropriately in social settings. Science, literature, art, philosophy, and even religious practices were built on, and continue to depend on, our ability to sustain focus for extended periods of uninterrupted time. The very essence of humanity is a product of our ability to direct attention, and thus, our ability to replenish our mental stores.

Thanks to the work of countless conservationists, the US federal government has preserved millions of acres of land under the Wilderness Act, for us to do just that. Incidentally, the Wilderness Act will be celebrating its 50th anniversary next year having been signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. The trouble is, our wilderness experience is under attack. Urbanization is no longer constrained to the land, and the wilderness is no longer protected from it. The very air we breathe is saturated with urbanism, transmitted over the invisible electromagnetic waves that carry our beloved 4G signals. Every year newer, faster, bigger, and better smart phones are developed, and internet connections reach farther. It is becoming increasingly difficult to escape, both physically, and emotionally. Remote mountaintops, once the sacred temples of wild places, are now becoming 4G hotspots. Although many rejoice in the constant connectivity the internet offers, living in an urban society without access to restorative environments will lead to a state of constant mental fatigue, resulting in an irritable, impatient, forgetful, and constantly distracted society incapable of solving complex problems. Our only hope of survival is to preserve, cherish, and experience true wilderness on a regular basis.

On that note, I’m headed into the North Cascades wilderness with Aubrey!

Shi Shi Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington

Golden Blues : Prints Available

I took this image last year on a trip to the Olympic coastline, but never shared it. I thought it captured every aspect of what a restorative scene should have: a feeling of being away, a place that inspires curiosity, a place that is ordered, a place that is a world of its own, one one that is easy to explore with the mind and eyes.

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4 Comments to “Why We Need Wilderness”

  1. kelly Morgan says:

    My favorite topic, and nicely expressed. Your landscapes help so many of us find wilderness when we are overwhelmed by urbanism.

  2. Zach says:

    Very well written, enjoyed reading this! As to wild places becoming 4G hotspots, I live (for a few months out of the year at least) in a part of Colorado that, while not designated wilderness, has no cell phone reception and I find it to be incredibly freeing. And yet one can stand on just about any 14,000 foot peak in the state and get 5 bars, I’ve always found that odd and unsettling…

  3. Zhou says:

    Very nicely written article and I will be looking forward to your calendar. Your photos inspire me to go out there and explore more locally in our beautiful state of Washington. I do find myself surprising refreshed when returning from a weekend out camping. I feel more motivated at work and able to get more done in my little cubicle.

  4. Jim Ruff says:

    Floris, Thought provoking article and just thought I’d some of my observations. First, I’ll add my personal experiences. Last year I was fortunate to travel to Patagonia, the Atacama Desert (northern Chile) and a second trip to the Peruvian rainforest. No cell phone connections so it added to the sense of remoteness and wilderness from every day life. Did I miss connectivity? Not at all and it probably contributed to my enjoyment of the beauty of the world.

    Now for some observations on this subject … First, I live in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountain region of North Carolina which has some fantastic hiking trails and wilderness areas. I’m amazed when I see people at a scenic overlook trying to catch up on their email, Facebook or whatever. They seem to be addicts and are missing out on the beauty of nature. What’s their motivation — job demands or insecurity? Are they a control-freak boss type? Not a true wilderness wonderer? Maybe we are fortunate that the true wilderness lovers like yourself are few in number or the wilderness would truly be spoiled by the cast of thousands and their demand for cell phone towers on every mountain. I used to say that I’m glad that not every one plays tennis or I would never find an empty court.

    Another observation on cell phone usage and the topic of solitude. I recently had lunch and observed a husband and wife having lunch at a nearby booth. The gentleman had a IPhone and the lady had an IPad that kept them 100% busy during their entire lunch. No conversation between them. For these two individuals, electronic technology created a realm of solitude. What a miserable way to live.