Call of the wild: Why human beings have always been drawn to wilderness

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Uncultivated, uninhabited and undisturbed by man… There’s always been something magnetically appealing about wilderness. Whether it’s dense forests and thundering waterfalls or barren moors and blustery mountaintops, the human psyche seems irresistibly drawn to unadulterated emptiness.  

The Japanese have a word for this allure: ma. The raw beauty of nothingness; the irresistible space between the edges; the precious gaps or pauses between places, creating necessary balance. 

And perhaps it is balance that we’re all seeking when we book trips out to the rolling grasslands of Tanzania, the deep jungles of Costa Rica or the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

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Science is discovering the wilderness is good for our bodies, too

Of course, it’s time-honoured wisdom that the wild is good for our souls. Dutch artist Rembrandt warned us to “choose only one master… nature”, while centuries beforehand, the Greek philosopher Pythagoras advised his followers to “leave the road; take the trails.” 

But more recently, science is discovering that it’s very good for our bodies, too. Several studies have established a solid connection between the wilderness and our overall wellness. One led by Professor Gerard Kyle of Texas A&M University shows that being out in the wild not only improves our psychological wellness, but also a lengthy list of other health bonuses, from heart and lung strength to skin health and cognitive functioning. 

Another study, published in the National Library of Medicine, shows that exposure to green spaces improves our immune systems, while a third – published by Japanese academics – proves that spending time in heavily forested areas significantly reduces our blood pressure. This, from the country that created the concept of shinrin-yoku (forest bathing).

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In Canada, doctors are prescribing trips to national parks

So strong is the evidence of nature’s invigorating power that there’s an entire “healing garden” movement in US hospitals, based on studies showing that when patients have more connection to nature, they recover faster and need less pain medication. 

Last year, forward-thinking doctors in Canada, a country whose maple leaf flag shows its deep-rooted commitment to all things outdoors, started prescribing trips to national parks for patients who could physically benefit from time spent in nature. The Canadian government hailed it as “a breakthrough for how we treat mental and physical health challenges.”

Put simply, embracing the wilderness is very, very good for us – on many levels. And, post-pandemic, more and more of us are tapping into that power.

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Our human need for nature has been linked to evolution

In the US, the huge increase in national park attendance over the last three years is testament to that. For Flash Pack, trips involving wilderness – including the dramatic red deserts of Jordan, the silent, snow-laden forests of Finland and the lush national parks of Colombia’s Caribbean coastline – have recently rocketed in popularity. 

So, what is it that appeals to us about Earth’s wild corners? Why does nature have such a positive impact on us, both physically and psychologically? According to Professor Kyle, it’s connected to both our hardwired homo sapiens DNA and our own childhoods. 

“Humans’ need for nature varies considerably for a variety of reasons, but it’s been linked to evolution,” he says. “For many, the settings are also linked to an array of memories of past experiences with significant others. These memories extend back to childhood and can be deeply emotional.”

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In a world of transition, finding wild places unchanged is inspiring

It’s that sense of belonging – not just to the wilds where our ancestors lived a few precious generations ago, but also to the fields and woods where we played as children – that makes the emptiness of the wilderness feel so inexplicably welcoming. 

Or, as legendary National Geographic photographer, Pete McBride, puts it: “In a world of rapid transition and growth, finding wild places unchanged is inspiring. It feels good to go home: to the trails, the woods, the lakes and the meadows within those empty spaces on the map.” 

This ‘homecoming’ is particularly crucial at a time when our exhausted minds need breathing space more than ever, thanks to the ceaseless chatter of social media and modern technology.

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Nature can work its magic in a very short space of time

True wilderness, without any buildings or roads or motorised transport, is empty, and as such, is the perfect form of escapism. 

Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier and More Creative, believes the current popularity of wilderness retreats, from forest bathing to the Druid-inspired Wyda movement, is a clear pushback against technology and everything connected to it, including obesity, depression and anxiety.   

The good news, according to Williams’ research, is that nature can work its magic in a very short space of time. The environmentalist and author conducted a recent experiment at Telluride’s Mountainfilm Festival, where she tested the blood pressure and ECG heart-rhythm readings of a group of people before a short hike in the woods.

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We need to protect the wilderness to protect our own wellbeing

The surprising conclusion was that it took hardly any time in nature to make a difference to the majority of them; most participants were significantly more relaxed after only a few minutes. Perhaps Einstein was onto something when he observed: “Look into nature and you will understand everything better.” 

The bad news, however, is that while nature is very good for us, humanity hasn’t bothered returning the favour. Today, just 23% of the planet’s land surface (excluding Antarctica) can be classified as wilderness; a whopping 10% decline over the last 20 years. 

The message couldn’t be any clearer: we need to protect the world’s wilderness in order to protect our own wellbeing – thinking about it from a purely selfish perspective – and that of future generations.

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Nature’s a fundamental part of our survival toolbox

Because, in the words of the great American activist and author of distant, dusty tomes such as Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey: “Wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit… As vital to our lives as water and good bread.”

Since our earliest days, nature has been a fundamental part of humanity’s survival toolbox, and it’s set to become even more so during the hectic, stress-fuelled 21st century. 

That’s the reason why those Colombian rainforests and Tanzanian grasslands look so darn tempting – and why you’ll feel happier and healthier once you’ve embraced the raw beauty of nothingness.

Jonathan Thompson is an award-winning journalist, SOLO columnist and presenter of Adventure Cities on the Discovery Channel. 

Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveller like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured.

Images: Courtesy of Mat Wilder/Heliconia 

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