Still river and trees in nature

Feeling divorced from the world or alienated from neighbors who are all around us are common complaints. It’s nothing new. People have lamented the rush of modern life at least since the Industrial Revolution pulled them to factory work. When reliable electric lighting became pervasive we began losing our connection to the natural rhythms of light and dark. Then television came along, and eventually we were all stranded on Gilligan’s Island! Now? Instant availability and 24/7 social media remove us from face-to-face interactions even when buying and selling or simply conversing. In the name of progress, have we lost something?

I have been thinking about how being human cannot really be so different now than it was a hundred years ago, or a hundred thousand years ago. Our ancestral DNA just doesn’t change very fast. We still engage in the essential activities that make us all human: we desire communication, we seek status in a social group, we look for delicious foods, we follow leaders who inspire, we are drawn to nature, etc. There must be ways to get in touch with who we are, in essence who we’ve always been.

I began a conscious attempt to seek out these fundamental human experiences and try to build them into my daily life, incorporating them to whatever extent I could manage. I found that simple experiences resonated most immediately, providing a kind of satisfaction that feels different from ordinary life. Like a healthy meal after eating junk food, it feels good in a way that you recognize, “Oh yeah, this is what I should be doing more of.” So, I’ve been trying to build connection to elemental human experience into my day, week, and year.

Here are a few suggestions for ways to get in touch with experiences that have been part of being human ever since there were humans to be part of.


  • Find a place to walk outdoors. Walking is great exercise even on a treadmill, but if you walk outdoors you receive all the benefits of exercise plus the breeze on your face, the textures under your feet, and the sun in your eyes. These are elemental human experiences that remind us what it feels like to be a human being on the earth. Good places to walk might wind through trees such as a forest preserve or nature trail, or take you to water, perhaps the lake shore or a view of a river. Even golf courses, though manicured, are intricately designed to mimic the natural environments that have always drawn humans to explore: the edge of grass and trees, or rolling banks that obscure and reveal a changing view. Pavement works, but the best walks wander across a living landscape and allowing you to follow your natural intuition from point to point, whether through farmland or ascending a mountain. Your feet contact earth and rock, roots and grass. You watch where you’re going.


  • Sit by a fire. If you have a fireplace, light it. If you don’t know how, ask somebody to show you. If it’s a gas log or even an electric imitation that’s OK. If it’s a wood-burning hearth, even better. You might have to learn (or remember) how to start a wood fire with matches. But the key thing is to sit by it. Let it warm you. Let the room grow dark around you. Pour a glass of wine or a cup of tea. Look into the fire. People have been gazing into flickering flames for a very long time, since we began to be human and somehow tamed combustion to help and serve us. Try an outdoor campfire and others will be drawn to it—to sit and gaze and then to talk.


  • Grow something. It doesn’t have to be an entire vegetable garden or fruit orchard. You might have barely enough space for one cutting that sits on a windowsill, but once there’s soil on your hands you have a little piece of green to call your own. Raising something and helping it grow, seeing it flourish (or at least survive), watering it and letting it get sun will connect you to eons worth of human history. I’ve grown tomatoes for salad—nothing ever tasted better. Even picking your own apples or berries in season is an evocative experience that every ancestor on our planet once shared.


  • Use your hands to make something. My wife enjoys throwing clay pots. She gets messy and comes home with articles both beautiful and utilitarian. But she also comes home renewed in body and spirit from the simple act of pushing and carving wet clay with her own hands. People have been shaping bowls, pots, and vases for millennia. Anthropologists name whole cultures by their pottery’s characteristics. Maybe you’re not into clay. I’m not. But I have made a lot of bread, a strangely similar process of kneading and shaping, though the results taste better. I don’t think it matters what you make: a kite, a wooden cutting board, a knit sweater. What matters is that your hands are touching it, and you are using your human skill to make it functional or lovely or delicious.


  • Befriend a dog. Yes, they’re time-consuming and you’ll probably have to pick up after them, but walking a dog might be the most common and yet the most profound way to remind ourselves that we are part of nature too. A dog is a companion, an early-warning system, and a garbage disposal all rolled into one. They’ll track in dirt, chew your slippers, and steal a bite from your cheeseboard, yet people love and spoil them. Why? Consider that the dog was domesticated hundreds of thousands of years ago when our technology consisted of sharp stones, skins to wear, and sewing needles made of bone. The dog is the piece of nature that became embedded in our souls. If you have no time in your schedule to properly care for your own pet you might dog-sit for a neighbor or relative, because everybody appreciates a break now and then, and dog owners are always anxious to find a caring sub.


  • Immerse yourself. When the weather warms up and you can find an opportunity to swim at the seashore or dive into a lake don’t pass it up. A swimming pool is nice, but open water beckons. Don’t let a mucky bottom or “seaweed” prevent venturing out. Even a leech comes right off with table salt. If possible, sign up to be a certified diver and take the classes that allow you to explore a reef or touch a ray in the wild. Even without special classes you can snorkel, swim with the dolphins, or try that manatee thing in Florida. Seawater is literally in our veins, the balance of salts and electrolytes in our blood an exact stand-in for the sea. Even a soak at home in the tub can remind us of the elemental experience of weightless immersion.


  • Find a nature view that renews you. In the early morning I’ve created a tiny ritual of renewal for myself. If my spouse has a substitute-teaching gig I’ll volunteer to drive her, and then go three more minutes to park by the Fox River. I don’t get out of the car. I just sip coffee and look at the river as the day starts. There is always something to see: ducks on water, an early jogger on the trail, someone commuting by bike, but mostly I just look at the water and the sky. The engine is off, but I use heated seats. I’ll crack one window open if the air is fine. The coffee lasts maybe ten minutes, and then I’m probably on my way. See if there is a space in your life where you can simply sit and do nothing while nature surrounds you, maybe just a birdfeeder in your own backyard.


  • Carry a pocketknife or multi-tool, and use it. You want it to be something that you slip into your pocket when you start the day. If you don’t like or need a knife try one of the kind that has little scissors on it. What is it for? Well, it’s for a million things that are handy or useful, but maybe the biggest thing that it’s for is to remind you that you’re human. Humans make tools and use them. An outdoors store will have quite a selection, but even a hardware store always has a little rack of Swiss army knives.


  • Go face-to-face whenever possible. In other words, limit screen time and phone time and skip those drive-through speakers. Walk into the coffee place and order in person. Say Good Morning to the attendant. Chat with someone else in line. Ask about their day. I’ve developed this habit: I ask people if I can see their babies. Babies these days are a rarity, and they are almost always in some kind of carrier or stroller when out in public. I just ask if I can peek, and then I tell Mom how beautiful the baby is, and maybe ask his/her name. I’ll even ask how to spell it. I recently met Io. Does getting out of your vehicle take extra time? Yes, but I suppose that is part of the point of it—to take the time to see people, look them in the eye, and interact human-to-human. Try going into the bank instead of pulling up to the ATM. There are people in there.


Have you tried any of these? What works for you? Send me your thoughts and suggestions for getting in touch with elemental human experiences.