January 20, 2013

Wilderness areas not just for recreation


---- — This week I studied more about guns than I ever thought would be necessary.

What most people on all sides of the gun debate seem to agree on is that we need to change our culture of violence.

Waiting until the population exhibits insurmountable mental illness and then limiting access to guns is just not enough to accomplish that change.

It is self-evident that the young men who committed the recent assaults were mentally ill. That they resort to extreme violence and even kill themselves is the strongest evidence possible that they are disconnected from life.

Logically we should all be focused much more seriously on what it takes for young people to feel connected to the world and to life itself. We need to improve baseline mental health for everyone.

Growing up I used wild places for mental health maintenance. During tough times when I felt bullied, humiliated, isolated, misunderstood or hopeless, I always found myself outside.

I could stalk off in anger, or wander off in confusion, and in time sort myself out or forget what set me off. Those times built my inner strength and in some cases increased my practical knowledge of the outdoors.

My baseline mental health came from awe before a great sunrise and secret sitting spots where I could watch wild scenes unfold, not television, video games or medication. It never occurred to me to harm myself or anyone who had hurt me.

Children need to know why going outdoors is not just about giving up screen time — it’s a lifeline to well-being and it is free. Whether through appreciating a bird in flight, taking a fishing trip or trekking in the wilderness. Even opening a window may be enough on some days.

How could we neglect to communicate this to our children and leave so many of them without the most basic tool to cope with stress?

If we fail to believe what we have experienced for ourselves, there is research to prove that human behavior is positively affected by natural environments. In a story on, Andrea Thompson reported on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Landscape and Human Health Laboratory.

“‘Ingrained dependence on our environment is like that of any other animal it seems, because like other organisms, we evolved to thrive in our natural surroundings,’ said Frances (Ming) Kuo, director of the Laboratory.”

As an example, referring to one study, Kuo reported that, “People living in public housing have fatiguing lives, and not particularly rejuvenating home circumstances... They're just much more likely to be at the end of their rope on any given day. Through interviews, researchers found that residents whose apartments were exposed to green spaces reported fewer aggressive conflicts, including domestic violence, than those who had no views of green spaces. They also procrastinated less on major goals, such as finding a job or a new home, and were less likely to think their problems were unsolvable.”

We need to pay attention to what keeps a person from resorting to violence when they are at the end of their rope.

Wilderness areas aren’t just for recreation. They are sources of national security — places where we can all feel that we are connected to something powerfully good, something worth living for. 

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed guide who lives in Westport. She leads recreational and educational programs focused in the Champlain Valley throughout the year. Contact her at