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  • Writer's pictureJeanne Christie

The Natural World Can Be a Scary Place

A commenter on an older blog on the science supporting time in nature wrote:

It is surprising that time in nature reduces stress levels. I think that sometimes it is scary and stressful to be in the woods.

When I read it, I reflected that this is absolutely true. Our experiences in the outdoors vary widely. Some folks have good reasons to be uncomfortable in nature whether it’s due to limited experience or outright bad experiences. While I have mostly happy memories of time spent outdoors; there are other periods when it I was scared; sometimes for no apparent reason and sometimes because the situation I was in was very dangerous.

What individuals fear or find stressful varies greatly. This past summer I had a young boy on a walk who was very worried about encountering an ant hill. He was not concerned about ants; just anthills. We were in a very shady forest with very wet soils. I knew ants liked to build anthills in sunny fields with dry, well drained soils and there was no chance we would encounter one on our walk. However, I also knew there was nothing I could say to alleviate his concerns. Facts about sun and soils had no impact. So, we carefully observed each moss-covered rock for signs of ants. On the trail we did find ants, but no anthills. He is a curious and inquisitive young man and I think his interest in ants might be the start of an amazing journey.

Sometimes fears are well-founded. Many years ago, I was leading a multi-day canoe trip in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota and one member of our small group was very concerned about potential incursions by black bears into our campsite. Living in northern Minnesota; the other members of the group were accustomed to the idea that black bears are around; but knew they were rarely interested in humans. The young woman that was worried was from southern Minnesota; and she found the ideas of black bears nearby alarming.

That night as we set up camp, she walked the area for black bears. Just as dusk approached, she hurried into the campsite telling us breathlessly that she had found one. We grabbed everything we could use to make noise and followed her. Sure enough; there was a bear sitting and watching us calmly. In response to our noise; he ambled off slowly. We spent the remainder of the evening securing our food where he could not enjoy it. I learned on that trip to listen to people and respect their concerns. It would not be the last time someone’s “fear” turned out to be an important insight that kept me and others safe.

When I take a group of people outdoors for a forest bathing walk or another activity; I am always interested in their perception of the natural world; how they relate to it, what it means to them. Is it a comfortable place? A place that is unfamiliar or even a bit scary? For some a walk in the woods is easy; for others it may be challenging; Regardless, I am always grateful to be able to learn from their experience, and hopefully, make it more accessible in a way that is meaningful for them.

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