What follows is Part 4 of a four-part blog on why “nature” is a spiritual discipline. Whether you love nature, have always been passive to it, afraid of it, or you just consider yourself a bit indoorsy, I am convinced from Scripture and theology, a variety of research disciplines, and personal experience that your soul and your life would be healthier and happier with a little more time spent outdoors.
If you missed Parts 1-3, I highly recommend you start there, by clicking the link above. If you’re all caught up, let’s get practical!
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How do I get more nature in my life?
So what should we do about it? How do I get more nature in my life? I know some of you are wrestling with the same question I have agonized over for so long. I live in Kansas City! Do I just need to move some place more beautiful?
No, you don’t, for there is beauty everywhere for those who want to see it, and it really doesn’t take that much work to begin enjoying more of the natural world. Let me give four simple tips to help us get started.
1. Pay attention
First, you have to pay attention. This is so hard for me because, sadly, we tend to get bored with the beauty we see every day. We’re in such a hurry all the time, and we just don’t notice it anymore, yet there is something so valuable in the old phrase, “Stop and smell the roses.”
Pay attention! Look for the moon and stars. Notice the flowers. Feel a tree. Listen to the birds. I’ve never been much of a birder, but to help us be more aware, we bought a couple of bird feeders for our backyard. Now we can’t help but pay attention to the birds from time to time.
If I could move to the country, I certainly would, and if I could live in a forest, even better. That seems unlikely, so I’m slowly making a forest of my own. We have a normal-size suburban lot. We’ve lived there nine years, and I’ve planted nine trees. One day, we will live in a forest!
For the indoors, we bought a bunch of nearly indestructible house plants (we haven’t killed too many of them yet) and even organized our furniture to face the windows. As much as possible, we’re bringing the outdoors inside.
I’ve also got one of those fancy watches, and on the face it tells me the time of sunrise and sunset. I added that feature because, if possible, I don’t want to miss it, even if it’s just a moment’s glance out the window. There are cell phone apps that will do the same.
Cheryl Strayed, in her book, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, a memoir of her own healing on an incredible journey into the wilderness, writes: “‘There’s always a sunrise and always a sunset and it’s up to you to choose to be there for it,’ said my mother. ‘Put yourself in the way of beauty.’”
Now my list might not be your list. That’s not the point. These are just examples of easy things to help me daily pay attention. You need to find what works for you and be willing to do a little experimentation.
2. Chase it down
Watch for it, but also chase it down. Go find it.
A few years ago, I knew only a couple decent places to hike in the entire Kansas City area. With only a little work, we’ve now got five incredible places in our rotation within only 15 minutes of our house! Chances are, there are a few near you as well.
Here’s my list of great places to go hiking or play outside. If you live nearby or are willing to drive, I would love to share them with you. As you keep reading, I’ve got a few other favorites in the broader Kansas City area, but this is not at all exhaustive. You have to find them where you live, and the closer they are to home, the more likely you are to create habits around them.
Our current favorite is Lexington Lake right off K-10 in De Soto, KS. This is a new park, and they’re still blazing the trails, which adds to the fun. I highly recommend you get off the paved trail and into the woods for some real quiet and beauty.
Kill Creek Park, also out west, is huge, and sees way fewer visitors than Shawnee Mission Park. It’s incredible. We do like Shawnee Mission Park, especially if you start off Ogg Road to beat the crowds and hit the woods. Just west of Lake Olathe, Prairie Center (NOT Prairie Center Park) is perhaps where we go most frequently, combining trails in the woods as well as the Kansas prairie. To enjoy it to the fullest, bring waterproof shoes. Closest to home we visit Ernie Miller Park & Nature Center.
When we are willing to drive a little farther, we love Parkville Nature Sanctuary, just north of the river or the Overland Park Arboretum down south, just off Highway 69. Swope Park and Longview Lake also have trails. With a little more free time, any of the Kansas or Missouri State Parks are terrific (Weston Bend is one of our favorites and surprisingly close). With these, you can also go camping, another favorite Miller activity.
For a bigger adventure (and a longer drive), we love Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Emporia. It’s part of the National Park Service and has a great visitor center, old farmstead, and miles of trails. You can hike in the Kansas Flint Hills prairie with hundreds of bison or along the water with beautiful trees. It’s not Yellowstone, but it is well worth the drive.
If you want help finding more trails near you, All Trails is a very helpful website and app. You might also check out the Hiking Project. As you discover new places or have some special ones of your own, would you share them with me as well?
Even if you struggle to find the right places, or if hiking just isn’t for you, studies have shown that going for a walk in the city will still give you some of the health and happiness benefits if you choose the sidewalk nearest the most trees. Crazy, right?
At the very least, find a local park or green space. Maybe it’s just a picnic, or a place for a hammock, or a place to let the kids run free. Kansas City has many great options. Chase it down. There are more opportunities close to you than you realize.
3. Find your rhythm
Once you know your options, find your rhythm and create new habits. You have to commit to actually doing this, even when you don’t feel like it. Sometimes it’s like eating your vegetables, and I call it a spiritual discipline for a reason. It takes discipline.
Studies have shown that we tend to underestimate the rewards of going outside and overestimate the rewards of staying in. According to Williams, “We don’t experience natural environments enough to realize how restored they can make us feel…”
For example, it takes work to go on a hike, and when you’re at home with a free minute, we rarely feel motivated to do it, so perhaps we’ll turn on the TV. But the studies also show that when it comes to happiness and true relaxation, doing the harder work of going outside is so much more likely to deliver what you’re looking for.
What that means is you are almost never going to feel like it. Yet you will almost always be thankful you did. So discipline yourself for greater joy.
But I don’t have time! I love how Richard Louv responds to this. “Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health (and also, by the way, in our own)… By taking nature experience out of the leisure column and placing it in the health column, we are more likely to take our children on that hike—more likely to, well, have fun.” (Last Child in the Woods)
The Nature Fix recommends carving out a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly rhythm. “For warding off depression, let’s go with the Finnish recommendation of five hours a month in nature, minimum. But as the poets, neuroscientists and river runners have shown us, we also at times need longer, deeper immersions into wild spaces to recover from severe distress, to imagine our futures and to be our best civilized selves.”
So for me, every day I try to notice the natural beauty around me. At least once a week (rain or shine, hot or cold), I try to get out in the woods, or at least out in the country, often for a hike or bike ride. Monthly we try to go on at least two family hikes and/or enjoy some good time at a park.
Yearly, we try to carve out different pockets of time. Sometimes it’ll be a weekend camping trip with friends or family, a visit to the zoo (have you been to the Omaha zoo!?), or a day-trip to one of the farther parks or preserves.
We also work really hard to make an annual pilgrimage to visit some of our National Parks. I know camping isn’t for everyone, but many of these places have lodges, or at least hotels nearby. We love a good road trip (and saving money) and, because it’s been part of our family rhythm, getting in the car and heading to some of the most beautiful places in America is just something we love doing. That said, many of them aren’t too far from airports.
If this is new to you, it can feel daunting to plan a trip to a National Park. I’ve included some helpful resources below, but I’d be glad to help. Maybe start with the ones nearest to home. Colorado is home to four National Parks (Rocky Mountain and Great Sand Dunes are two of our favorites, and only maybe 9-12 hours from Kansas City). If you’re willing to go a bit further, Utah has five and Wyoming and Montana have three. This will at least get you started!
If you’ve got young kids, I certainly understand the challenges, and you’ve got to figure out what works for you. Camping is a ton of work with little ones but even just letting them roam outside and play in the dirt has shown such positive effects for child development. Let your kids get dirty!
When it comes to hiking, we’ve found that the younger you start them, the better. Make sure you begin with realistic expectations, let them wander or lead from time to time, bring plenty of snacks, try to distract them with fun conversation or games (we used to pretend we were hiking through Middle Earth), maybe bring a toy (Eden still often hikes with a stuffed dog in a purse), and end with a reward (a special snack or time at a playground often does the trick).
Young and old, find your rhythm. Create new habits that fill you and restore you, and your soul will thank you for it.
4. Worship the Creator
Finally, remember to worship the Creator in all of this. Sadly, I am so tempted to worship creation that I have to continually remind myself of the One who made it. In the midst of these experiences, I might say a quick prayer of thanks or make a subtle reminder to our kids (and to myself). We might read a favorite psalm about God’s work through nature or simply acknowledge the presence of God together. God has made a good world, it is good for my soul, and I want to enjoy it with Him.
“Oh sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth! Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples! For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the LORD made the heavens. Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.”
Will you join me?
I know I’m a nerd, and I don’t expect anyone to embrace these things like our family has. Yet I am convinced this is more that just a hobby. It’s part of the way we were created to live and enjoy our Creator. These are His gifts to us and in them we find ourselves and glimpse our God.
I need more wonder in my life! In a world in which we strive to control everything, I need to see God’s handiwork. I need these moments of awe-filled transcendence. I need a little wildness. John Muir writes: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” (Our National Parks)
So will you join me? Even if you add just a tiny bit of nature back into your life, I am convinced your soul will thank you. I believe you’ll find a little peace, a little wonder, a little humility. You will learn who you are, see your God in fresh ways, and praise Him for His redemption. Nature is a spiritual discipline.
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If you’d like to explore these subjects in greater detail, or are just looking for a fun read, I recommend the following resources. Please take note, the majority of these authors write from a different worldview than my own, so like any book you read, do so with openness, but also a critical eye. Also, some of these books contain stories or language a bit on the gritty side, so use your own discretion.
The Nature Fix by Florence Williams
Interacting with the latest research and neurology, she argues that time in nature makes us happier, healthier, and more creative.
Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv
Slightly older, this book argues more anecdotally, directed with much greater focus on parenting and child development.
Families on Foot by Jennifer & Brew Davis
Great tips on how to make this part of your family rhythm, and how to encourage and train your kids to enjoy it as well.
The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
This book is too weird for most people, for it reads a bit like a love letter to trees (right up my alley). Yet, it’s fascinating learning how trees “think” and “communicate” and “plan” and “raise their young.” Short chapters and a very easy read.
Reforesting Faith by Matthew Sleeth
Perhaps the only book here written explicitly from a Christian perspective, but I’ve not read it yet. Released in April 2019, if this book is anything like his article in Christianity Today, I’m pretty excited.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
The tragic story of Chris McCandless (and many others) in their quest for nature. Also made into a movie.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
The sad but redemptive memoir of a broken woman seeking to find healing on the Pacific Crest Trail. Also made into a movie.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
A humorous account of one man’s attempt to hike portions of the Appalachian Trail. Includes lots of funny anecdotes and interesting observations. Also made into a movie.
Ranger Confidential by Andrea Lankford
This one is laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreakingly sad. A former National Park Ranger, Andrea retells true stories of her own experience and her colleagues in these incredible places.
The Overstory by Richard Powers
This one comes with a strong political agenda, but is actually a novel about a handful of characters and the ways trees have brought them together. You can definitely roll your eyes at me here.
Other fun adventure stories of note:
- Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose
- Endurance by Alfred Lansing
- Tip of the Iceberg by Mark Adams
- Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
- River of Doubt by Candice Millard
National Park and Adventure Planning
The National Parks: America’s Best Idea documentary by Ken Burns
One of the only documentaries I will rewatch. In classic Ken Burns fashion, great history with plenty of tugs at the heartstrings. Currently available on Amazon Prime (free with Prime membership), and it’s only 12 hours long!
Your Guide to the National Parks by Michael Joseph Oswald
Self-published but such great information, maps, hiking trails, etc. Surprisingly helpful.
National Geographic Guide to National Parks of the United States by National Geographic
Excellent pictures, historical details, and tips for travel.
The National Parks: An Illustrated History by Kim Heacox
This coffee table book is less helpful for planning details, but great on inspiring you with their incredible photos for where to go next.
Passport To Your National Parks
The ultimate nerd tool. You can get a stamp at every property within the National Park Service. There are 61 parks, but with national monuments, historical sites, shorelines, trails, preserves, battlefields, memorials, etc., that number is over 400. And you can get a stamp at each of them. I know, I already said I’m a nerd. Stop judging. You’re the one still reading! Besides, this tool does come with a handy map of all 400+ locations.
A great blog from a former park ranger who offers incredibly helpful tips for trip planning and adventures.
REI National Parks App
Free app that includes places you don’t want to miss (“gems”), great hikes with descriptions, family-friendly hikes, pictures, maps, and all kinds of details. This is great for planning, but also great on the trails. While I don’t love having my devices with me in a National Park, thankfully there’s almost never any service. With the REI app, the trail maps are downloaded to your phone and the GPS will work anywhere. This can be very helpful when you don’t know where you are!
Alltrails App and Website as well as the Hiking Project
Continually being updated, these are great ways to find tons of trails, see pictures, read reviews and descriptions as you plan your next adventure near or far.