Summer is upon us, and the other day when I read Therese Borchard’s post in Beyond Blue on Beliefnet about how lack of sun exposure has led to a Vitamin D deficiency crisis across this country, it struck me: Our bodies are designed to need sun. Is that a hint or what? We are built to be outside.
As I write this just before Father’s Day, I am reminded that my atheist dad gave me my first spiritual experiences by sharing his love of natural wonders. Despite growing up in New York City, I saw Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, Banff and the Redwoods, the Smoky Mountains and the Rockies; flash floods in the Western deserts, a hurricane on Cape Hatteras.
I didn’t know it at the time, and my father wouldn’t have thought about it in these terms, but I was being introduced to the wonder of God. While it’s more important to see that of God in the everyday, it helps to be hit over the head every once in a while with the awesomeness of Creation.
It isn’t just destination vacations that can do that. And if your budget is extra tight this year, even a domestic vacation might not be an option. In a place without light pollution, go outside on a summer night and look up at the Milky Way: the glow of billions of stars blurring together into a band across the sky. Or sit on an uncrowded beach and just pay attention to the sights and sounds of the whole scene — the waves, shorebirds, distant boats.
Back to those family trips… throughout it all, and this is critical, we were camping. There is nothing, absolutely nothing on this beautiful planet, better than waking up and stepping outside into the bracing morning air surrounded by nature. (I’m not saying you have to use a tent. Cabins work too.)
Urban, rural, North, South, East and West, you can make a life that completely avoids the outdoors. And conversely, wherever you are, you can take steps today let some sun in.
I’m never going to be a full-on nature boy — I was raised on the streets of Manhattan. But even in the big city, getting outside is easy — just leave your desk and eat your lunch in the courtyard next to the office building. The value of this time away from the computer, with the sun beating down on your face, is tremendous. And if you live or work near a nice park, you can improve the experience exponentially by taking your lunch there.
One of the treasures of my hometown, New York City is Central Park: a 2-1/2 mile x 1/2 mile rectangle of nature in the middle of the most expensive real estate in the world (the estimated value of the land today is half a trillion dollars.) It’s big enough that you can totally detach from the city around you. But every city has parks, and it doesn’t take much.
If you’re lucky enough to have a back yard or deck, take your breakfast outdoors. And weekend brunch, and the occasional dinner.
The next level, after you’ve got yourself in nature, is to slow down and shift your perspective. Pay attention. Notice the natural world. It can help to have a focus. That’s why a lot of people hunt or fish, or learn about wildflowers. Mine is birding. I spot tiny motions, splashes of color and birdcalls that most people miss.
Even a dusty city square has more activity than you realize. Just noticing the pigeons, squirrels and sparrows can be relaxing. And there’s usually a lot more than that going on if you pay attention. One of my favorite New York City photos is of people walking in Central Park with their headphones on, while a hawk 20 feet away on the grass is busily ripping the entrails out of a chipmunk. Taking time to notice nature is also taking time to just be. It’s contemplative and calming.
And sometimes, whether it’s a weekend getaway, a longer vacation or where you live, you need to immerse yourself in nature — someplace where nature’s in charge. If you live in the country, you’ve already got a leg up. You can just divert your attention to the natural world around you. Instead of the mall, drive to the nearby National Forest and take a hike. But even if you live in a city or suburb, almost everyone is within an hour’s drive of deep natural environments. Explore them this summer!
Here comes the sun
And a final note about the sun and Vitamin D. People respond to health news, hyped by the media, as if it must be smarter than what their parents taught them or what has been common knowledge for millennia. Newer and more scientific must be better.
For thousands of years, we have equated a suntan or windswept face — signifying time outdoors in the sun, playing or working — with healthiness and vitality. But a few decades ago the hype around skin cancer started. Add to this office jobs, cable TV, internet — and video games so people don’t even play outdoors anymore — and guess what? People are getting sick because Vitamin D is an essential hormone — essential as in we need it to survive. Vitamin D deficiency is implicated in weak bones, cancer, TB, fatigue and a host of other problems, and it is acquired naturally only from unblocked sun and some fish oils (and unnaturally through fortified milk and supplements.)
Overexposure and skin cancer are real concerns, but getting enough sun for Vitamin D production and avoiding overexposure are compatible. (Skin pigment affects your ability to absorb the UV rays, so fair folks with genes from Northern climates need less sun to get their daily dose of Vitamin D. The Vitamin D Council recommends one-quarter of the amount of exposure it takes you to burn, however long that is for your skin type.)
So, I go with the ancient wisdom: be outdoors a lot and stay active.
Here’s my non-scientific advice: Get outside this summer. Lay on the beach or sit on a park bench, take a walk in the woods or up a mountain. Besides the benefits of getting away from the hustle and bustle of the modern world, besides the benefits of exercise, besides appreciating God’s Creation, you’ll also be taking your vitamins.
Do you experience serenity and conscious contact with God when you’re in nature? Do you feel better physically and mentally when you get sunshine and fresh air? Share your experiences by commenting below.