Posts Tagged ‘Nature’

The biosphere of Planet Earth is a miracle. We know of no other world where we could live outdoors. The moon is inhospitable, Venus a furnace, Mars’ air thin and oxygen-poor. Forget the other planets in our solar system. And we know little about those beyond. By comparison, Earth is a paradise. Every day we should rejoice in the sunshine, breathe deeply with gratitude, and take water as a sacrament. So why do we spend so much time inside?


Once I took a plane trip on a perfect day in May. Flowers bloomed and trees wore new leaves. We flew at low altitudes where I could see the towns and neighborhoods, parks and school yards, fields and forests below. But no children played on the playgrounds. No one walked or jogged. No farmers worked their fields. No workmen or fishermen were evident. How could they stay indoors on such a beautiful day?


People move to Florida “for the weather”, then find it too hot, too cold, too humid, or too many mosquitoes. Day and night they keep windows closed and the air conditioner running. Why not live where the climate requires such confinement?


“When was the last time you spent the entire day outdoors?” A character in a movie asked another. Nothing substitutes for the physical, mental, and spiritual refreshment you find in the open air. Last January on the Mirage, we lived outdoors the entire week. Only the cabins are enclosed. The dining area, where we spent mealtimes and evenings, is open to the elements. Surrounded by wilderness with no light pollution, we stood on deck at night and enjoyed the stars. We spent our days on the water, under the sun, in the wind, and it was good.


But not perfect. Nature is not always kind. In Pine Island Sound, destruction by Hurricane Charley nearly a decade ago is still evident: heaps of uprooted, storm-tossed trees.


Monday’s sun heated the cabins below deck. To hasten cooling, I left my hatch open until bedtime. By then, my cabin was full of mosquitoes. I don’t know how many I swatted before I started to count, then I killed sixteen, more during the night, and probably another dozen in the morning. Afterwards, I was more vigilant.


If you kayak in the sub-tropical sun, you need skin protection. I wore a hat, long sleeved shirt, and long pants all week. Splashing waves cooled me. I used sunscreen on my face and hands, but forgot UV protection for my lips, which burned, cracked, and peeled. A lesson learned.


At least I didn’t turn into a Gumbo Limbo. Natives call it the “tourist tree” because its bark is red and peeling. On Wednesday, we encountered the human variety. The kayak trail in Commodore Creek was choked with tourists. Poorly prepared, they probably lathered on sunscreen, but did little else to protect themselves. Most wore shorts and short sleeved shirts or tank tops and, while they remembered sunglasses, few wore hats. Even though Commodore Creek is shaded by mangroves, I’m sure by evening they resembled Gumbo Limbo trees.


The week was not all smooth paddling. Wednesday morning was calm but the wind picked up when we returned to Mirage. We skirted the shore in Pine Island Sound but had to cross open water to get to the boat. The wind kept blowing me off course. I’d paddle several times on one side to get straight, then over-correct and be blown the other way. Finally, Jun suggested I align myself perpendicularly with the waves and let the wind blow me along. I told him I was trying to align myself with Mirage. He said to align myself with the waves and Mirage would take care of herself. He was right. The wind blew me right to the ship. Nature is bigger than we . Why exhaust ourselves trying to work against her? Better to cooperate.


That evening, waves too choppy for kayaks, we took the dinghy out to North Captiva Island, beached on the inland side, and crossed a short neck to the Gulf of Mexico. We collected shells and watch the sunset. The water was cool but pleasant enough for a swim.

Kayak voyage 081


Thursday dawned with a nice south wind, but a cold front loomed in the northwest. When we reached the south point of North Captiva Island at 1 pm, the wind shifted and picked up speed, the weather turned cold and the water choppy. Paddling became difficult. We hugged the shore until we came to a shoal too shallow to paddle, so Elke and I got out and waded, towing our kayaks. Keith and Jun detoured the shoal and landed on a small beach. My muscles cramped from the chill. Jun came back for our kayaks, allowing us, thankfully, to walk on the sand.


From there, as the gull flies, Mirage was not far, but I struggled against the wind. When I’d stop for a brief rest, it blew me back. At one point a strong current caught us. Keith offered to tow me. Fatigue and pain eventually conquered my stubborn pride, and I let him. Sometimes you just have to accept help.


Tarps were lowered around the dining area to shelter us and we wore coats to supper. All night, the rigging snapped in the wind and Mirage swung back and forth on her moorings. There’s a saying in Florida: if you don’t like the weather, wait a few hours. The morning dawned cool but soon warmed and we enjoyed beautiful weather the rest of the week.


Did discomfort diminish my pleasure? Only temporarily. Afterward, I could laugh and reflect. I don’t go looking for trouble and “No pain, no gain” is rubbish, but roadblocks lead to self discovery, adversity to growth. Adventures yield good memories once we are safe at home. Being outdoors all week was well worth it.


As I write on this beautiful day in May, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and the yellow flies are biting. I almost need armor to go outside. Oh, well. At least my windows are open so I can breathe fresh air. I don’t have to leave the house to pump water, so I can take it as a sacrament.


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             When I feel stressed out and in need of a tranquilizer, I go out to my greenhouse and re-pot some plants. Dirt therapy. Afterwards, I feel better. We have known for a long time that contact with nature makes us feel better, whether it’s yard or garden work, walking or working in the woods, or even hunting and fishing. We used to think the effects were purely psychological, “all in your head”, but now scientists have learned that it’s also in your blood stream, nervous system, and who knows where else. Don’t you love it when scientists find evidence for things that we have known all along?

            Warning: this will be more serious than some of my postings and you will encounter some big words. Don’t let that phase you. The words are not as important as the ideas behind them. Let’s get one big word out of the way: Mycobacterium vaccae. If you want to pronounce it, try Mike-o-bac-ter-ium va-kay. Scientists abbreviate it as M. vaccae. Let’s just call it Mv.

            I first heard about this last spring at the Garden Club convention in Jacksonville. One of the speakers, a scientist, said that certain soil bacteria interact with chemicals in your skin, and this boosts your immune system and improves your mood. What a fascinating idea! Did I hear him right? I decided to find out more. It seems that there is a harmless soil bacterium, Mv, which does indeed have this effect on us. Scientists first found Mv in cow dung (vacca is Latin for cow) and started exploring its possible uses in medicine. About a decade or so ago, a London oncologist, Mary O’Brien, injected her cancer patients with Mv. (What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.) Her patients’ symptoms improved. Not only did their pain and nausea decrease, but they felt better emotionally, had more energy, and could think more clearly.

            Since then, researchers have injected mice with Mv and found that it stimulates the growth of certain brain cells and lowers anxiety. They fed it to mice and the mice could find their way through a maze twice as fast, swim twice as long, and had less anxiety. After they stopped feeding it to the mice, the effects lasted about three weeks. No wonder I feel better with dirt under my fingernails, but it seems that we need to be exposed to Mv on a continuous basis to benefit from it.

            Doctors are still doing research with Mv on people with a variety of illnesses including asthma, depression, rheumatoid arthritis, and several skin conditions. In humans, the bacteria activate immune cells which release chemicals which affect the nerves. They have found, as in mice, Mv stimulates the growth of nerve cells that increase serotonin and nor epinephrine, and these chemicals improve mood and cognitive functioning. This is the same way that Prozac works.

            So, with dirt under my nails, not only do I feel better, I can think more clearly, too. But how does Mv get into my body? I do not eat dirt by choice and I certainly don’t inject it. Scientists aren’t really certain. They think the bacteria get into the air and we inhale it, or some gets into our food and we eat it, or it may enter through cuts in our skin. I haven’t found anything that verifies that it can interact with unbroken skin, but I may not have looked hard enough.

            All this applies to children also, so if you want them to learn better and do better on those standardized tests, instead of making them spend all day with their noses in books, let them play outside and get dirty. Scientists believe that the rise in asthma and allergies is due to our living “too clean”. Children growing up on traditional farms have fewer of these problems than do other children. They are exposed to harmless micro-organisms that train their immune systems to ignore pollen and other common allergens. Remember, Mv was first found in cow manure.

            So, what does all this really mean? It means that our relationship to our world is much more complex than we realize. We really are one with Nature. We need more than air, water, and food. On the physical level, our bodies interact with lowly things in the natural world just as our minds and hearts interact with its beauty. We have known that our intestines are home to bacteria and such that aid digestion. Now we find out that another bacterium makes us healthier, happier, and smarter. What other beneficial things are out there to be discovered?

            When we humans venture out into space, we need to be cognizant of these unseen things our bodies need. And when we travel to other worlds, we will need to bring some of our home with us to keep us healthy and happy. By the same token, we must be cautious of microorganisms we find there. The implications of all this are astronomical in extent.

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