Going Outside

When life gets too busy, Kathleen Dean Moore remembers the childhood joy of nature. Stress, she reminds us, is the antonym of gratitude.

Kathleen Dean Moore
4 August 2018
Photo by Vladimir Malyutin

For many years, my life has been impossibly over-scheduled. I finally resorted to computerized, categorized, color-coded to-do lists. I so single-mindedly finished and deleted tasks from the list that the consonants wore off the delete key on my laptop, leaving only e e e, and then the whole delete button fell off the keyboard and bounced under the radiator. My colleagues can gauge my stress levels by the pitch of my voice; I live at a screeching e, an octave above middle c.

So I assumed I understood stress. But just to be sure, I looked it up. Stress is a noun meaning “adversity, pressure,” from estrece, “narrowness,” from the Latin strictus, “compressed,” from stringere, “draw tight.” But stress is also a verb—“to place greater importance on.” The etymology surprised me and made me wonder. Does stress come from compressing too much into too narrow a life and then placing outsize importance on all those assignments? Or put it this way: Is stress what happens when a person fills her life too full of her self-important self?

How could I have forgotten that the wild, damp world is an answer to stress?

Well, yes and no. The millions of people who are grieving, who are thirsty, who are unable to feed their children—they have not chosen their challenges. My situation is different. What I experience is the ironic stress of the privileged, which is stress nonetheless. And here’s the thing: Once I figured out what stress might be for me, I realized what I could do to reduce it.

I should have known all along. When I fretted as a child, gnawing my fingernails, my parents always sent me outside, giving me a gentle nudge out the door as if I were a bad and beloved dog. I resented it, of course. But what happened beyond the walls?

Under the branches of a willow tree, I lay on the grass and breathed the willows’ smell, like dusty lemons. Dusky air, chirring with cicadas and sweet with a breeze across peonies, warmed me like a blanket. Maybe time itself paused to rest under the willow, or maybe I mistook its motion for the sway of leafy branches, but I remember being surprised when the wild, orange, Midwestern sunset descended. Fireflies floated over the lawn. A star sank through the last purple stripes of the day, and a dog barked far, far away in a night so dense with the scent of the peonies that I might have been underwater. Sometime after, the porch light flashed on—my mother, come to fetch me. “Can I stay here?” I asked. She returned to the house and brought out a blanket. When she turned off the porch light, the night flooded back in, warm and sweet and endless.

How could I have forgotten this?

How could I have forgotten that the wild, damp world is an answer to stress? The expanse of the natural world, the infinity of the night sky, and the long reach of the winds dwarf human concerns. Here is where our minds can unclench, our hearts can break open, and we can step outside our narrowed lives into a world that is without limits in time or space or beauty. The universe itself breathes in and out—the trees inhaling, exhaling in the rhythm of day and night, and the Earth slowly rotating into and out of the light, the green leaves shining.

Stress, n. antonym gratitude.

Kathleen Dean Moore

Kathleen Dean Moore, author of Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature and Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, is a distinguished professor of philosophy at Oregon State University.