Morgan Hite in 1989 wrote “Briefing For Re-Entry Into A More Harsh Environment” where he explained the skills and lessons that are taken away from a wilderness expedition; but how does the wilderness teach us these lessons?
The wilderness creates opportunities for you to evaluate your life and your experiences without distraction so that you can gain insight and often times rejuvenation. As you ponder your life in the wilderness you are given the opportunity to take advantage of every tool available whether that includes success getting to the top of a mountain, peace canoeing a river, conversation with others, a field therapist, a field guide, reading, journaling, or meditation. There is such a wide variety of tools that research shows us that are effective in helping us maintain wellness and attempt to create balance and satisfaction in our lives. However, research is still trying to quantify the effects wilderness has on us because the wilderness at it’s base is an environment of therapeutic and healing value that at times can be hard to describe. Here is my attempt.
Time Away From Man Made Stressors– In our lives we are confronted by television, radio, gossip at school or the workplace, and multitudes of other noisy, flashy things that are trying to get our attention daily when we live in an area with technology and a dense population. By taking time in the wilderness you are able to get away from these man made distractions and get back to the basics; understanding how to live simply. In the wilderness there is no news anchor telling you about the chaos of the world, there is no one gossiping, and there is definitely no easy access to cell service. All of this adds up to the ability to focus on yourself, others, and being with the wonder that is nature.
The Ability To Learn Through Metaphor- Metaphor; the expression of something by comparing it to something else. This is one of the greatest abilities of the wilderness. By exploring the wilderness we can take lessons from the nature around us to better understand our environment so that we can survive, and appreciate the beauty in the simple things. We can learn from canoeing down a river, backpacking a mountain trail system, and rock climbing. Through each of these experiences we gain something new.
People enjoy the experience of canoeing a river because of the variety that it provides. At one point you may be calmly paddling relaxing and the next you may be reacting to an upcoming rapid in an attempt to not be caught on the rocks. Lessons of preparation, self-awareness, having a growth mindset or open mind, and perseverance over roadblocks. While backpacking a mountain carrying all that you need to survive on your back and each day traveling to a new campsite over ten days you may learn organization, living simply with little items, appreciation for a well cooked meal, appreciation for stable shelter, and understanding the benefits of self-care. As you are climbing up a route of rock while being belayed starting to recognize the importance of how our reactions impact our perception, trust in our support systems, need for effective communication, and celebration of our successes whether put a foot on the wall or getting to the top.
A Test of Our Abilities and Character- Whether you are sitting by a stream, looking from a mountain overlook, or staring at the stars there is a sense of beauty, awe, and smallness. You are given a sense of what it means to not be the center of attention. The wilderness known as the great equalizer levels the playing field so that whether you are new or experienced the weather, trails, attitudes, and the condition of your gear create adversity that you must overcome using coping strategies that you have either already learned or are in need of practicing. These strategies can include Morgan Hite’s lessons of organization, thoroughness, preparedness, self-care, going beyond your comfort zone, perseverance, life long learning, and living simply. However, when you are living in a group in the wilderness for twenty-two days such as during a Blackwater Outdoor Experiences therapeutic wilderness expedition you are challenged in your skills of communication, anger management, decision making, teamwork, leadership, and goal setting. Throughout any wilderness experience you are challenged to discover your motivations, values, needs, wants, learning style, defense mechanisms, and triggers as you go about solving the problems that occur to anyone entering the wilderness: backpack straps breaking, injuries, exhaustion, wet clothing or gear, etc.
Natural Consequences: While you are in the wilderness you try and make sure that you are taking care of yourself and others to the best of your ability. However, there are those times that laziness, difficulty learning a skill, or something else comes up that makes you slip up. This leads to some pretty unfortunate situations since nature is not as forgiving as some other environments might be. These situations might include setting up your tarp a slope which results in you waking up in the middle of the night in a stream of water during a thunderstorm that causes your gear to become soaked and the rest of your night to be uncomfortable. Or deciding that you need to keep your socks on while you are sleeping instead of letting your feet air causing your feet to develop blisters that are painful making your journey much more difficult. It is during times like this that you are faced with the reality of choice. Do you become frustrated and focus on your discomfort? or do you try and problem solve and plan for the future?
So in the end the wilderness’ therapeutic and healing value comes from the limited distractions, ability to learn from your experiences through natural consequences and metaphor, and testing our abilities and character through the challenges of experiencing the wilderness. Yet there is still more to be discovered. Behaviorally we can take away these things but what is happening under the surface? What is going on in our brain while we are in the wilderness? How does our body respond to being in the wilderness instead of in a city? These are the areas of research and understanding that are still being explored. More information to come.