If you visit the beach at sunrise on any given day, you might find Cheyenne Luzader watching the sun poke its head above the waves. “I go at all times of the year, even in the middle of winter,” says the Lewes resident. “It’s my favorite time to meditate.”
When tourists are scarce, she takes a handheld drum to create a rhythmic mantra. Like the drum, the regular sound of the waves can lull her heartbeat and affect her breathing. “Our bodies get in tune to the rhythm of nature,” says Luzader, coordinator of Integrative Health-Complementary and Alternative Medicine at Beebe Medical Center.
Indeed, watching a sunrise or sunset, drifting along in a canoe or hiking in a state park is an effective stress-buster. Time seemingly stops as nature renews your spirit and instills a sense of well-being and wonder.
The link between nature and spirituality has a long history. Ancient European religions—now known as Paganism, from the Latin paganus, meaning “country dweller”—incorporated tributes to nature. Because rural people depended on nature for both livelihood and sustenance, nature’s cycles determined celebrations.
In February, poet and scholar Philip Newell—known for his work in Celtic spirituality—led a retreat, “One: the Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul” at Christ Church in Greenville that drew a capacity crowd. Newell is the former warden of Iona Abbey in the Western Isles of Scotland, “one of the places where the veil is thin between this world and the next,” says Steve Steinwedel of the Community for Integrative Learning, which organized the event. “So many traditions think God is just as much alive in the natural world as anywhere else.”
The Japanese religion Shinto involves the worship of spirits, known as kami, some of which represent natural objects, including Mount Fuji and the sun. Peace and happiness are possible, according to Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, if we can only quiet our thinking enough to come back to the present and notice the blue sky, the child’s smile and the beautiful sunrise.
For many, being out in nature inspires a sense of the divine. “I always felt closer to a god spirit on the beach in the early morning,” says Linda Hall of Wilmington. She recalls walking with her father, who would tell her, “Let’s see what the ocean brought in last night.”
“It felt like a holy place,” she says of the beach. “I was walking along quietly with the person I loved so much. It made a special connection.” Her first poem pondered whether her soul was as eternal as the sea. She remembers floating in the water, looking up at a blue sky, and saying, “Thank you.”
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When Hall in 1982, at age 39, learned she had breast cancer, she went to the family house in Avalon, New Jersey, walked down to the ocean and sobbed. She did the same thing on September 11, 2001. “It felt like I was crying on the breast of a mother,” she says. “It is like an outdoor cathedral.” She also found solace in nature when her husband passed away last July.
Terri Lottmann of Lewes became attuned to nature when she began a walking program. The awareness led to a walking meditation. “One of the myths of meditation is that we’re supposed to be in our heads,” says Lottmann, a massage practitioner. “Being mindful in meditation is being in the present. For me, being outside just enhances that experience.”
Lottmann, like Hall, often feels childlike when she encounters nature. The crackle of leaves underfoot and the smell of pine trees bring back memories. “When you’re driving, you just miss it,” she says.
Blaine Phillips Jr. witnessed that childlike wonder firsthand while walking with his 6-year-old son in the woods. They were headed to Phillips’ parents’ house, normally a 10-minute jaunt.
A deer path caught the child’s eye. “Let’s go this way, Daddy,” he said. Phillips asked if he’d traveled that way before. “He looked at me with those wonderful eyes and said, ‘A million times,’” Phillips recalls. “We spent more than two hours getting to Grandpa’s. We sat by a stream and looked at dinosaur bones.”
It didn’t matter that they weren’t really dinosaur bones or that it was the first time his son had actually taken the path. What mattered was how it sparked creativity. “It was a real lesson for me,” Phillips says. “Get children outside and let imagination take over.”
That is a rallying cry for Phillips, who is the mid-Atlantic director of the Conservation Fund, a national preservation organization. These days, nature is competing with television and computer games. Children don’t rush home from school to go out and play the way their parents did at that age.
With the fear that the youngest generation might be the first “indoor children,” the Conservation Fund is encouraging children to experience the great outdoors.
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“It’s an issue we’re just beginning to understand,” Phillips says. “It’s not just about nature. It’s about public health. And we’ve spent so much time and energy on conserving our resources. What happens when today’s kids, who’ve not been stomping around in wetlands, are caretakers for our public lands?”
The Delaware Nature Society offers programs for all ages to encourage an appreciation of nature. “We want them to enjoy outdoor activities and enjoy lifelong pursuits,” says Michael E. Riska, the executive director. To be sure, being outdoors often involves a hobby, be it birding, hiking, photography or gardening.
Lottmann works on an archeological dig in Rehoboth Beach. Riska gardens with native plants. Luzader loses herself in her herb garden, where she grows basil, rosemary, lemon balm, lavender and lemongrass.
You also can feed your soul while working up an appetite. At least that was the belief of John Harvey Kellogg, creator of Corn Flakes and operator of Battle Creek Sanitarium in the late 19th century. A Seventh-Day Adventist, Kellogg touted his religion’s principles, along with the theory that marches helped digestion. Good health and fitness were the result of a good diet, exercise, correct posture, fresh air and proper rest.
As the belief that fresh air could treat chronic diseases became popular, sanitariums for tuberculosis and other diseases sprung up in the mountains and on the coast. Today many acknowledge the benefits of taking it to the beach, the woods or the park.
“Take exercise outdoors, away from the blaring music and hustle and bustle of the gym,” says Matt Carter, co-owner of Quest Fitness and Quest Kayak in Lewes. “The air quality is better, and the scenery is better.” Carter recently set a goal to run from the Indian River Inlet to the Roosevelt Inlet—on the beach.
Hall, a yoga instructor, loves practicing outdoors, especially when she is teaching women with breast cancer and children. This summer, she will teach at Delaware Hospice’s Camp New Hope at Lums Pond, a program for children and adolescents ages 6-17 who’ve lost a loved one.
Riska says Delawareans are fortunate to have so many places where they can commune with nature. He points to the Delaware Nature Society’s own Coverdale Farm and Ashland Nature Center. “I love hiking in these places, looking for wildflowers,” he says.
Both Riska and Luzader have explored Trap Pond State Park, home to the northernmost stand of bald cypress trees. The mysterious-looking trees also inhabit Trussum Pond, which has a primitive atmosphere. “I go there when it’s really hot in the summertime,” Riska says. “Back by the cypress, it’s cooler.”
Whether it’s your garden, the shore or under a shady tree, just do it, advocates say. Go outside. But do it with awareness. “In the fast-paced world in which we live, it’s important to pull off the earphones and be mindful of our senses,” Lottmann says.
Hall agrees. “The smell of the fresh air—it’s very healing,” she says. “And right now it’s out there for everybody. In these economic times, it makes sense to take a walk rather than buy a new pocketbook.”