Moose Revelations & the Magic of Yes Day

In an effort to help me become more easy and breezy, Fridays have been dubbed “Yes Day” by my therapist. I’m supposed to not hesitate when I’m faced with a decision on Fridays – just say yes. I mentioned this in a recent post, in which a therapy session combined with ketamine saw the creation of No Nap Day, which was slipped past my steel sieve mind on Friday under the guise of a Yes Day opportunity. Just kidding- I knew exactly what I was agreeing to.

I had good reason to say “yes” to No Nap Day. My Yes Day adventures have already resulted in positive experiences, so it only follows that I should keep it up. I’m not generally a spontaneous person. I rarely do anything on a whim, and sudden changes to my plans make me anxious. Sensory processing disorder makes me strongly prefer routine over spontaneity. I know that I like all of the sensory aspects of my familiar routine; anything new is overwhelming and could be very unpleasant.

Then again – it could be wonderful, and by saying “no” to new things, I run the risk of missing out on some great stuff. Take last month, for example. I go hiking with my mom every week. We usually pack lunch, make frequent stops to look at wildflowers, and generally have a wholesome nature experience. I usually enjoy these outings a great deal, but on this particular day, I was tired. The fresh air and pre-hike coffee did not perk me up, and I trudged up the mountain with heavy boots.

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We reached the first of two lakes about 2 miles up the trail, and as we rested on a flat boulder, we discussed our options for the rest of the day. My mom wanted to continue on to the second lake and the glacier, but I was reluctant. Heading back to the car and going home sounded pretty good to me, but it was Yes Day, after all. So, I said “yes” to continuing on. Stella led the way up the trail, and although I was still tired, we got into our usual pace before long.

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Stella was awed by snow in July, we humans were awed by the views and the beautiful waterfall, and I managed to be distracted from my fatigue enough to enjoy myself. We almost made it to the glacier, but our second wind was fading in earnest, so we took in the view and then headed back down the trail.

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Going downhill is easier than uphill in some ways and much harder in others. Upon reaching the parking lot, we hurried to the car and got the AC going. Stella had her head out the window as we turned onto the road, and we all enjoyed the bliss of sitting down.

Almost immediately, we came upon a car stopped in the middle of the lane. We waited for a few seconds, and then my mom said “Maybe there’s a moose!” I admit – I scoffed.

“They’re probably looking at Google Maps, trying to figure out if they’re going the right way.” I said. We chuckled a bit as we crawled forward, until the driver of the stopped car waved us around them. As we passed, I looked to the right and blurted “There IS a moose!”

“What?! Really? Should I…”

“Yes, back up!” I urged her. We rolled backwards until we could see it. An enormous moose (all moose are enormous, I suppose) was standing calmly by the road. He was munching on the thick vegetation around him, ears flicking lazily at the gnats.

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His antlers were velvety and magnificent. They’re such strange-looking adornments – one might even say goofy – and yet they’re so sturdy and solid. They make an effective reminder that moose are very, very, very strong animals. This one was content to carry on chewing, paying no mind to the gawking humans. I think that’s part of what makes them so interesting to watch; they’re completely unbothered by activity around them. They’re not as skittish as white-tailed deer, not as pugnacious as, say, a brown bear. They just sort of…stand around. Not to say that they won’t charge and cause you serious bodily harm, but this one’s general demeanor was one of complete and utter boredom. He was so unimpressed with us that it was almost like he was thinking “Yeah, yeah, snap some pictures. Now go home, kids. I have important vegetarian work to do, here.”

My mom and I rode that excitement all the way down the canyon. Along the way, it occurred to me that I had Yes Day to thank for it. After all, we would not have seen the moose if we had turned around when I first wanted to. Instead, I said “yes” to the rest of the hike, putting us in exactly the right place and time to witness that moose’s dangly neck thing (I now know it’s called a dewlap) waggle above the leaves. Moose are so silly, and yet so distinguished. Truly a creature of contradictions.

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Noticing “Good Enough” During Depression

I recently drove into the mountains with my mom for a relaxing day in the woods. A few years ago, forest fires left blackened, branchless trees standing on the mountainside. From the winding highway, we could see large swaths of charred landscape, but up close, new growth has begun to fill in the gaps. Long grasses and delicate wildflowers are recolonizing the ecosystem, and stands of young aspens have already claimed their soil.

I love the Rockies; it’s where I grew up, and it’s the first environment that nurtured my love of nature. I hope that no matter how depressed I get, I’ll always have an appreciation for the outdoors. On this particular outing, though, my enjoyment of my surroundings was dampened.

We found a set of campsites and picked a spot between them to use as our hammock/picnic place. The scent of warm pines and soil enveloped us while we ate our sandwiches among the bearberry carpet. I looked at an interesting circular lichen and listened to the insects buzzing nearby. Later, in my hammock, I watched a curious hummingbird zip around our site. I noticed all of these things and recognized their loveliness, but was disappointed by the absence of contentment. The person I am at my core, unhindered by depression, adores that exact place with those exact circumstances. But the person I am today – tired and depressed – couldn’t help but think “I wish I were at home, taking a nap in my bed.” I wanted to feel peaceful there, but I was missing that easy contentment that happens when you have nowhere you’d rather be. Realizing that non-depressed me would have enjoyed the day much more was disappointing, which threatened to overshadow what small enjoyment I did get from it.

It’s important for me to get out of my usual routine when I’m depressed, mostly because that routine doesn’t consist of much. When I take the very small risk of leaving my house to do something theoretically fun, it could turn out to be terrible. Mostly, it’s mildly nice, and as my therapist says, “If it doesn’t suck, then it’s worth noticing. It might just be good enough.”

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Observations From the Garden

I got up at 6 and walked through my routine because that’s what I always do, depressed or not. I fed the dog, made the coffee, poured a bowl of cereal, and then stared into it while the dog did her rounds in the yard. But by 8, I was beginning to wonder why I ever got up in the first place. So, back to bed with the window open and my blankets pulled up to my chin.

Lately, depression has overtaken my days with sleep and restless boredom. What time is it? Doesn’t matter; every day feels like a week. At night, the anxiety comes. I feel like I’m crawling out of my skin. Or like I want to reach inside my chest and pull out my lungs, let them spin out the twist in my trachea. Maybe then I could breathe.

To pass the time when the sun is up, I move between sleep and hobbies. Sitting outside in the backyard, my sketchpad page is still blank. Pen or pencil? I pick up the pen but am unable to draw more than a few dandelions from the scene I’m observing. A flock of house finches has found our backyard – it’s more dandelions than grass, and they’ve all gone to seed. The birds are foraging, bobbing their heads and moving among the unmown grass. One finch struts up to a tall dandelion, and, with an almost imperceptible flutter, attempts to perch on its vertical stem. The dandelion head begins to bow to the ground, and the finch rides the bending stem to meet the grass. Foot firmly planted to hold the flower down, the finch returns to bobbing and pecking.

There’s a sound behind me, and I turn to see a five-foot garter snake glide through the raspberry bushes, following a taste in the air. A busy robin chatters while it gathers last year’s grape leaves for nesting material. Stella digs a layer out of the hollow she’s claimed as hers, then situates herself in the cool dirt she’s uncovered. A hummingbird trill draws near, then it whizzes by on its frenetic journey. Everything around me moves, yet I feel like I’m in stasis. Animals and plants follow their daily rhythms, foraging, hunting, racing the sun to get enough calories, and I feel disrupted – out of sync.

I don’t know how to fix it. Usually, I keep up with my treatments — meds, therapy, ketamine — and simply wait for it to pass. I use what coping mechanisms I can—preferably the good ones, and let the turning of the Earth carry me from one day to the next. This time, I can’t help but feel the uncertainty of the time we’re living in. The disruption is not just to my mind, but to the world. When will this sense of weightlessness, of falling through empty space be soothed? When can we once again feel the ground beneath our feet, knowing by its predictability that it is moving us inexorably from today to tomorrow?

A Plains Poem

NOVEMBER SNOWtall, yellow grass with overgrown tire tracks and pink sunset

All summer, golden grasses swayed

Over prairie dog burrows in dry caked clay

Little sentries stood at attention

Through parched heat and months of baking sun.

 

rocky mountains under blue sky with clouds and snowy plains in front
Photos are my own

Now, November snow blankets the plains,

Flattens grasses and where it melts,

leaves golden cowlicks sticking up

at odd angles

Two Poems, One Year Apart

I. 2018

How long can I hold my breath

in this murky, underwater state?

 

Life moves in slow motion.

Here, strange fish glide past-

feathers mark them as birds

in a different world.

There, tall grass sways

in the current.

 

My lungs are screaming-

-breathe in

-breathe in

it’s only air.

 

II. 2019

Finally-

my head above water,

I begin to swim

towards shore.

 

I get fatigued-

my body’s heavy,

still waterlogged,

and yet-

 

Clear air

and sunshine-

kiss my face

each day.


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I was recently flipping through a journal and came across the first poem. I remember writing it. I was sitting on a bench outside, feeling utterly defeated by depression. I had gone for a walk on a trail I’d paced a hundred times, but felt foreign on the path and in my own body. Everything heavy, I sat on a bench and looked numbly at the world around me. All the parts of being outside that I love the most- the sun, the animals, the plants- seemed wrong. The sunlight was flat, the grasses moved unnaturally, and the birds seemed oblivious to my presence- as if I had already faded away.

These days, I still walk the same trail. Sometimes it feels like a chore, and sometimes it feels just right. I listen to the meadowlarks sing and the prairie dogs yip, and moving forward is easy. One foot in front of the other, I let the motion of my legs carry me without a thought. Other days, the weight of depression demands my attention. When that happens, and I’m overwhelmed by the sense that I shouldn’t be here- I shouldn’t be anywhere- all I can do is breathe, and wait for another good day.

Love,

Your brain

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Why I Love Hiking: a Sensory Photo Narrative

Mud squelches underneath my boots, and I reach out with my fingers to balance myself against a tree. I can feel the pack on my shoulders, hear birds chirping, and smell the sharp scent of pine needles.

I love hiking both because I love nature and because it fulfills nearly all of my sensory requirements. I can go at my own pace and under the power of my own body; only the weather and the wildlife are out of my control. When the world around you is overwhelming and hard to understand, it’s nice to put on a backpack with everything you’ll need for the day and let your legs carry you just as far as you want to go. Along the way, every element of a hike serves as a sensory “snack”. The vestibular input of balancing on rocks as I cross a stream. The feeling of my arms swinging at my sides as I get into a rhythm. The soft, spongy moss that I pause to touch with my fingertips.

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I don’t like the dried moss surrounding it, but I notice a smooth piece of quartz that draws my eye.

 

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Later, we stop for lunch and I study the rust-colored mud on my boots.

 

 

 

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My pack feels secure; it’s a comforting weight. We get up to investigate the surrounding plants, and I look back at our lunch spot. It’s breathtaking in the sunlight.

 

 

 

 

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I hear my dog lapping up some water from her bowl, and I take a moment to appreciate her presence.

 

 

 

 

 

We find some prickly pears and admire their toughness. Centers chewed through, their spiny armor breached, they continue to survive. We don’t touch them; we just look at the color and shape of them.

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Across the path, a Ponderosa pine stands tall and broad. This one isn’t in the sun, but I gently scratch the bark and lean in to smell it. Warm Ponderosa pine bark smells like vanilla, and it’s one of my favorite parts of hiking. This one offers a very faint fragrance. It smells like vanilla and fresh cookies and hiking and happiness.

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After lunch, we decide that it’s time to head back. Back through the forest, back through the mud, back through the tall grass at the base of the mountain. When we get home, I settle on the lawn with my dog, our muscles tired but happy, and our senses satisfied. Time for a well-deserved nap.

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Science Saturday: How Does Nature Affect Mental Health?

I’m hoping to make this the first post in a series called “Science Saturdays” (now taking suggestions for a more creative name) where I dive into the research at the intersection of mental health and (fill in the blank). I dipped my toes into these waters with previous posts like “Pets and Mental Health“, “Can You ‘Grow Out Of’ Childhood OCD?“, and “What’s the Deal with MTHFR and Psychiatric Conditions?” My intention is to take an objective look at recent research, let it percolate through my noggin while I sift through the dozens of tabs I’ve amassed in Google Scholar, then report back with what I think are some important takeaways.


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Here in the northern hemisphere, we’re perched on the cusp of spring, and boy, am I ready to get outside. I live in Colorado, and hiking is one of, if not the most, enjoyable ways I spend my time in the warmer months. I’ve been gazing longingly at the mountains, perusing dog backpacks (that’s backpacks for dogs to wear) on Amazon, and figuratively dusting off my trail map app in anticipation. It could just be that I’m particularly drawn to being outside because of my personality and upbringing, but I’ve recently come across some buzz surrounding the positive effects that nature has on our emotional and physical health. So, I figured, what better way to become even more entrenched in spring fever than to spend a few hours reading about the outdoors?

So Many Studies

Nearly every article I’ve read so far has referenced a study published in 1984 by RS Ulrich. The study looked at a group of 46 hospital patients, all of whom had their gallbladders removed and were monitored postoperatively. 23 patients stayed in rooms with views of trees, while the other 23 had views of a brick wall. The now classic study found that the patients who had views of trees recovered faster and required less pain medication than the other group of patients.

From what I can tell, the Ulrich study seems to have sparked an interest in, and an understanding of, how nature might benefit us. Countless subsequent studies have been conducted that suggest that exposure to nature reduces blood pressure and increases positive affect, promotes healthy composition of microbiota involved in immune functioning, and lowers mortality from circulatory disease. In terms of emotional health, nature is associated with reduced stress and decreased activation in an area of the prefrontal cortex associated with rumination and mental illness. Higher vegetation cover is associated with a lower prevalence of depression and anxiety. Even potted plants have been found to increase the quality of life for employees in office settings.

What’s in a Dose of Nature?

Nature has the power to make us feel better, but what is it about being outside that has this effect?

Species Richness and Biodiversity

“Nature is not biodiversity, nor a proxy for biodiversity, but certainly encompasses biodiversity.”

Sandifer et al., 2015

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Increasingly, researchers are investigating the relationship between biodiversity in green spaces and psychological benefits. Several studies have found significant associations between higher plant and bird diversity and positive mental effects. A 2007 study by Fuller et al. found a positive correlation between plant species richness and participants’ sense of identity and ability to reflect. The 312 participants were fairly accurate at assessing plant species richness, which muddies causality. The question then becomes: are the benefits derived from species richness or perceived species richness?

Here’s another study to elaborate on that distinction. Researchers here found that psychological benefits of nature exposure were correlated not with biodiversity, but with participants’ perception of biodiversity only. In this study, participants were apparently not at all good at estimating species richness, and it affected their experience of being outside, regardless of how many species were actually present.

Frequency and Duration

So it seems that the more varied and species-rich the environment, the better. But is glancing out a window now and then the same as going for a walk outside, psychologically? I’d say no, but that doesn’t mean that short exposures to nature don’t benefit us. After all, just a 40-second break to look at a green, plant-filled roof has been shown to improve attention and performance on cognitive tasks, as compared to a break of the same length with views of concrete roofs.

In a sample of over 1500 Australian respondents, longer duration of nature excursions is associated with decreased prevalence of depression and high blood pressure. More frequent visits to public green spaces are associated with a greater sense of social cohesion, which I imagine contributes positively to mental health in general.

Criticisms

Few studies on this topic take an epidemiological approach, leading some to point out that we have very little data on long-term, population-level health effects of nature exposure. Criticisms of some studies also include sample size, lack of adequate controls, and statistical rigor. However, the number of studies that demonstrate a correlation between nature exposure and psychological benefit vastly outweigh the number of studies that show no relationship. While this does not negate the weaknesses mentioned previously, it does seem to suggest that there is validity to the idea that nature is emotionally beneficial.

The Daffodils are Blooming

All the signs that winter is ending are here; the daffodils are blooming, more birds are singing, the neighbors are cleaning out their garage, and before spring really gets underway, Colorado is scheduled to get one or two more last-minute dumps of snow.

Speaking of, now that I’ve gotten myself extra excited to get outside and let my brain soak in the wonderful sights, sounds, and smells of spring, it’s time to prepare myself for tonight’s snowstorm.

Dear Spring, please hurry.

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The Owls and Me: A Poem on the Nature of Depression

colored-pencil-drawing-of-three-great-horned-owlsDid I dream there were three?

Staring at me with six amber eyes
from the fork in the ash tree.
Their shapes like pressed flowers
in the soft light of dawn,
when one is not sure if the slant of sun
means a new day,
or is remembered from some earlier rising-
the aftertaste of memory,
beckoning.

 

At first, there were two; we’d see them glide past our house and disappear into the top of a cottonwood tree down the block. They’d be out at dusk, rousing themselves after a hot day perched up high. Great horned owls are fascinating to watch. For an animal that’s so still most of the time, it’s amazing that I never get bored of observing them. One summer, the two regulars were suddenly four. Two fluffy, baby owls joined the mated pair on their nighttime excursions, hopping and screeching when mom and dad left them for too long. I could sit and watch them for hours, and all told, I’m sure I did.

They haven’t been around recently, and I miss seeing their stately forms keeping watch over the neighborhood. I’m not sure why I love owls so much. What I do know, however, is that those four owls were a source of happiness for me when things were hard. I’d sit on my bed and watch them sleep in the tree outside my window. I was going to sit on my bed and do nothing anyway, so I may as well spend that time watching the owls. Maybe there was a subtle sense of solidarity; the owls in their daily state of rest and me in my extended, bleary hibernation.

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Of course, their tendency to sit very still also makes them excellent subjects for drawing.

Nature has always been a source of healing for me, so when being outside was too much to ask of myself, watching it through the window was the next best thing. Then, I’d put down what I saw on paper so that even in their absence, the owls were still here.