Rural Minnesota has an asset it needs to do a better job of marketing as we try to keep current residents and attract new ones. It is an asset that we can use to draw workers and college students out of the metropolitan areas to small towns.
Nature. In our rural communities we are never far from it. Considering its benefits to our health and our communities, it is something we need to do a better job of capitalizing on if we want to grow.
Being in nature has a soothing effect on our mood, reducing stress and anxiety, improving our sense of well-being. Even sitting on a bench listening to the birds and the hum of insects eases worries that wear on our mental and physical health.
Studies have shown that walking in the woods is more relaxing than walking in an urban environment. It is better at lowering our heart rate and improving our mood. There is something about being in nature that has a beneficial effect on stress reduction, above and beyond what exercise alone might give us.
Walking surrounded by nature, we have more positive thoughts and brood less about what bothers us, which is good for our mental health. Researchers also found that time spent in nature improves our performance on memory tasks.
Being in touch with nature gives us a break from our obsessive connection to electronic devices that are burning us out and impeding creative thinking.
“We are seeing changes in the brain and changes in the body that suggest we are physically and mentally healthier when we are interacting with nature,” researcher David Strayer of the University of Utah told writer Jill Suttie in a 2016 interview. Our “depleted attention circuits, which can help us be more open to creativity and problem-solving” are restored when we are in a natural setting.
Leave your phone in the car or on silent when seeking the restoring effects of nature. Walking through nature and talking on your phone degrades its benefits.
Multiple studies have found that even when we view beautiful images of nature, we become more generous and helpful.
“Researchers concluded that experiencing the beauty of nature increases positive emotion—perhaps by inspiring awe, a feeling akin to wonder, with the sense of being part of something bigger than oneself,” Suttie writes. That feeling inspires generosity towards others. We are more helpful and behave more ethically.
Unsurprisingly, immersing ourselves in nature makes us feel more alive. “Being outdoors gives us energy, makes us happier, helps us to relieve the everyday stresses of our overscheduled lives, opens the door to creativity, and helps us to be kind to others,” she writes.
Nature’s healing and energizing benefits extend beyond the individual, Hannah Seo writes in a recent article for The Atlantic magazine.
Experiencing nature with others “create a pattern of connectedness, responsibility, and mutual need,” she quotes environmental researcher David Orr’s study from 30 years ago. Seo writes that in “a 2017 study across four European cities, having a greater sense of community trust was linked to more time spent in communal green spaces.”
When we provide those communal green spaces, we need to figure out how we draw people out of their homes and apartments to our natural settings where they can interact with others and feel more a part of our communities.
There are consequences beyond our physical and mental health to being disconnected from nature. “More than ever, we dwell in and among our own creations and are increasingly uncomfortable with the nature that lies beyond our direct control,” Orr wrote.
We hosted a journalism student from the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities a couple years ago. He grew up in the suburbs. Though he had recently graduated, he saw a live cow for the first time when he came out to western Minnesota.
How can you appreciate the fullness of nature when all you have ever experienced of it is limited to an urban environment? How can you appreciate what is being lost by the ripping up of native woods and grasslands when where you live is already stripped of much of what nature once offered?
With Cornell University’s Merlin application on our phone, we can identify birds as they sing and chirp. The bird’s name and picture pop up when their call is recognized. Sitting next to a wooded area in the country, we soon have more than a dozen birds on the list. In town, three to five show up.
Each summer, the University of Minnesota – Morris and other outstate colleges should conduct a program for a week or two that brings urban kids to rural counties. They could be immersed in a rural experience close to nature. They will gain a deeper appreciation for nature and community in the process.
Maybe some will return to go to college in a rural area; perhaps some of those students will settle down in a small town.
“It’s hard to overstate how much good nature does for our well-being: Study after study documents that…people who are more connected with nature are happier, feel more vital, and have more meaning in their lives.” Pelin Kesebir and Selin Kesebir wrote for The Greater Good magazine in 2017.
In rural areas, we are closer to nature. We don’t live with freeways, endless stretches of homes, or concrete canyons created by large buildings. When we leave town, we are in the country in minutes.
“People in modern industrial societies spend 90% of their time indoors in artificial, temperature-controlled environments,” Sam Rose writes for Rewilding Britain. “Their lives are devoid of natural cycles, birdsong, bubbling streams, and the freshest air.
“Communities that are disconnected from nature show higher levels of conflict, violence, crime, and racial tension,” he writes.
Enhancing and promoting our natural environment is economic development. What are we doing to improve it?