“I believe in science,” says the luchador in the film, Nacho Libre (which was filmed in Oaxaca). According to my logic, this made Oaxaca the perfect place to bring along Florence Williams’ “The Nature Fix” for a week of vacation reading. We stayed in the mountain town of Huayapam just outside the city, perfect for a Mexican getaway and a magical place to dive into a book on how nature changes our brains.
I give the book five stars, and if you ever needed a reason to convince friends, family or anyone to spend more time in the great outdoors, this is it. Williams takes you on a tour of several scientific studies happening throughout the world, and demonstrates, among other things, how our time in cities and away from greenery, trees, and big skies is literally killing us. If that sounds a tad dramatic, do two things: 1: read the book. and 2: spend time in nature and then see how much better you feel.
Williams concludes with some minimum guidelines for outdoor time measured in hours per week and days per month, but why stop there? For greater peace, happiness, contentment, sanity, and health of body and mind – the closer you can live to nature – every single day – the better. Heck, it’s recommended we get 20 minutes of light exercise per day, but elite athletes know the body’s abilities peak at a much greater volume and intensity of effort. Science proves it. It’s better for you to be outdoors, among trees and green spaces, to experience some awe, a little bit of danger, and to do these things often.
We agree. We left the city center of Oaxaca and found Horseback Mexico just a short 20 minutes away. We decided on a half-day tour, which was the perfect amount of ride time for me, as I hadn’t been on a horse in 20 years. The staff was knowledgable and offered a safe riding experience, great views, wonderful horses, and light snacks and fresh juices upon return. The views were great, and we rode with a nice group of mixed-level riders from all over the world. They offer full-day rides and even overnight trips for those who are ready to spend more time in the saddle.
For the big sky experience, views of the countryside, and a dose of Mexican history, Monte Alban was our next must-do. It was easy to find a tour operator in town, and we chose a half-day visit here as well. Once we got onsite, I had the brilliant idea to opt for the Spanish-speaking guide (as opposed to English) so I could practice my skills. Needless to say, I didn’t quite pick up on all the details, but it was amazing nonetheless! After the tour there was ample time to wander around on our own before catching the bus back to town. It was nice to pull away from the crowds for a while and catch the stunning views of both the inner courtyard and the surrounding countryside.
In the Nature Fix, Williams discusses a study which compares how looking at nature changes our brain, to the experience of looking at art. I mention this only in an attempt to tie in the next portion of our travels. A half-day trip to Teotitlan del Valle introduced us to the famous weavings of the Zapotecs. They have been weaving tapetes (rugs) here since 500 BC; the present-day loom was introduced by the Spanish in the 1500’s. We learned that many of the rug patterns have been passed down through families for generations, and symbolize mountains, rain, the sun and, more obviously, the tree of life. There’s a wide range of quality and craftsmanship in today’s markets, and we learned lots just by talking to shop-keepers at each of our stops. Of course, organized tours are available as well.
Still to do on our next Oaxacan adventure – hiking the mountains outside the city and visiting the thermal springs at Hierve el Agua. We will be back! Get out in nature, friends. It’s accessible, it’s inexpensive, it will do your body good. Wherever you go, whatever you do, seek awe. Seek newness, adventure, activity and a little bit of risk. I love reading books on health and science; all the self-help titles on how to scientifically arrive at happiness, contentment and mental health and wellbeing. I do believe in science.
But I believe in something more too. One thing that strikes me regarding the secular approach to contentment and joy is the seeming lack of attention and research to an alternative route – via meditation, spirituality, or however one would like to describe love. Williams does address this, in a particularly poetic chapter about the power of awe. She cites studies that compare the effects of meditation to the effects of spending time in the wild. Both produce extraordinary results. She personally prefers time in nature, referring to her own struggles to develop a consistent meditation practice. Of course, meditation is not easy. But what if we did both? What if we all believed in science and the spiritual? What if we meditated and spent time in nature? I realize choosing one topic sells books, but what if we didn’t make this an either/or? What if we did all we could do to maximize our potential with our time in this world?
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