Last month I substituted for a class of fourth- through eighth-grade students. Ten minutes before the scheduled morning recess, I ran out of things for them to do. Since down time equals chaos when teaching, I asked them to take out a piece of paper and a pencil, and pulled down a map of the United States.
“I want you to make a list of at least five places you would like to visit in the United States,” I instructed them. “When you are done, go back and write an explanation of why you chose each place.”
There were a few protests, and a couple “Does it HAVE to be five?”, just so our roles of teacher and students were firmly established, but soon heads were bent over their papers in concentration.
After several minutes, when pencils had slowed, I asked them to share their answers one-by-one.
I didn’t know what to expect, which is why I asked. We live in a small isolated town in the high desert. When people from here venture anywhere it is usually to shop in one of the big cities four hours in either direction–Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Bakersfield, or Reno. What did these students know about the rest of the United States? Where did they go and what did they want to see?
As usual, the kids surprised me.
A few selected big cities to visit, but not the ones they were most familiar with. They wanted to go to New York City to see the Statue of Liberty or to Washington, D.C. to stand before Lincoln’s Memorial. A few were interested in visiting some of the big states: Florida to pick an orange right off the tree, Montana to hunt and fish, Texas.
But the places the kids wanted to visit the most were the same places conservationists had the insight to preserve with these very children in mind.
“I want to go to the Four Corners area,” said a pretty eighth-grade girl. “I hear there is lots of cool stuff to see there.”
“I’ve been there,” shouted a boy in the back row. “It’s awesome.”
“I want to visit the glaciers in Alaska and Mount McKinley,” said another student.
“I want to see the Badlands,” said a sixth-grader. “Isn’t that in South Dakota? I hear it is pretty cool.”
But the common denominator in each student’s list was the Grand Canyon–that vast deep canyon that seems to cut right through the middle of the earth and has inspired awe in thousands of visitors and travelers throughout the ages.
Time ran out, and several students impatiently informed me that we were 30 seconds late for recess. As the students filed out, I wished I could of held their attention a little longer and told them about Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service who made the Grand Canyon a protected space in 1919 despite great resistance. In fact, I wished I could of shown them the whole documentary made by Ken Burns entitled The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. I knew that a six-disc series on the National Parks is a hard sell for these kids, but Burns created a deeply moving and inspiring documentary that should not be missed.
In one memorable scene, nature writer Terry Tempest Williams described visiting Grand Teton National Park with her brother for the last time before he succumbed to cancer. She said that as they stood watching the sun set over the mountains, her brother said, “Mark this moment.” With deep emotion Williams continued, “The National Parks allow us to go home and not only face our lives, but our deaths. This is the power of these remembered landscapes.”
Research studies are now beginning to detect just how powerfully these great landscapes affect us. Neuroscientists have found through brain mapping that an “awe response” in subjects triggers a release of oxytocin, a hormone that reduces stress and promotes a sense of oneness with others. On some level, we seem to seek this awe response innately, which explains why 275 million people visit National Parks each year. Nothing gives you a sense of perspective quite like looking up at a towering 360-foot Redwood tree that has been growing for approximately 1200 years or staring down into the Grand Canyon that has been formed by the simple repetition of water eroding rock over millions and millions of years. Paul Fleischman writes in the Afterword of his middle reader novel Seedfolks, “Hours after the 9/11 attacks in New York, scores of people were standing in wait at the gates of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. The City Public Gardens waived admission fees and were thronged with those seeking solace and serenity.”
John Muir, who dedicated his life to preserving Yosemite Valley and the surrounding Sierra Nevada Mountains, wrote, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to plan in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”
(Steve Place looking at Mt. Gabb located in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Photo taken by Scott Weaver. For more awesome photos, check out Scott’s blog at www.eastsidescott.blogspot.com)
Scientists have also found that besides the awe-inspired oxytocin release, we are positively affected by exposure to negative ions, which are most abundant in natural settings. The air around us is filled with positively and negatively charged ions. When there is an imbalance of positive ions due to pollution, or electronic or chemical toxins, free radicals are released into the environment, which wreak havoc on our physical, mental, and emotional well being. Negative ions, on the other hand, help boost our immune system, lift our mood, sharpen concentration, and increase productivity.
Not surprisingly, negative ions are most abundant in the places were people go to feel good. The mountains, the forests, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Ever stepped outside after a rain shower and suddenly been overwhelmed with a sense of ease and renewal? According to research, this is because the dispersion of water is the most powerful creator of negative ions–the beach where the waves crash and roll or a running river. Waterfalls are the most effective negative ion releasers. Scientists have measured the normal ion count at Yosemite Falls, a drop of 2,425 feet, at 100,000 negative ions per cubic centimeter compared to 100 negative ions per cc recorded on the Los Angeles freeway during rush hour.
(Photo of Yosemite taken by Steve Place.)
As poet Mary Oliver writes in her poem “Mornings at Blackwater”: “So come to the pond,/ or the river of your imagination,/ or the harbor of your longing,/ and put your lips to the world.”
After I excused the students for recess, one boy lingered. He showed me his paper and asked, “Is it okay if I also put ‘here?’ There is a lot of cool stuff to visit around here.”
And there is. Yosemite National Park lies just to the north and the Sierra Nevada Mountains that are accessible by the John Muir hiking trail rub up against us to the west. To the east, the White Mountains protect the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, trees that have been growing for 4500 years, a thousand years longer than any other trees in the world. This week, my family will spend our Spring Break at Death Valley just south of here, a place of awesome extremes where we will hike mysterious sand dunes that have blown into the valley one grain of sand at a time.
(Eureka Sand Dunes located at the northern tip of Death Valley National Park. Photo taken by Steve Place.)
“Yes,” I tell him. “You can definitely put ‘here.’” Wherever you find your awe. Whichever place makes you feel the best.
As John Muir wrote: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”