Wild Places Provide Welcome Respite

  • In times of crisis and sadness, many people find solace in America's wild places (above: Lake Superior coastline). Photo courtesy of Dave Hansen.

It’s been three months since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. Many people find they’re still trying to come to terms with their feelings about the attacks. Some people, though, have found solace in a walk through nature. For them, wild places have become a respite from the chaos of emotions. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


It’s been three months since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington D.C. Many people find they’re still trying to come to terms with their feelings about the attacks. For some though, they’ve found solace in a walk through nature. For them wild places have become a respite from the chaos of emotions. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports.

The September 11th attacks left many people bewildered. How could it happen? Why did so many people have to die? People question their own safety. They worry about the safety of their family and their friends, the disturbing images of the planes crashing, the buildings collapsing, and the threats of bio-terrorism since then. They’re all hard to comprehend. The terrorism has been such a shock, that some people found they need space to think, to try to wrap their heads around what had happened.

Often that space, it turns out, is green. In New York, almost immediately after the attacks, many people found themselves drawn to the Gateway National Recreation Area not far from Manhattan where the twin towers of the World Trade Center had stood. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton says people went there, searching for a break from the intensity of the events.

“After the attacks, the number of people flocking to Gateway skyrocketed. Park employees say visitors told them that they wanted a place to get away from the television, to be alone, and even to cry.”

People around the nation did much the same thing. Many other parks have been reporting higher numbers of visitors. Park staff say people tell them they feel drawn to the peaceful settings; Many of them heading into nature just to escape the scenes repeated over and over again on television.

Richard Nelson is a writer in Alaska. He says he’s not surprised people are returning to parks and places outdoors. In the days following September 11th, he wrote an article for Orion-on-line-dot-org about his own need to go to nature. In it, he wrote the only way he had found release from “the almost unbearable weight of grief and fear is to take myself out into the wild places, where I can find the embrace of peace, where I can see that the world goes on as always.” Nelson says when the human world looks ugly, nature has a way of reminding people that there’s still beauty.

“I can’t do away with that grief I feel about the enormous losses of September 11th. I can’t eliminate that from myself. But, I can balance it against this great bright sanity of the earth itself. This is why I think we need these wild places, why they are so vital for us is because it’s where we find balance.”

For some people the balance means finding deeper meaning in nature, reveling in the survival of an old tree that’s been around longer than the memories of past horrors, but still stands unbowed, or discovering a tiny flower that’s bloomed despite a hard freeze and winter’s onslaught.

Of course, finding that respite in nature is not unique to the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Long before the attacks, writer Wendell Berry wrote a poem entitled “The Peace of Wild Things.” In it he expresses that comfort that many people recently have found again.

“When despair in the world grows for me
And I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
In fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
Rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
Who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
Waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and I am free.”

To a psychologist, finding this freedom in places that seem constant and reliable is a perfectly natural reaction. Shannon Lynch is a clinical psychologist at Western Illinois University. She says while some people might be drawn to other people for comfort and understanding…others will be drawn to green spaces for reassurance.

“When you choose to go and be outside or you choose to go somewhere so you can feel ‘real,’ I’d say you’re coping. You’re reminding yourself that even in this time, there are places that you can feel safe, that you can feel connected, that you can be in green space to feel at peace. We might go out and be in green space to remind ourselves that we’re good adventurers and we get through tough times, that we’re survivors. There are lots of reasons. This idea that you’re real, that your surroundings are real and that they’re predictable. That you’re going to go on a hike and you can know what’s going to happen there.”

It can give people the right atmosphere and the time to help them deal with the feelings and the emotions that might have disturbed them since the attacks.

For writer Richard Nelson, the constant rhythm of nature helps remind him that not everything in life has been marred by mankind’s violence.

“Wild places are where I find my peace and solace and relief from the sort of pressures and the darkness of the news. It seems to me whenever I go to someplace wild I’m able to absorb myself in positive and beautiful things. When I go out to the meadows or to the seacoast or to the meadows somewhere. I. I don’t know, it just…everything else seems to fade into some kind of irrelevance. And, I feel as if my damaged soul gets healed when I’m out there.”

Nelson stresses that he’s not saying a walk in the park will solve the world’s problems or your own feelings about them. But, he says, the nature found there might just be enough of a reminder that life endures, for many people to find a way to rekindle their hope for mankind. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Lester Graham.