The Wilderness Effect

Ecopsychologist Rob Greenway used to guide people on wilderness treks and after years of research concluded that “civilization is only four days deep” (Greenway, 1995). When people go on long treks in the wilderness they start out enthusiastic: They’re feeling excited and looking forward to the coming adventure. But after a couple of days of hard walking, most begin to get uncomfortable. It’s not just aching muscles that are the problem; people start to miss the familiar civilized world that they’re habituated to. “There’s no fricking phone signal out here!” “When do we get to have shower?” “Damn, it’s quiet …”

But something profound happens after about 72 hours of being in the wilderness. Rob found that almost everyone experienced “an increased sense of aliveness” and “feelings of expansion or reconnection”. Rob calls this phenomena “the wilderness effect” and it’s one of the best established theories in ecopsychology.

I was hugely excited when I first read about the wilderness effect. It seemed to offer a powerful way to reconnect people with nature, and maybe transform our relationship to the world. My excitement was short lived however. The effect Rob had observed happened on extended trips into the American wilderness, so there’s no way to bring it to the millions who yearn for it.

But years later I had an experience that opened my eyes to another possibility. I was living on a road protest site and while it was far from being pristine wilderness, life there slowly deepened my connection to nature. Could it be that something like the wilderness effect happens when we spend a lot of quality time in urban nature?

A camp fire in the woods

Life in the woods

The short answer is yes; ecopsychologists generally agree that “simply spending meaningful time communing with nature” is beneficial (Shaw, 2006) and the full-on wilderness effect is a difference of degree rather than a difference in kind. I’ve written about this in detail elsewhere and I’ll be developing these thoughts in later posts, but for now I’ll close with a quote from Jim Hindle. Jim lived amongst the trees at the Newbury protest site and beautifully describes how his awareness was transformed by that experience:

“I became accustomed to the sound of the wind in the trees at all times. It wasn’t a thing I necessarily listened to, but the silence that fell whenever I stepped inside a building was eerie and disquietening. … It was like being connected to a great river, the source of all life … and years of separation between us and the Land were falling away like an old skin”
(Hindle, 2006).

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5 Responses to The Wilderness Effect

  1. hi, good to be reminded of the good old Wilderness Effect! I think the benefits nature give us can be noticed as soon as we step outside, although on a very subtle level. The effect on our physical/emotional/mental bodies becomes progressively more noticeable as time passes. I noticed I felt better after 5 mins of being outside on my lunch break recently, even though I couldn’t quite put my finger on what that ‘feeling better’ was. I felt less…irritable or ‘scratchy’, and I realised that I’d been experiencing a sense of feeling ‘cooped up’- a slightly claustrophobic feeling, which I only noticed when I stepped outside and it lifted. These things are so subtle, it’s hard to locate them in the body or put words to them!

  2. Adrian Harris says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences of nature connection. Yes, the positive effects are often quite subtle and I think many people fail to notice what’s going on for them. Modern life seems to have a numbing effect, but that’s another subject. Both mindlessness meditation and experiential Focusing help us to sense subtle feelings in our bodies. Both are also related to the wilderness effect. More on that connection later!

  3. Adrian Harris says:

    I’ve just come across an interesting article that relates to the wilderness effect. Cognitive neuroscientist David Strayer’s research shows that after three days in the wild hikers’ “thoughts are clearer, they’re certainly more relaxed, they report being more creative”:

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