We’re All Lost Without the Earth Under Our Feet
It’s still within memory
Until my dad was a teenager, no one had managed to leave the earth behind. There had been thousands of years of human innovation, of dreamers looking up to the stars and wondering what was out there. But it wasn’t until after the Beatles formed that Yuri Gagarin managed to do it.
They knew it was wildly dangerous. A study of US astronauts found that to date, nineteen percent of them have died on the job. For Gagarin, the odds were much worse.
What they couldn’t know until long after Gagarin’s brief flight was the strange effects being so far from Earth has on the human body. Cancers bloom long after the mission is over, thanks to unshielded radiation. Isolation and confinement create a host of psychological disorders. And distance from the earth, from everything we need, makes survival an extraordinary challenge.
We need the earth under our feet. We need to breathe the wet air unfiltered, to face the mud and monsters. And as we isolate ourselves more and more from nature, as we shield ourselves in air-conditioned bubbles, our lives become longer and more comfortable and less worth living by the day.
Only two other vehicles in the gravel parking lot at the head of the trail. Both pickup trucks. The vehicle of choice for the outdoors type, which means everyone around here. But not today. Today, the air under the trees smells like rain. The sky is mottled, blue and white and gray and black, the clouds leaping over one another like dolphins riding the wake of a ship.
Alone. The forest to myself.
Or near enough.
At first, the trail winds through man-high bushes, the white petals strewn like snow across the path. Already, strawberries are bursting from the center of those flowers. Bright red clumps hang from frail stalks, nodding faintly in the warm air.
And I left my bear spray at home. A thrill of fear like rainwater down the back. But those who love solitude must brave bears and rain.
Further into the forest, the strawberries vanish. Under the permanent twilight of the tall trees, beds of thick ferns grow like they did on the other side of the galaxy where the dinosaurs lived. A bright and luminescent green erupting from the wet rot of fallen trees and the mud sculpted by footprints.
Up here, only the birds and the silver sheets of passing rain make any sound. Feet fall silent as a cat’s paws on the glistening trail.
The trees are disappearing
Not just from the forest, hauled down the mountain piled up like matchsticks on the back of groaning trucks that clearly feel bad about it. But from our imaginations too. A study conducted in 2012 found that representations of plants and animals in children’s books have declined significantly in the last seventy years. In 1950, thirty percent of the world lived in cities. Now, it’s more than fifty percent. Ten years from now, it’s projected to be two thirds.
The imagination requires something to feed on. Life creates more life. It’s no wonder why poets and artists turn again and again to nature, whatever scraps of it they can find. The human mind needs the natural world just as much as the body does.
But we like our right angles and our paved roads. We like our heating and air conditioning. We like sugary drinks and streaming TV and a dry place to sleep.
After all, we conquered nature for a reason. We just didn’t realize how badly we would miss the monsters.
“Hey, just a heads up.”
He appeared from behind a clump of wet ferns. Descending a hill that lifts the trees above the narrow gorge beyond them, the river heard before it’s seen as it rushes to the valley. A dog trotted in front of him, a blue bandage around one leg. I ran my hands through its damp yellow fur.
“I saw a cougar here last week.”
“Oh really?” I said. “Up here?”
“Crossing the road on the way in.” The man’s face was scored with deep lines cut by the edge of the wind. His eyes shared the gray color of the bristles on his chin, the same gray of the sky slowly closing in around us. His dog snuffled at something in the undergrowth at the side of the trail. Up above, a squirrel whistled its displeasure at us.
“Just a young one. But still.”
“Yeah. I’ll keep my eyes open.”
On feet as quiet as rubber tires, I started to climb the hill he had just descended.
“You know what you do if you see a cougar? Pick up two rocks and bang them together. They don’t like that.”
“Good to know.”
The low sky shed more light as I moved through the trees. At the same time, the rain picked up again. Every leaf of the forest became an umbrella, making that gorgeous sound rain makes on a thousand soft and growing things.
“Or get a dog,” the man called after me.
Antaeus was invincible
The son of the earth and the sea, Gaea and Poseidon, he challenged everyone he met to a wrestling match. He couldn’t be beaten. As long as he maintained contact with his mother, the earth, he had limitless strength. He built a temple from the skulls of his defeated enemies, terrorizing the sunbleached deserts of Libya.
Until he fought Hercules. Hercules, a son of the sky where the astronauts circle, ripped Antaeus away from the earth. Robbed of his strength, Antaeus lost the fight and his life.
We are not rooted to the ground the way the trees are. We can move across the surface of the world like heroes and demigods, setting ourselves to various labors. But prolonged isolation from the earth is as deadly for us as it was for Antaeus. As deadly as it is for the astronauts that court death every time they leap beyond the atmosphere.
The good news is you don’t need to move to a shack in the dripping woods to maintain contact with Mother Earth. City planners know that a lack of green space leads to a greatly increased risk of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Lack of green space also predicts poor cardiovascular health, increased violence, and heightened mortality rates. You need nature, if only a glimpse. If only a city park sandwiched between towering apartment buildings.
Get it where you can. Get out in the world, even if it’s just a regular stroll around a patch of grass.
Without it, we are lost.
The trail runs in a loop through the forest
At its highest point, it suddenly turns and plunges back into the trees. By now, the rain was falling steadily, making the ferns nod and dance as though something huge was moving through them. But the birds still chattered overhead, each tucked under some friendly branch.
The smell of the forest rose with the rain, the wet scent of moss and rain and mushrooms and life. The trail led downhill, and I followed it, past rotting stumps and fallen logs and spreading puddles steadily filling with rain.
I reached the strawberry bushes again. A tiny brown river had formed down the middle of the trail, rushing downhill toward the parking lot. The rain beat the white petals off the bushes, racing them to the ground. Spring, still new enough to be fragile, still delicate enough to be beautiful.
The parking lot was even more empty than when I arrived. The rain had chased everyone away. And a thousand mirrored needles of rain reflected the headlights of my car as they melted into the glistening road. Time to leave the dripping bushes to the bears and the cougars and the birds that won’t stop singing. Time to go back to my sugary drinks and streaming TV.
But the rain in the forest is not so easily forgotten. And that’s the sound that will keep me alive until the next time I go.
© Ryan Frawley 2021.
All proceeds from this article will be donated to Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontiers.