What is the spiritual effect of getting out in the great outdoors? Why is it even more important now than ever before to connect deeply with the natural world? How does it really make that big of a difference?
Chuck Graff always refers to it as God’s Outdoor Sanctuary. This, he is fond of saying, is anywhere where a group gets out in nature, away from their day-to-day lives, and soaks the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings of the natural world. In his time spent developing the First Church Outdoor Ministry, Chuck has led groups to Outdoor Sanctuary destinations as far away as the Canadian Wilderness and as close as Lake Mineral Wells State Park.
With Chuck’s retirement July 1, he passes this noteworthy Outdoor Ministries baton (or s’more stick, as it were) to the very capable leadership of avid outdoorsman Austin Patton, who also serves as our FUMCFW Director of AV Services.
“It’s amazing what an incredible effect just three days in the outdoors can have on people,” agrees Austin. “When we slow down, stop the busy work, and take in beautiful natural surroundings, not only do we feel restored, but our mental performance improves, too! Spending time in the outdoors helps declutter our brains and open our minds to the beauty of God’s creation.”
And Austin is not just making this up to get people to go camping on one of the upcoming Outdoor Ministry retreats. In an article, “The Nature Fix: The Three-Day Effect” author Florence Williams reveals the nature of this natural effect — and how neuroscience explains and supports this phenomenon.
Williams begins with Ken Sanders, who made a 40-year career of guiding rafting trips down the Green and Colorado rivers. “It always starts on the third day,” Sanders relates. What he’s describing is how the vibe of any group he was leading would make a noticeable shift around Day Three of a trip.
Sanders theorized that this very predictable reality shift occurred when the group’s current natural surroundings begin to replace whatever reality each person brought with them on the trip. This adjustment is furthered by the simple rituals of setting up camp, gathering firewood, preparing and sharing meals, and sitting around the fire to enjoy the evening together. “It’s a bonding experience,” he adds. “and your old reality fades away.”
When Sanders shared his observation with David Strayer, an avid backpacker who also happened to be a cognitive neuroscientist and researcher at the University of Utah, it immediately struck a chord. Strayer had already noticed that some of his best ideas always emerged after three days of camping out.
Drilling down on these observations of himself and others who said that they think differently after being out in nature, Strayer began testing what he called “the three-day effect.” In these studies, Strayer concluded that being out in nature gives our frontal cortex (the “executive taskmaster” of our brains) a much-needed break from the constant demands on our attention we all experience in the normal course of our days.
Recent studies show that every day we are inundated with the equivalent of 34 Gb (gigabytes) of information, a sufficient quantity to overload a laptop within a week. Strayer explains that with all this constant activity, sorting, processing, decision making, and prioritizing, the networks in the brain — especially the attention network — typically get pretty fried.
And while experts all agree that just getting out in nature is good for us, staying there long enough is paramount to this kind of mental rest and recovery. “That first day in nature, your mind is recalibrating, and you start to notice things a little bit, to unwind from the modern world,” says Strayer. “You notice cloud patterns, sounds, and smells, and it becomes really acute. You don’t need a watch anymore. You forget what day of the week it is.”
Strayer says that once the attention network gets freed up in this way, other parts of the brain, like those associated with sensory perception, empathy, and productive day-dreaming, appear to take over.
He further learned that when we’re immersed in nature, the theta waves that are active when we are performing demanding cognitive tasks quiet down. Unless, of course, you’re using your phone at the same time.
Strayer’s advice? Get out. Unplug. And give it a full three days. “Nature and the wilderness is my sanctuary,” Austin reflects. “It’s where I feel the most in touch with the universe around me. It clears my mind and feeds my soul.”
Ready to Experience the Three-Day Effect for Yourself?
There are still two more Outdoor Ministry Retreats scheduled for 2019 — Lake Mineral Wells State Park, October 18 – 20, and Beavers Bend in Oklahoma November 1 – 3. Here’s more:
Lake Mineral Wells State Park — October 18-20
Because of newly implemented regulations with the state parks system, EACH participant must make their own reservations with Lake Mineral Wells State Park. Just call the Reservations number at 512-389-8900 or make your reservation on your computer here.
Beth and Dan Cooper, who will be providing Lay Leadership to the Outdoor Ministry, advise making your reservation in the PLATEAU camping loop (the Coopers will be at site #60) to be closest to the group and for maximum fellowship.
“These parks fill up fast in the fall,” Austin says, “so be sure to make your reservations as soon as you can!” He adds that there are plenty of RV sites and screened shelters available, but these are first-come, first-served and this is a popular fall camping destination in Texas. (Click here to view a map of the park.)
After reserving your space and making payment directly to the Texas State Parks system, the only additional cost for this weekend of rejuvenation is $25 per adult and $12 for kids under 12 to cover all food for the entire weekend. “We eat well!” Austin exclaims, laughing. “No one ever goes hungry on our trips, and the grub is always amazing!”
Beaver’s Bend State Park — November 1 – 3
To immerse ourselves in the full, rich colors of fall, our FUMCFW Outdoor Ministry Retreat will be traveling Beavers Bend State Park in Oklahoma. Austin says that we already have our group reservation for a number of RV sites (in a new area) and cabins, and he urges anyone who is interested in this spectacularly colorful fall retreat to be sure to SAVE THE DATE and watch for more information, coming soon! And, if you’re ready to book this trip now, please go ahead and contact Austin (email@example.com | 817-907-4686) to reserve your spot now!
“Our trips are open to people of all ages and levels of outdoor enthusiasm,” he adds, ”so please come and join us for more wonderful Outdoor Ministry Retreats with our special friends from FUMCFW and beyond.”
“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” — John Muir