Escaping from the city

In 1901 John Muir wrote:

Thousands of tired, nerve shaken, overcivilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and invigorating rivers, but as fountains of life.

From that time to this there has been a widely held belief that cities are somehow bad for us, and that in order for a complete feeling of well-being we must be able to escape, to connect with nature, to ‘get in touch with the nerve of Mother Earth’, as John Muir phrased it. What evidence is there that this is so? Those who study the subject find it hard to detect much difference between the physical and mental health of urban or rural dwellers. However, people suffering some stress do seem to become more relaxed and to feel more positive about themselves and their lives when they have seen or visited natural areas. Indeed, it has been suggested that we become too stimulated by the almost constant need to concentrate on our activities when living in cities, so that the sight of nature provides stimulation where no effort is required. Even the colour of trees, water and sky, their greens and blues, can have a calming effect.

The thesis that the physical crowding of cities is bad for us seems to lack evidence, but the trappings of cities—noise, life regulated by the time clock and transport timetables, as well as the many ugly landscapes of industry and decay—all seem to make us tense, fatigued and depressed or sad. The knowledge that we can escape appears to have some benefit, and there are obvious benefits in being able to visit a more natural area, close to home, whenever we want.

However, to many people wild landscapes—especially forested ones—can have frightening aspects. Women especially are afraid of being attacked. This may be the result of exaggerated assessments of risk; or it may go deeper, to feelings arising from long-established cultural associations with forests expressed in legends and stories such as Little Red Riding Hood. Perhaps we have had some of our natural instincts for survival bred or tamed out of us, and like pet rabbits let loose, we are unable to cope with freedom.