Observe Thomas Jefferson’s Legacy by Spending Some Time in Nature

The front of a $2 bill showing Thomas Jefferson's portrait.
Since Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, today is an apt occasion to consider his legacy and follow his example.

White boards, cell phones, tablets, and computers are not the only things that assist and enable creativity. So does taking a break, particularly one outdoors!

Activity where we do something without needing to think about it very much actually shifts us into a different state of consciousness. Now there’s a term for this state of mind: “transient hypofrontality.” Long before this term was invented, however, the greatest minds of society had already figured it out.

When Thomas Jefferson wasn’t running the country or visiting France, he was usually working in his yard. When Beethoven wasn’t writing music or playing the piano, he often took walks in nature. When Emily Dickinson wasn’t baking or writing poems, she was often working in the garden or tending potted plants in the greenhouse. When Monet wasn’t painting . . . you get the idea. Gandhi always said he learned far more important things by taking walks outdoors than he ever did working in the courts and studying law!

Small white anemones blooming near a tree with sunbeams shining down on the scene.According to classicist and philosopher Leo Strauss, science is fundamentally the contemplation of nature, and technology has always been on some level an attempt to imitate it.

As if we ever could. Consider the proposal made by William McDonough: “Imagine this design assignment: Design something that makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, distills water, makes complex sugars and foods, changes colors with the seasons, and self-replicates. And then why don’t we knock that down, [process it into pulp, dry the result] and write on it?”

What could you come up with in response to this request if you didn’t have a model already? Assuming you could clear your mind of the example that description so vividly conjures?

That amazing design is so familiar we often take it for granted, and eliminate millions of individuals in the name of development. The form progress so often takes: more parking lots, more parking garages, more pavement, more concrete. More need for cars and shoes and not nature walks and bare feet. For most Americans, our gardens and yards have become the only place we have regular contact with a natural environment. For millions of people who live in city townhouses or apartments, their primary contact with a natural environment happens only when they might work in a community garden or visit a city park.

You won’t believe the mental balance, inspiration, and good health that gardening or just spending time in nature can bring to your life. Merely being in sunlight can lift your mood, optimize your hormones, help your blood circulate, regulate your sleep-wake cycle, and help keep you from coming down with a cold. Meanwhile, the birds, butterflies, and clouds overhead are as free of cost in dollars as the scents in the flowers you smell and the earth that you dig.

As a society, we are so much poorer without nature that, well, just imagine what the world would be like without the contributions of Jefferson and Beethoven, Dickinson and Gandhi? How’s that for a sense of perspective?

A scene of the open countryside including a young vegetable garden and a person walking in it called After the Rain by Apollinari Vasnetsov painted in 1887.
After the Rain (1887)
Apollinari Vasnetsov

And on the topic of perspective, a quote from a famous artist makes me think of a little joke. Two atoms are walking along. One of them says: “Oh, no, I think I lost an electron.”

“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m positive.”

You can lose more than an electron in nature. You can lose yourself, and . . . it’s wonderful!

Georgia O’Keeffe said, “If you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for a moment. Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” She also said, “I wish people were all trees and I think I could enjoy them then.”

I hope you can act on her advice and take just a few minutes to make a flower or a tree your world for a while today. Then, if this has inspired you, or made a difference in your day, I hope you’ll share it and encourage other people to come over here and join us.

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