Those of us who love the outdoors, seemingly enjoy everything it has to offer. In Spring and Summer, we can hardly wait to go outside and feel rebirth and renewal in every breath; see bulbs break ground and burst into flower; the trees leafing into their distinct shades of green once more. We’re inspired to dust off our bicycles, or skates, or walking sticks. We are ready to engage in the beauty of nature; engage in activities that often require some long soaks in a hot tub, citing how out of shape we are after “that long lazy winter”. In Autumn, we walk along trails resplendent with the color from leaves that the trees have pushed off in preparation for wintertime. We go apple picking and love the crispness of the air and the warmth of the late afternoon sun.
We must talk about Winter if we’re going to engage with nature in ALL her beauty. I’ve seen memes on the first day of winter that read, “Only 75 more days till Spring!”. We stay indoors; become less active, less motivated, perhaps. We’ve forgotten - or choose to ignore - an entire season that is essential to our human cycles of life as well as nature’s. Not all of us, certainly, and yet, enough of us.
Energetically, Winter is a time of deep rest in preparation for a rebirth or transformation. The trees sense it as early as late Summer and early Autumn when many begin the arduous task of pushing their leaves off their branches, dispelling the idea of “Autumn leaves falling”. They only fall because they are pushed. These leaves are useless when the tree needs all its energy to keep its living cells from freezing in the cold. Trees know how to shut down what’s non-essential in order to ready themselves for hibernation, or dormancy, all the while actively keeping their living cells from freezing. At rest and active simultaneously. Some even set their buds before dormancy in preparation for Spring and warmer weather. My lilac bush is awash with tight red buds in December awaiting a signal that Spring has arrived and it gives me hope every time I stop to admire the lilac’s forethought and handiwork.
So, how do trees keep from freezing in wintertime? Research tells us that some trees change their cell membranes to become suppler in wintertime, so the amount of water they usually hold is released to the space between cells, where freezing is not an issue, maybe even of benefit to the tree. We humans usually eat more, put on a few of pounds, two or five or ten, acting more like bears planning to sleep through the Winter than trees whose work is less obvious yet still at work. Speaking of eating more, some trees even supply more sugar to their living cells, like anti-freeze, lowering the point at which a cell will freeze. They just don’t gain weight or worry how they’ll look in a bathing suit.
This brings me to the question: how do you keep your living cells from freezing in Wintertime? What are the non-essentials you push off to focus your attention on what keeps you alive? And what little buds are you birthing for a later date, a warmer season, a full expression of you when the time comes?
Beyond the science of trees, there is an aesthetic beauty to the woods in Wintertime. There is a silence in the woods, in which we can hear our own hearts beating, or hear snow fall to the ground as a squirrel dashes across a branch, or hear how the song of the wind in the leafless trees has changed ever so slightly; a song in the key of Winter; different than a song in the key of Spring. It requires us to be in dormancy, too, if we choose to notice and hear these things. What’s in motion when it isn’t you? What are you noticing, being present to the silence and stillness of Winter?
Most of all, how is Wintertime essential to your being alive, a thing of beauty and part of every season in nature?
It took an audio book by Brené Brown on a 5-hour road trip to central New York to understand the importance of breath and taking time for ourselves.
In her book, Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown speaks of her meeting with Dr. Joan Halifax, Buddhist teacher, Zen priest, anthropologist, and pioneer in the field of end-of-life care. Brené commented that she planned to forego some rest and personal time at a conference because she felt an obligation to go to the meet and greet event. Dr. Halifax looked at her and said, “Tonight we will exhale and teach. Now it’s time to inhale. There is the in-breath and there is the out-breath, and it’s easy to believe that we must exhale all the time, without ever inhaling. But the inhale is absolutely essential if you want to continue to exhale.”
This brings me to Spring and almost immediately, Summertime, and those of us who may never stop to enjoy the season because we are too busy ‘exhaling’. I recall a time when I was younger and in school. I used to long for summer with eager anticipation because there was time off from school; planned time to relax and play. Years later and I was no longer in school, I wondered one day why I was still so excited about summertime. After all, it wasn’t going to change anything for me.
Full stop. What? “Inhaling is what we do so we can exhale.”
We are beings with seasons in our bodies and souls. We experience the rebirth of Spring after a long dormant Winter. We let go of our ‘leaves’ in the Fall, shedding what no longer serves us. How is it that we ignore the full bloom of Summer; the full expression of who we are? Where are we forgetting to inhale in order to exhale?
“The sun does not shine for a few trees and flowers, but for the wide world’s joy.” Henry Ward Beecher
This isn’t about being carefree and playful again … except when it is. Being outside when the sun offers its most ‘joy’ may include*:
In addition, benefits include improving our metabolic function, which helps fight obesity, lower blood pressure, reduced stroke risk, better sleep, lessens anxiety and overall enhances our mood. Not everyone will experience every benefit, and some will always experience a certain number of its benefits.
Add to all that a forested environment and you’re surrounded by trees at the peak of their essential oil production; what science calls phytoncides. "Phyton" means "plant" in Latin, and "cide" means to exterminate. Phytoncides are the natural compound substance that a plant gives off to kill harmful microorganisms; insects and bacteria. Forest bathing enhances human natural killer cell activity and our body’s expression of anti-cancer proteins. Forest bathing also improves cognitive function, helping us think and plan better. This effect lasts for at least 7 days in our bodies after time spent in nature.
In reality, phytoncides do not only exist in forests. They can be found in vegetables and fruit as well. But I’m not about to recommend that you walk through fields of garlic on a regular basis, nor do I believe for one minute that you would follow that recommendation.
So, getting back to summer, sun, vitamin D and inhaling …
Telling someone to get outside and play never really works. We see it as time wasted, indulgent and even a way to avoid getting things done. My message to you is that getting outside, especially in summertime at the height of ‘bloom’ is essential; critical to your well-being and your ability to get things done in a way that nurtures your body and soul, rather than puts you in deep distress or exhaustion.
Where are your opportunities to get outside more and absorb some vitamin D and phytoncides, as well as general well-being from nature? It depends on who you are and what feels enjoyable and effortless to you. Here are some offerings:
You’ll only do what feels easy to you and that’s what play and enjoyment is all about. Summertime is a season in our lives that expresses who we are in full bloom. You deserve that. We deserve to experience you like that.
Last words. Always hydrate. Avoid full mid-day sun if you’re sun-sensitive or wear a hat (as long as you make it a fun hat). Early mornings and evening sunsets are fabulous times to be outdoors in nature. Walk among the trees, share some reciprocal inhaling and exhaling with them. Let your summertime bloom!
 Studies vary in results. Data is available online for fact checking. If you’ve been advised to stay out of the sun or wear UV filters, this is not a replacement for that advice.