One of Asheville’s most important tourist attractions, in addition to craft breweries, boutique shopping, art, music, and a vibrant restaurant scene, is its location, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, offering an abundance of opportunities to experience nature.
At times the shoppers and foodies are joined by a totally different group, what some refer to as “eco-tourists.” Eco-tourists arrive to hike mountain trails, zip line through trees, raft down rivers, fish, kayak, explore the Blue Ridge Parkway, and hopefully experience a brief respite from their daily routine. For some visitors, it offers quiet time and maybe a chance to give their electronic devices a short, but well deserved rest.
Regardless of someone’s reason to visit Asheville, they cannot avoid interacting with her natural surroundings. That gives nature an opportunity to engage with them, and bring a subtle message of a desire for interaction. According to Paul Deveraux, what’s required now is a reinstatement of an “ancient sense of our relationship with nature.” He posits that in an eco-physiological sense, it’s the mind that needs healing, and modern mentors and therapists use nature to accomplish that, reflecting a nod to old times.
Yaqui shaman Lench Archuleta, for example, takes clients into the Arizona desert to “get their spirits back,” stressing quiet, contemplation, and time spent alone in nature. One of the first things he does is make people take their shoes off and wiggle their toes in the earth. Archuleta believes “they’ve lost that connection to Mother Earth and they need to get it back. It usually takes a day or two to detox from the stress they left behind. Once they get used to the quiet, things begin to open up in them. They become alert in ways they did not know they can be. That’s because being in nature gently forces you to use your five senses.”
It’s a simple thing—to take your shoes off—but it’s also very powerful. It makes you keenly aware of how different the earth feels on your skin. We walk on the earth all the time without having any sense of its texture and temperature. As you walk around, Archuleta encourages people to name what they see. Naming things is another small but powerful act. When you name something, you have to look at it and acknowledge its existence. Naming objects is one of the first lessons we teach our children. It is how we connect them to their world, how they identify its component parts and grow familiar with their surroundings. It gives them a sense of home.
Author Paul Hawken believes “we are nature.” Hawken continues: “We live in community, not alone, and any sense of separateness we harbor is illusion.” Awareness to this lack of separateness offers us a chance to stretch ourselves, to expand beyond our egos.” Through nature, our species is introduced to transcendence, in the sense that there is more going on than the individual. Most people are either awakened to or strengthened in their spiritual journey by experiences in the natural world.”
Many studies indicate that in the last fifty years, and especially the last twenty, the practice of encouraging children to spend time in nature has declined tremendously. One of the painful results is that children recognize the component parts of nature less and less.
The discouragement of naturally play stems from several reasons. In Last Child in the Woods, Robert Louv explains that there are many causes: a marked increase in the amount of television children watch each day, the rise in personal computer and internet usage, the increase in organized play versus unsupervised play, and the huge popularity of video games, tablets, and smart phones.
Shrinking green spaces and the preponderance of lawsuits now make playing outside a high-cost risk, but even the pervasive use of air-conditioning is part of the problem. The end result is the same. Children as well as adults have less and less an understanding of what nature is all about. Not knowing nature’s vocabulary limits our understanding of our place in it. It also limits our preciousness to us. It is difficult to value what one cannot name.
In 1972, when we saw pictures of our planet from space—the famous big blue marble shots sent back by astronauts—it shocked and delighted the whole human race. The picture became so ubiquitous that psychologist Jean Houston reported seeing it pinned on the walls inside huts in remote tribal villages. “It went into our minds—we physically internalized our planetary home.”
When William Davidson and family first settled in what would become Asheville as we now know it in 1784, we can only imagine the quiet beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains then. Eventually doctors began to “prescribe” a visit to Asheville for nature walks and bathing in various hot springs to rejuvenate tired bodies. Asheville is currently home to a growing number of healings arts practitioners offering a wide range of modalities. Local landscape artists allow visitors to return home with a photo or painting to remind them of their journey. But at the core, it is still nature that drives our tourism.
We believe what we see and hear, and nothing makes that as real as nature does. So the next time you travel on the Blue Ridge Parkway from one end of Asheville, or further along to Looking Glass Rock or Linn Cove, stop your car near all the other cars parked near trailheads. Take a few minutes to wander a little ways into the woods, take off your shoes and socks, and reconnect to earth for a spell.
You will feel refreshed, the earth will welcome your visit, and from that will come an understanding that we are all part of an interdependent web of existence.
Ted Carter is co- author of Earth Calling: A Climate Change Handbook for the 21st Century and Reunion: How We Heal Our Broken Connection to the Earth with Ellen Gunter. For more information visit www.sacredlandscapes.com