Learn how to spend time outside for no purpose other than spending time outside.
I write a lot of articles about how to get outside. Mostly these consist of ideas for how to pass the time until you can return to indoor comforts and habits, such as going for runs or bike rides, leaving the car at home, starting a garden, having picnics with kids, reading books outside. They’re good ideas and ones that I use on a regular basis, but after reading an exquisite, spine-tingling paragraph by John Stilgoe, author of Outside Lies Magic, I’m wondering if we’re not all overthinking this far too much.
Stilgoe's book came out in 1998, but the message rings more true than ever, now that so many people spend their days glued to screens, living in a virtual world. Here’s the paragraph that thrilled me:
“GET OUT NOW. Not just outside, but beyond the trap of the programmed electronic age so gently closing around so many people…. Go outside, move deliberately, then relax, slow down, look around. Do not jog. Do not run…. Instead pay attention to everything that abuts the rural road, the city street, the suburban boulevard. Walk. Stroll. Saunter. Ride a bike, and coast along a lot. Explore…. Abandon, even momentarily, the sleek modern technology that consumes so much time and money now…. Go outside and walk a bit, long enough to forget programming, long enough to take in and record new surroundings…. Flex the mind, a little at first, then a lot. Savor something special. Enjoy the best-kept secret around—the ordinary, everyday landscape that rewards any explorer, that touches any explorer with magic…all of it is free for the taking, for the taking in. Take it. Take it in, take in more every weekend, every day, and quickly it becomes the theater that intrigues, relaxes, fascinates, seduces, and above all expands any mind focused on it. Outside lies utterly ordinary space open to any casual explorer willing to find the extraordinary. Outside lies unprogrammed awareness that at times becomes directed serendipity. Outside lies magic.”
It’s the description of utterly ordinary yet magical space that captivates me most. Most of us live surrounded by ordinary space, in a realm of fire hydrants, lawns, and driveways. It’s not stunning scenery, but that shouldn’t discourage us from spending time there. Stilgoe is not telling us to go on an exotic yoga retreat, buy a sailboat, or go camping in the mountains. In fact, we should take it a step further by not doing anything while spending time outside.
As Oliver Burkeman points out for The Guardian, we'll be more susceptible to the magic of the outdoors when we don't try so hard to fill that time with busy activity:
“In one obvious sense, you’ll miss the magic of outside if you spend all weekend watching Netflix or glued to your phone, reinforcing the sad notion that excitement is always somewhere you’re not. But, in a less obvious sense, many outdoor pursuits miss that magic, too. Training for a marathon, cycling to work or counting your steps with a fitness tracker, you’re using the environment for your own ends, noticing only what’s needed to fulfil your predetermined goal.”
We all need more unscheduled, non-goal-oriented outdoor time, time spent sitting still in nature, listening to its sounds, watching our surroundings. No destination or method is required. All you need is a door to step through.