I wonder if there’s some kind of hormone that nature triggers, which makes me forget.
I know there were plenty of moments on this camping trip when I thought, ‘this isn’t actually fun, or relaxing’, and ‘OK, I’m not doing this again unless it’s summer’.
Well, it might not be a hormone but scientists have found that going out into the natural world can change our brains, regardless of how much fun we’re having.
Camping in the rain with young kids while your partner’s overseas perhaps doesn’t sound all that fun, or smart.
Weekend camping trips for just one night are highly contentious anyway. Some of my friends refuse to join me, citing the net time spent chilling versus time spent organising and travelling.
You spend a day packing. Then you get up early, drive for a couple of hours, spend a few more hours setting up camp.
The sun’s out in full during the picnic lunch but by the time we gather our kids and wander to the swimming hole the weather has switched. The swim that felt like a good idea when the sun was burning through my dress suddenly feels like a crazy suggestion. Just tiptoeing through the shallow creek leaves my feet burning with cold.
Watching my kids lead the other children into the icey pool makes me proud. I’ll put up with cold feet to see them find joy exploring this freshwater pool surrounded by bush.
But I could get them into nature closer to home and avoid packing a car full of camping gear. Someplace easy where when the weather turns and the rain arrives I can easily bring them home or into shelter.
I could also choose to camp where there are amenities like hot water – or just tap water even. We could book a campsite with flush toilets, lighting, cooking shelters. But no. We like to make it a bit hard, to not feel like we’re at home. Teach the kids to appreciate their bathrooms and kitchens and bedrooms at home.
Am I a sucker?
I thought so, a few times this past weekend when the rain showers kept returning every time I thought we were in the clear. I wondered at my sanity when I was cooking in the dark, telling the kids they would need to eat their dinner standing up because I left the chairs out while we went for a bush walk earlier, not expecting this rain. But then we find solutions. Adapt. Use products meant for other purposes to keep our bums dry on the wet seats. Food tastes better when you’re a bit cold and damp anyway.
Sleep isn’t better when you’re a bit cold though. So being May in the NSW Southern Highlands, on a wet chilly night, sleep was interrupted and again I questioned my life choices. What kind of mother am I? One kid sleeps soundly but the other complains. I warm her up with my woolen coat and she drifts off, leaving just me to worry about whether the rain will get heavier and threaten our tent’s stability.
I’ve camped with some of these friends in this exact same spot the year before last, in much heavier rain. But we were prepared, with an impressive multiple tarpaulin rig that allowed us to hang out and cook comfortably.
It’s more about being psychologically prepared for wet camping. Two months ago I spent days preparing for a camping trip and when the forecast turned up wet I psyched myself for it. This trip I was caught out. I just had to deal with it.
Then on Sunday morning the rain suddenly swapped places with sun and blue skies. We walked through the bush down to Carrington Falls. The gaggle of kids demonstrated their river crossing pro-ness, criss-crossing the slippery shallow waters without accident.
While my mind wandered back to work and the hassle of drying out my large tent tomorrow, half of me found joy and satisfaction observing these primary school kids confidently navigate the rocky, slimey river at the top of these majestic falls.
I had set off from Sydney Saturday morning full of upset and anxiety about various stresses in my life. I arrived at Carrington Falls campsite frustrated as my bad headspace led to taking a few wrong turns and a late arrival. The weather deteriorated, dishing up rain I hadn’t planned for. I had the most awful sleep. Just over 24 hours later I’m driving back up the Hume highway towards our city life with all its pressures and strains.
I don’t take any wrong turns. Or when I do, I don’t let it bother me. I feel uplifted. I feel free. My brain feels clear. I can focus, see what I need to do this week. I’m invigorated.
I didn’t actually enjoy myself that much that often on this trip – there were moments of pleasure and relaxation but just as many of the other. So what happened? Even if we don’t enjoy yourself that much in nature, can we really still reap the benefits? Does our brain still change for the better?
It turns out, neuroscientists say yes. I’ve spoken to a few who can back up my experience with their research, including Marc Berman, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago. Listen here to find out more: