By Alyssa Soucy, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Maine

Newswise — As the spotlight cuts across the lake, intersecting with the horizon beyond, I saw the trio of Common Loons as only white floating specks surrounded by darkness. Almost like a mirage, they appeared through the fog and the gnats swirling off the surface of the water. I fixed the beam of light on one of the chicks who looked serenely unaware of our approaching boat. My body and mind launched into the sole purpose of illuminating that chick as Carl Brown, BRI’s field biologist leading this loon translocation effort, swung a net over the side of the boat. Under the starry sky that evening, we successfully captured a Common Loon chick for safe relocation and release.

Iain Stenhouse, field biologist and director of BRI’s Marine Bird Program, is accustomed to experiencing the profoundly mesmerizing, immersive feelings that arise when working closely with wildlife. Whether on a boat off the coast of Maine tracking families of Common Eiders, or surrounded by an Arctic Tern colony in Greenland, Stenhouse is at home in the wild working with the birds. In fact, as he recalls tracking these terns, a species that claim the longest migration distance on record, he becomes awakened by the connection he has with them. “There’s not much to an Arctic Tern, it’s almost all feathers. And, to know that this bird, under its own steam, has been to Antarctica and back again since you last saw it, and it doesn’t look any different is just breathtaking.” Stenhouse describes the feeling he has when holding birds as being unlike any other, “I’ve never known anything that had that same kind of rush of excitement and fascination and just awe.”

BRI’s field biologists seek out opportunities that put them into close contact with the natural world. In fact, those encounters captivate, awaken, and spark their motivation and passion. Evan Adams, BRI’s director of the Quantitative Wildlife Ecology Research Lab, was drawn to this career after a trip to Costa Rica. Adams recounts, “There’s a hummingbird called the Violet Sabrewing. You could hear them as they flew by you because they sounded like a Harley Davidson, you didn’t even have to look. And I thought that that was super cool, and when returned home, I thought, ‘I want to study birds’—that was kind of it.”

Helen Yurek, another BRI wildlife biologist, spends many days and nights in remote places. “You just see really cool things; you see animals doing things that you might not have otherwise.” Sarah Dodgin, an ecological analyst for BRI, recently spotted an elusive Upland Sandpiper during fieldwork. She exclaims, “They ran out right in front of the truck and I was like ‘Oh, my gosh, here you are!’ It was a cool feeling.” Similar to my experience working with the loons, and Stenhouse’s in Greenland with Arctic Terns diving overhead, each of us recognizes that sense of awe and wholeness we feel when we are connected with the world around us.

Through our own experiences we are all describing a concept that psychologists have been studying for decades. The term connectedness to nature refers to the emotional and cognitive connections we have with the natural world. In recent years, interest in the relationship between nature and human well-being has exploded. A growing trend of “park prescriptions” involves doctors encouraging patients to spend time outdoors. Spending time in close contact with nature can lead to positive health outcomes, including lower rates of depression and anxiety, anger and fatigue, and cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Experimental studies have shown that being outside can even improve working memory and task performance, as well as invoke feelings of restorativeness and increase happiness. As Rachel Carson wrote in Silent Spring, “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” It is in this personal relationship with nature that we can find solace.

Questions remain as to why spending time in nature may lead to positive health outcomes. Some answers lie in the specific chemical and biological components contained within natural environments. While others turn to the field of psychology. For example, people experience a great sense of awe in response to nature. The awe and fascination that Stenhouse describes when working closely with birds conveys a sense of fulfillment, connection, and restorativeness. As he notes, “Modern living doesn’t provide many real moments anymore. That moment—feeling that little heartbeat against your fingertips and the warmth of another little creature in the world—is very cool.” The Biophilia Hypothesis further suggests that throughout much of our two-million-year evolutionary history, humans lived in hunter-gatherer societies, coexisting with the natural world. A connection with nature, or “biophilia,” developed and became integral to human survival. A connection to nature then may be rooted in our connection to our ancestral selves.

Weeks later, when remembering the feel of the loon’s heartbeat and the sound of its haunting call, I am transported back to that night, back to that connection I felt with the loons and the lake, and the sense of purpose that enveloped me. As a social psychologist, I study people. Rarely do I have experiences that bring me in such close physical contact with wildlife; yet, it has taken only that one night to realize that there really is no other feeling like it.

Social psychologists continue to document feelings of a connectedness to nature that have profound effects on behaviors, attitudes, and health. In doing so, they offer solutions that address both human and environmental well-being by recognizing the interconnections between the two. Whether you experience nature in a remote place while handling an Arctic Tern, out on a lake on a clear summer night surrounded by the calls of loons, or in the local community forest during your weekly walk, a connection and restoration is there waiting for you. As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.”


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