I don’t know about you, but I never realized how much anxiety I regularly experience until the pandemic. Admittedly, I’ve never felt anxiety this intensely or frequently, and it’s not my intention to co-opt or speak to anyone’s diagnosis. But as I’ve actually taken the time – out of necessity – to process and deal with my anxious feelings this year, I’ve been surprised at how familiar those feelings are.
I’ve also been surprised how little I attention I’ve paid to letting nature calm and center me. I mean, I’ve touched and lain under trees for this purpose, and let the rain or a recording of ocean waves lull me to sleep. A couple Januarys ago I even made a resolution to touch a plant every day… but you know how resolutions go.
This summer, that has changed. In addition to processing my anxiety and practicing techniques recommended by a therapist, I’ve started earthing. In the version I practice, I sink my bare feet into the grass until the summer heat drives me back indoors.
Earthing is also called grounding, and there’s a reason this sounds similar to the bottom opening in an electrical outlet. The surface of the earth can receive or provide electrons, and in the event of a lightning strike, electricity flows to the earth rather than electrocute you. There is not enough scientific research to be conclusive about earthing as a practice. It’s possible that, like an electrical outlet is grounded, flow of electrons between earth’s surface and the human body results in health benefits through any number of hypothesized mechanisms. It’s also possible the health benefits are a result of confirmation bias rather than actual physics and physiology. I look forward to learning more as research continues.
Traditional knowledge identified benefits of earthing long before the discipline of science even existed. In his chapter “Nature” of This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment, Luther Standing Bear writes of the Lakota walking barefoot and building homes directly on the ground, understanding that “the soil was soothing, strengthening, cleansing, and healing.” Current practitioners of ancient Egyptian medicine associate earthing with Geb, the Egyptian god of the earth, and Chinese medicine practitioners relate the practice to the life force energy Qi of the earth. Australian Aboriginal medicine woman Anne Warren refers to the “interconnectedness between yourself and every living thing.” I am not qualified to understand these relationships to the earth, but I do my best to honor them and the people who practice(d) them as I stand in the shaded grass in the backyard, and as I encourage us all to seek out more learning directly from the experts listed in this paragraph.
Regardless of the framework with which any of us is capable of approaching earthing, what’s undeniable is the care. If there is any care to be received from standing in the grass, we in turn must take care of the grass. There are other benefits of nature that are accompanied by more scientific certainty, and these require our care in return as well. In order to receive oxygen from photosynthesis, we must care for the organisms undergoing photosynthesis. In order to receive nutrients from food, we must care for the plants that produce nutrient-rich food. We could keep going with this list all day. The reciprocity could be a purely utilitarian proposition, but at least for me, it’s hard to feel that kind of indifference when I’m being cared for.
At the Arizona Sustainability Alliance, we believe that care of the earth is inextricably linked with care of humans, not just ourselves but also others. This is another list that could go on all day, with both local and global items. Here in Arizona, we plant trees to lower the temperatures of neighborhoods currently known as “heat islands,” and consequently improve physical health within the neighborhood. One vital consequence of reducing our global energy usage would be the safety of Indigenous communities in the Global South from exploitation associated with extractive mining operations.
One local activity anyone can get involved with is park maintenance. Within North Mountain Park – the most trafficked park in the Phoenix Metropolitan area – the Penny Howe Trail is a path accessible to wheel, chairs and strollers. Arizona Sustainability Alliance volunteers planted more than 125 pollinators along the trail and are currently keeping the trail in good repair, updating signs, and replacing invasive fauna with the native fauna that grew before a broken irrigation system and financial constraints caused them to die off.
This kind of care for nature cannot be separated from care for each other. And I can’t help but think, as a leaf falls on my foot and startles me, that more care for each other might result in fewer reasons to be anxious.
Written by Allison Boley, PhD for the Arizona Sustainability Alliance