Nature nurtures the mind, body & soul

The first time Sandie Lee Butler went mudlarking on Glass Bottle Beach in Dead Horse Bay in Brooklyn 10 years ago, she filled her two Trader Joe’s bags so full of finds she had to stop every 10 steps or so to put them down and rest. 

An avid beachcomber, Butler, 72, a mixed-media artist and self-described “longtime collector of stuff,” hadn’t known what to expect on that first trip to the debris-strewn beach, a National Park Service-managed site on the Atlantic along Jamaica Bay. She’d heard stories of treasure-hunting along the shoreline there, where thousands of vintage glass bottles, along with leather shoes, porcelain doll heads, broken pottery — and bones, lots of old horse bones from a 19th-century rendering plant — emerge from the sand and muck, litter from long-ago landfills washed up or uncovered at low tide. (The beach was recently closed to the public after potentially hazardous material was found among the debris.)

“At first you just see bottles, broken glass everywhere,” says Butler, a former photography and art teacher, “and then you look past that and you go, ‘Oh, look! There’s a plate that’s intact!’ I found a beautiful little pink Depression-glass vase that was perfect. Not everything is broken. When I find a treasure I say, ‘It was meant just for me.’”

Being out in nature, hunting for sea glass or old children’s toys or shards of vintage dinner plates while imagining how her finds will be repurposed for her artwork is a meditative process, Butler says. “I always feel so happy and relaxed when I’m out looking for stuff — and I’m always looking for stuff,” she says. “I used to tell the kids I taught, I want to teach you how to see, how to really look at things and not just walk through life with your head at one angle. That’s what it is for me, the art of seeing, the excitement of finding, and then it’s ‘What am I going to make with it?’ This stuff, it’s abandoned and I’m giving it a life again.”

The time Butler spends outdoors is not only good for her imagination, but it may be good for her mental and physical health, according to several studies on the benefits of exposure to the outdoors. The American Psychological Association says time in nature can improve our mental health and sharpen our minds.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, citing several studies, says exposure to forests and trees boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure, reduces stress, improves mood, increases ability to focus, accelerates recovery from surgery or illness, increases energy level, and improves sleep.

Mature man takes breath of fresh air outdoors

“I see spending time in nature as something that’s tremendously helpful for folks,” says Jeremy Asgari, founder of the Outsiders, a New York adventure and social club that sponsors daylong activities locally, ranging from surfing and a beach party to canyoneering and waterfall hiking to an afternoon sunflower farm visit, or an outdoor picnic at a New York art installation. 

“People who spend time outdoors have better mindsets, are happier and more present, and it helps combat anxiety and depression,” says Asgari, who founded the Outsiders in 2016.

Still, screen time hogs our attention. According to the Pew Research Center, people aged 60 and older spend more than half of their daily leisure time, four hours and 16 minutes, in front of screens, while time spent on other recreational activities has ticked down slightly.

Getting outdoors can help balance those numbers. From hiking to birding to snowshoeing and more, a number of New York clubs organize trips, provide equipment and transportation, and serve as community hubs to bring people together outdoors.

Asgari, who left a job in the entertainment industry to found the Outsiders, says he has recently started chapters in Los Angeles, Chicago and Stockholm, Sweden. In addition to their local outings, the Outsiders also hosts nature-inspired trips.

“We provide transportation,” he says, “so when we bring people out to an activity — I’ll use hiking as an example — by the time they’re 30 minutes into the hike, their energy feels lighter as though they’re more present. There’s less weight on them from everyday living, the stressors of the city, and all the stimuli we’re constantly exposed to. I think the community makes a huge difference. It’s easy to feel alone, even in the city. Our goal is to make people feel like they have a community for themselves.”

Researchers are increasingly confirming the benefits of getting outdoors and spending time in nature. One recent study found that spending 120 minutes outdoors per week, either all at once or broken up into several outdoor activities, is associated with better health and well-being, including among older adults and those with long-term health issues.

Alfredo Viegas says he sees the results firsthand. The president of New York’s Amateur Astronomers Association notes that when people are looking at the night sky, either with their naked eye or through a telescope the club provides during outings, “they’re amazed by what they can see and they get that kind of feeling that they’re a real part of the universe.”

In today’s internet age, he says, “a lot of people make the argument, ‘Why go to the Grand Canyon when they can just see pictures on the internet?’ People say that about astronomy, too: ‘Why look at the moon or Jupiter or the rings of Saturn when you can type it into a Google search and get amazing pictures?’”

But, says Viegas, the physical act of looking through a telescope often fills participants with a sense of awe and wonder about the universe and their place in it. “When you’re looking at a galaxy through a telescope, you’re looking at photons of light that have traveled millions of light-years to get to you,” he says. “You think about what that means … how we’re integrated into the universe.”

It feels, he says, “like you’re floating in space.” It’s a “one-to-one” exchange, he adds, between the viewer and the night sky.

Viegas’ all-volunteer organization, which offers year-round weekly events, free lectures, field trips and classes, is currently building New York City’s first public observatory in the Bronx as the club nears its 100th anniversary in 2027. In October, it hosts what he calls “our signature event” — an annual large-scale astronomy festival in Central Park.

Participating in observing events, Viegas says, especially with a community of like-minded people who also enjoy stargazing and the outdoors, “can be a profound experience that blows away anything the internet can show you.”

Getting Started

The Capital Region has a plethora of group options to help you start getting outdoors. Here are few suggestions:

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