A blog for those who desire a more creative relationship with the natural world.


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Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Brain "on" Nature: out of reach on the river, then back in the rim world

It was tempting to stay--to keep our rafts pointed downstream and our oars in the water--at peace with each other and with life on the river.  How simple to spend one's days floating, contemplating water dappled by sunlight, molding palmfuls of river clay with our fingers, writing unhurried thoughts into the pages of our journals, sharing morning coffee and evening stars.  How simple, this temporary life on the river.

The red cliffs and black rocks of Westwater Canyon on the Colorado River are surprisingly accommodating. Nooks and crannies provide cool hiding places. Wind and water carve curvaceous armchairs into shiny black schist boulders. Sandstone crumbles and forms river beaches soft enough to sink one's toes into, or to sculpt one's face upon. These are simple joys. One discovers that comfort is a relative term, much easier to find on the river than expected.

A month ago, The New York Times published an article by Matt Richtel about five neuroscientists who spent a week rafting the San Juan River in southern Utah. They were "Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain," doing a field study on the river to better understand how heavy use of digital devices affect how we think and behave.

During our pre-trip dinner the night before my women-only trip launched, I talked with the women about the sense of relaxation that seems to flood the body by the second day.  "I think it's because, when we're sheltered by the canyon walls and the electromagnetic waves that bombard us every moment on the 'rim world' can't reach us, our bodies can let down their defensive shields. And when we let down our defenses, we remember, at a cellular level, that we are made of the same stuff from which the cliffs are made--the same rhythms that move the river, move us."

I haven't researched the science behind this theory, and the theory differs from the one the neuroscientists were out to either prove or disprove--that the constant use of digital devices are psychologically unhealthy--but my instincts tell me that when the electromagnetic spectrum reaches a certain intensity, the human body recoils from it. On the last day of our five-day river trip, I told the women, "You might find that you're dizzy when you get off the river--like the world is spinning, or you've got vertigo, or your senses are being bombarded. Re-entry can be difficult, so be gentle to your body.  Seek quiet places.  Seek natural lighting.  Surround yourself with the sounds of birds and the rustling of leaves."

It's easy to forget that we, too, are organic--made of all natural ingredients, that our brains do best when fed a diet more akin to the sounds of a forest, than the sounds of a 60-second sound-bite.            Sand sculpture by Roxanne Swentzell, featured guest artist from the Santa Clara Pueblo.  To view more of Roxanne's art, go to 

The 2010 5-day River Writing and Sculpting Journey for Women took place in Westwater Canyon, Utah.  Contact Page to have your name added to her mailing list in order to receive news releases on the 2011 river trip.