Evolutionary Ghosts: Why our Path to the Uplands Should Be a Yearlong Pursuit

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Springtime Exercise Benefits Both Body and Mind

By Casey Sill

My black lab Bruly and I have spent the last two months lying on the couch watching YouTube videos of migrating ducks and Netflix documentaries about exotic birds.

As much as she deserves some couch time after a long hunting season, we both breathe a sigh of relief as the winter lull begins to wane in early April. Spring brings optimism and anticipation, in exchange for the ambient, sedentary blur that envelops February and March.

When the sun comes out we emerge from the house, a little stiffer than we were last fall — and go back to work.

Spring used to mean steelhead and turkeys, but my attention has since pivoted almost entirely to dog training. I try to work Bruly twice a day, every day, with longer sessions on the weekends.

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This summer my goal is to improve Bruly’s blind retrieves, which are currently heavy in enthusiasm, but light in directionality. Imagine you’re on the 14th tee box and your drive slices so badly it knocks the Mike’s Hard Lemonade out of a guy’s hand on the 13th fairway. That’s what her lines look like.

Every day after we’re done training, we take a walk down a streamside trail south of my house to blow off any remaining steam. It’s the only place we can walk this time of year, since public hunting property is closed to off leash dogs for nesting season. The trail is well worn by locals and their dogs, but I usually find myself alone on the roughly 80-acre property. The culmination of exercise and solitude is enough to relieve almost any stress or baggage I’m carrying that day. There’s a cheesy metaphor in there somewhere about letting nature “wash over you” and “cleanse your mind,” but I’ll spare you the eye roll.

Clich├ęs aside, I do find that idea to be true. My wife and friends hesitate to spew their work/life problems to me because I always give the same answer — my remedy for everything is “go outside.”

In a funk? “Go outside”

Tired all the time? “Go outside”

Crippling diarrhea? “Go outside”

Ok…so it’s not a perfect system, but there is nearly universal splendor in the simple act of being outdoors. The health benefits are tangible, both physically and mentally.

In his 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods” author Richard Louv talks about the health benefits of being outdoors for both children and adults. One of my favorite examples is a study done in a Michigan penitentiary that found inmates whose cells faced the prison courtyard had 24 percent more illnesses than those whose cells had a view of the farmland surrounding the prison.

The book is filled with examples of similar studies with similar results — being outside in basically any capacity is good for us. It improves cardio health, greatly reduces the odds of obesity, is an excellent source of vitamin D (sunlight!) and can promote healthy vision in children and adolescents.

But there’s something deeper in Louv’s writing. He cites research by Gordon Orians, a professor of zoology at the University of Washington, who said our almost unconscious urge to spend time outdoors and all the health benefits that come along with that time are examples of our “evolutionary ghosts,” the remnants of past human experience that are hard-wired into our nervous system.

I’ll put that in an upland context. If you’ve ever done the ‘ol bird wing on a stick game with a young pointer pup, you might notice a tiny bit of confusion in his eyes the first time he hits a solid point. He’s not sure why he’s stopping — what he wants is right in front of his face. But for some reason his wagging tail comes still, his legs stiffen and he freezes.

He points because it’s what he’s supposed to do, because 400 years of selective breeding have hard-wired the act into his brain. At that moment, his “ghosts” come to the surface. Same is true for us. We reap such extreme benefits from being outdoors because it’s where we’re supposed to be.

That’s never more apparent than after a long winter. Whether it’s dog training or just a walk in the park, stretching our legs and our minds in the springtime holds great physical and emotional value.

Our Path to the Uplands takes us in many different directions; we each have unique passions and interests. But while all roads may eventually lead to October, there is year around value in the pursuit of wild places.

So go outside today, bask in the sun — and let your ghosts come to the surface.


Casey Sill is the public relations specialist at the Pheasants Forever national headquarters in St. Paul, Minn. He can be reached at csill@pheasantsforever.org