Studies in Japan and Scotland are "proving" what most people have known for decades, maybe even longer: being outside surrounded by nature is good for the mind, the body and the spirit. In a predominantly rural area like this, it isn't difficult to find opportunities to enjoy some fresh air, birdsong and sightings of woodland creatures.
There are places, however, where one can be immersed in nature without vehicles or other signs of people, with grassy meadows and woods as far as the eye can see. Two of these places are a short drive west on State Route 331, near Holloway along the Belmont/Harrison County line.
Egypt Valley Wildlife Area covers over 18,000 acres and includes Piedmont Lake. It was established in 1995 when funding from a federal Conservancy Fund and Ohio's State Fund 15/Wildlife Fund purchased 14,300 acres of the former mining land. Since then, it has become a popular hunting and fishing area, and subsequent land purchases have been made through contributions from Ducks Unlimited, the Ruffled Grouse Society and The National Wild Turkey Federation in partnership with the Division of Wildlife. The main access point to the area is from State Route 800 north of Interstate 70, but county roads 72, 74 and 104 bring visitors into the park, which is a combination of grasslands and woods, flat area and hills with elevations from 925 to 1,363 feet.
T-L Photo/GLYNIS VALENTI
A European study reports that even gazing at a photograph of a nature scene will calm the mind, though actually being out in nature garners more health benefits.
“Forest therapy” has taken hold in urban Japan, but the same treatment — walking in the woods — is available for free here at local wildlife areas.
Across SR 331 lies nearly 5,000 acres of predominately wooded hills called Jockey Hollow Wildlife Area. This, too, is reclaimed mining land established in 2004 from the conservation and wildlife funds specifically as a hunting and wildlife management area. A southern portion of Jockey Hollow is still owned and managed by Consol Energy but was opened to public access in 2012.
Brian Baker, Wildlife Officer for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources/Division of Wildlife, says these areas were purchased with money from hunting and fishing license fees, and they are used predominately for sportsman activities. However, he notes, they are also wildlife management and wildlife viewing areas, and there are some unusual things for visitors to see.
Though shy around humans, river otters are not uncommon in Ohio. Originally native to Ohio, the river otter population had been trapped to non-existence by the early 1900s. A program in 1986 re-introduced them to select rivers and creeks, protected them, and they are again thriving. A survey in 2012 estimated the number at around 8,000. Wildlife areas like Jockey Hollow and Egypt Valley have the fresh water habitats and food sources (fish, snakes, frogs) that river otters like, as well as minimal human intervention. They sometimes make their homes in abandoned beaver lodges. They're fun to watch because of their cute faces and playful natures - sliding down banks, tossing sticks and stones.
River otters are long and sleek with small heads, webbed feet and tails that measure up to half of their full body length. Adults can be 3 1/2 to 5 feet long and weigh between 11 and 33 pounds. They are dark brown or black with long, coarse whiskers.
Pups are born in early spring and come out of the den by early summer. Families travel in groups throughout the summer into fall. They tend to be most active from dusk until dawn, but can also be seen during the day. The young leave the den at 8 to 12 months and may establish their own families as far as 20 miles away.
According to Baker, Jockey Hollow and Egypt Valley offer opportunities for some interesting bird sightings, for instance resident bald eagles at the south end of Piedmont Lake.
"People may not recognize them if the birds are young," he says. "The adult males have the white head and tail feathers, but the younger birds are dark. People may even mistake them for turkey vultures."
One migratory bird that passes through this area is the bobolink, a member of the blackbird family. In the spring, the bobolink male is black with a yellow nape, white back and white rump. In the fall, his coloring changes to a more camouflaged sparrow, closer to the female's. They nest in early summer in grasslands, pastures and hay fields which is the main reason for a decline in their population, as this is mowing season. They are considered a "species of concern" in Ohio because of that decline and are monitored by the North American Breeding Bird Survey.
The bobolink's migration pattern is lengthy, traveling between Canada and rice fields in South America, up to 12,000 miles. Their song is distinctive, and their name is a reference to that call.
As mentioned, studies over the past few years have looked at the positive effects of natural surroundings. In 2008, there was a population shift: more people lived in cities than outside of cities. Over the next three years, urban area populations outgrew suburban populations for the first time in 90 years.
Researchers at Tokyo's Nippon Medical School have evidence that exposure to trees and natural surroundings lowers cortisol levels (that contribute to chronic inflammation among other maladies), lowers pulse rates and lowers blood pressure. The Japanese have taken this to heart and developed "Shinrin-yoku," or "forest bathing." It simply entails busing stress-wrought urbanites to surrounding forests and letting them walk around for a few hours.
As obvious as the treatment sounds, the effects are substantial. Other studies have found that spending time in nature induces the production of cancer-fighting white blood cells, decreases attention deficit behavior in children, improves memory and concentration and revitalizes brain activity.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh and Herriot-Watt University monitored portable electroencephalograph machines worn by volunteers who were told to walk a certain route, segments of which ran through city streets and segments which ran through parks. Not surprisingly, the brain activity changed substantially from streets to parks, revealing a promising treatment for "brain fatigue."
Baker notes that Egypt Valley and Jockey Hollow, like other designated wildlife areas, do not have directed walking or hiking paths, while many wildlife preserves have specific paths that visitors must use. The ODNR website, www.dnr.state.oh.us, offers more information on birds, wildlife, maps of wildlife areas and some of the regulations involved with visiting the sites. For instance, ATVs and other vehicles and bicycles are not allowed in wildlife areas.
He added that one protected area off of County Rd. 104 is a half mile walk "straight up" to the top of a hill, but it's a patch of what seems to be virgin timber in this reclaimed space.
"Some of those trees are at least four feet in diameter. There are very few places around here like it," Baker says. "It's really something to see."