Ungrounded Earthing

October 9, 2017

I am by nature a somewhat skeptical person. Send me an article about how Basque sheep farmers in Wyoming are actually a fifth column seeking to undermine the existing political order and I'll shake my head condescendingly! Call saying you're from the IRS and that I must immediately send you a $2000 wire transfer if I don't want to be arrested and I'll hang up! Claim a supplement or diet has specific salutary effects and I'll want to see robust evidence! The smug self-satisfaction I take in puncturing dubious claims is not my best quality, but it's fairly benign and sometimes even beneficial.

A glaring exception to this, an area where I am willing to make positive claims without ironclad evidence (indeed, an area that resists rigorous study), is that being in the physical world feeds our individual and collective humanity in a real and deep way. While the ideal may be strolling naked through a primordial forest, I think the world is accessible anywhere. The sunset can be magnificent over a city street, and viewing a frigid fall rain as a blessing takes the same willful shift in perspective whether you're taking the trash to the curb or running up a mountain. The perspective granted by a moment of relation to the larger world, your chilled toes serving as a discomforting reminder that you're a limited, embodied individual bound by space and time, the mundane beauty of kicking through fall leaves - these are all parts of an irreducible wholeness that is at once subjective and universal, or at least universally accessible.

You might think this would make me sympathetic to the claim that earthing can be a great boon to humanity. Earthing, which you may or may not have heard of depending on where you get your information, is the idea that by standing barefoot on the ground a human body can return to an electrical equilibrium that a world of man-made materials disrupts. While I can't dismiss the idea out of hand, the claims that it can solve basically every physical and mental ill outstrip the evidence.

But what really honks me off about it is that rather than using suspect medical claims to encourage barefoot walks in the park the same people who conduct the research and write the breathless blog posts sell a full line of product that let you be grounded through your house's electrical system. So instead of going outside you can be discharging electrons or whatever while by standing on a mat at your computer or lying in bed.

If one of these products has helped you I am truly happy to hear it, and perhaps future research will support the utility of plugging your sheets into the wall. But if you are troubled by a vague unease, before you drop a good chunk of change on a throw blanket, I have a modest suggestion that you might benefit from. Go outside. I don't care if you wear shoes or not. Walk slower than you usually do. Don't listen to music or a podcast. Notice a yellow jacket eating a weird little grub or the little desiccated band that tops each cut blade of grass. Feel the air on your face. Look at a tree. Don't think too much. You can do this in your yard or a park or even on a sidewalk, though you should probably try to find a quiet street. Do this for ten minutes, or longer, or shorter, but do it every day you can. If it's raining and you don't want to go out, stand in your doorway and watch it fall instead. My bet is that this would improve the lives of most people far more than using plug-in wristbands.

If you really can't go outside, poetry can maybe get you halfway there. Here's one of my favorites, about a flock of starlings in a tree:

From a Window

by Christian Wiman

Incurable and unbelieving
in any truth but the truth of grieving,
I saw a tree inside a tree
rise kaleidoscopically
as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.
I pressed my face as close
to the pane as I could get
to watch that fitful, fluent spirit
that seemed a single being undefined
or countless beings of one mind
haul its strange cohesion
beyond the limits of my vision
over the house heavenwards.
Of course I knew those leaves were birds.
Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would
(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man's mind might endow
even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness,
that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.
-Garth (Not the poem. Again, that's by Christian Wiman, who is great.)

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