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Nature has health-making qualities, human health fixing qualities

The word fixed can be used in many contexts.  We rather like the way Florence Williams has taken the word and applied it to our way of living that as she notes, has become very much disconnected from the natural world in which we are located.  We don’t usually associate the word fix with a human problem.  Rather we tend to use it when speaking of a car or household appliance that’s in need of some repair work.  To get a human fixed seems a bit mechanical and remote, but maybe this is a word for our times, since we have indeed become remote from nature in so many ways – from the food that comes from distant places, to our clothes manufactured off-shore, to our kitchen appliances and entertainment gadgets most of which are made in China, to our play and entertainment that comes on a screen or by way of some social media platform, and fitness in a gym – without the need to ever interact with nature. Getting our technology fix seems more important, certainly easier, than getting a health and well-being fix.

For Williams nature has a lot going for her, when it comes to fixing our broken spirits and reinvigorating our depleted emotions.  She says: “We evolved in nature. It’s strange we’d be so disconnected.”

WHO definition of health: “a complete state of physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” The former health minister of Scotland calls this health-making “salutogenesis.”

For some take home ideas that build the case for nature to be a primary health provider, here are some extracts from: The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier and More Creative, by Florence Williams.

Introduction – The Cordial air

P 9
“Nature neurons” is the essential link between our nervous systems and the natural world they evolved in.  So why this nature deficit disorder that has become so widespread especially among young people?

We evolved in nature. It’s strange we’d be so disconnected.

WHO definition of health: “a complete state of physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” The former health minister of Scotland calls this health-making “salutogenesis.”

Ch 1 – the Biophilia Effect

“People come out from the city and literally shower in the greenery,” says Japanese guide Kunio

Japan has forty-eight official “Forest therapy” trails designated for shinrin yoku by Japan’s Forestry Agency.  Forest bathing is a well-accepted means of connecting with nature and recommended part of looking after your health and well-being.

But pretty much any slouching screen fiend can spend time in a pocket of trees somewhere.  If there is one man who can demonstrate how forest therapy works, it’s Yoshifumi Miyazaki.  A physical anthropologist and vice director of the Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences at Chiba Uni he believes that because humans evolved in nature, it’s where we feel most comfortable, even if don’t always know it.

Biophilia – social psychologist Erish Fromm, who described it in 1972 as “the passionate love of life and al all that is alive; it is the wirsh to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea or a social group.

Popularised by Harvard entomologist E O Wilson.

Naturalist John Muir observed that we are most at “home” when in nature, whether or not we consciously know it or not.   By contrast, Muir wrote of time not in the wilderness: “I am degenerating into a machine for making money.” Make that a machine with clogging pipes.

Ch 2 – How many neuroscientists does it take to find a Stinking Milkvetch?

Studies show that when people wallk in nature, they obsess over negative thoughts much less than when they walk in a city.

Nature is restorative, offering a reprieve, nature gives our thinking brains a chance to recover.

The idea of nature as a kind of orchestral conductor of attentional resources isn’t at all new.  Remarkably, Frederick Law Olmsted wrote of exactly this phenomenon in 1865, arguing that viewing nature “employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilisers it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind-over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system.”  Slowly, slowly, academia started to catch up.

Getting into nature has benefits that have been described in numerous ways.

Rachel and Stephen Kaplan called their hypothesis the Attention Restoration Theory, or ART.

The more time spent in nature, the less stress we experience.

Roger Ulrich has come up with what he calls the Stress-Reduction Theory, or SRT.

Both the ART and the SRT claim that nature makes us happier and smarter.

To understand just how committed Korean is to better-health-through-forests, I paid a visit to the HQ of the Korean Forest Agency.

Ch 4 – Birdbrain

The US National Park Service is uncommonly interested in noise pollution because it operates under a federal mandate to protect its resources, including, since 2000, natural soundscapes.

Kurt Fristop is in charge of this work and coordinates the science at the rather romantic sounding “Natural Sounds and Night Skies” division of the agency.

Research includes not only the documenting the ill effects of anthropogenic noise on visitors and wildlife, but also documenting the beneficial effects of its absence:  Why should we save the sounds of nature?  What do they do for us?

He applies his engineering skills to concepts of evolution, survival and ecosystem health.  “We all interact with our environment through our senses,” he told me, “so any pollution not only affects the fabric or our lives but our connections to everything else.”

These days we might worship absolute quiet, but John Ruskin wrote: “No air is sweet that is silent; it is only sweet when full of low currents of under sound – triplets of birds, and murmur and chirps of insects.”  To the extent that nature sounds are soothing to most humans, three in particular stand out: wind, water and birds.  They are the trifecta of salubrious listening.

Darwin devoted ten pages to birdsong and six to human music in The Descent of Man, noting that both have their origins in sexual selection, the desire to attract a mate.

Ch 5 – Box of Rain

We’ve become starers.  Starers at screens.  We don’t blink enough.  In the absence of outdoor space and light and with the increasing time spent in front of screens the rates of myopia are on the increase, in wealthier, urban parts of the country.

As recent studies in Ohio, Singapore and Australia found, the real difference between those with myopia and those without is the numbers of hours spent outside. Sungoight stimulates the release of dopamine from the retina, which in turn appears to prevent the eyeball from growing too oblong.

The best solution is to go outside.

The best kind of outside is into nature.

Ch 6 – You May Squat Down and Feel a Plant

In Finland there are now — what Marko Leppanen calls: “health nature trails”

These are sensory areas intended to help us re-awaken our inner selves.

One of the ways is to develop a sense of gratitude, says Leppanen. “To be grateful is good for your health.  Today we can be grateful to ourselves for visiting this forest.”

Another feature is a stone-laid labyrinth the size of a large living room.  This was constructed by local in 1999, but it’s a not to an ancient islander tradition.  Labyrinths can be places that represent mystery, wandering and play.

Grown-ups in Finland are encouraged to  play outdoors.

The average Finn engages in nature-based recreation two to three times per week.

All told, over 95 per cent of Finns regularly spend time recreating in the outdoors.

There is virtunally no such thing as trespassing in Finland.  Finnish law operates under the concept of jokamiehenoikeus    or “everyman’s right,” which means anyone can traipse over anyone else’s land, picking berries, picking mushrooms, picking their nose, whatever.  They can even camp and make campfires.  The only things they can’t do are cut timber or hunt game. (Right-to-roam laws in a few other aggressively democratic European countries such as Denmark, Norway and Scotland are similar but not quite so lenient.)

To many Americans this sounds like a socialist takeover of private property …. To the Finnish, though, jokamiehenoikeus   is the essence of freedom, because it means you can walk forever.  In a small country where everyone is distantly related, the please-share-nicely concept works.

It makes sense then that the Finnish are uniquely devoted to their forests, and are coughing up cash to study them if for no other reason than to justify their constitutionally protected frolicking.

What value forests — Kalevi Korpela, is motivated to work out how to help Finns reframe their dark Nordic psyche.

The Finnish word for healthy is, terve, the word for “hardy pine”, able to withstand storms.

He came up with the idea of a “Power Trail”, a well-signed, self-guided nature walk that maximizes nature’s beneficial effects.  Hikers wouldn’t need a specially certified ranger or a class or a big healing forest, just some views, ideally including water, and strategic instructions.

There are now half a dozen similar ones throughout northern Europe.

Nine stations on the Trail

S 1 – A cognitive task

S2 –  A sign instructing to look at the ground and the sky, breathe deeply and relax my shoulders.  “Feel your mind and body becoming calm,” it said

S3 – asked walkers to listen to the sounds of nature and “Let your thoughts run free.”  Also, “upi may squat down and feel a plant.”

S4 – asked me to walk to a spot nearby where I feel  peaceful.

S 5 – identify your mood and state of mind.  And so on through to finding an element of nature from the view in front of you that could be a metaphor for yourself.  I chose a tall tree sheltering smaller trees.  I missed my kids and was getting sentimental now.

At the end of the walk I took a cognitive test and questionnaire.

Ch 7 – Garden of Hedon

Branching Out — Scotish program  — to provide mental  health care outdoors

Johan Ottosson, studied at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

He noted:  “  … If you are in bad shape and low energy, you can’t be with other people too much.  But you can be with animals, plants, stones and water.”

[SC paraphrase — It’s important to have a sense of perspective, of where we fit in]

Mid-twentieth century American psychologist, Howard Searles recognized that nature could provide useful objects of transference.

“The nonhuman environment, far from being of little or no account to human personality development, constitutes one of the most basically important ingredients of human psychological existence …  over recent decades we have come from dwelling in another world in which the living works of nature either predominated or were near at hand, to dwelling in an environment dominated by a technology which is wondrously powerful and yet nonetheless dead.”   And that was in 1960.

Here’s the European coda on public health from Finland, Sweden and Scotland: envourage people – especially distressed populations – to walk, often together, and provide safe, attractive and naturalistic places for them to do it.

Ch 8 – Rambling On

The idea of solvitur ambulando (in walking it will be solved) has been around since St. Augustine, but well before that Aristotle thought and taught while walking in the open-air parapets of the Lyceum.  It has long been believed that walking in restorative settings could lead not only to physical vigor but to mental clarity and event bursts of genius., inspiration (with its etymology in breathing) and overall sanity.  As French academic Frederic Gros writes in A Philosophy of Walking, it’s simply “the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found.”  Jefferson walked to clear his mind, Thoreau, like Aristotle, walked to think.

Walt Whitman was a strong advocate, exhorting men to be more manly by striding around outside

“Up! The world is full of zest and beauty for you, if you approach it in the right spirit!  Out in the morning.”

For William Wordsworth, nature as he declared in “Tintern Abbey,” was “the nurse, / The guide, the guardian of my heart.”

Wordworth is said to have walked 180,000 miles in his lifetime, composing poems as he went.

We forget today that poets were the philosophers of their time, and that the good ones changed the course of history.

[SC – Walking crosses all socio economic boundaries]

Reference Rebecca Solnit: Wanderlust: A History of Walking.

Walking was a philosophical act, facilitating a direct experience with divinity.  It was a political act, mixing the educated classes with the poor (who had always walked).  And it was an intellectual act, generating ideas and art.  The ramblers of yore embraced a kind of radical common sense.

Ch 9: Get Over Yourself

Ch 10: Water on the Brain

Ch 11: Please Pass the Hacksaw

Friedrich Frobel was born in 1782 near Weimar, in the heart of Germany’s ancient forests and lush vales.

Frobel understood that an education filled with nature and art could instill a lifeflong readiness to learn.  He believed children would also pick up emotional skills like empathy, as well as a profound sense of the interconnection of all living things.  He stated a school for small children in 1837.  It was while waling in the wood that he came up the name:  kindergarten.  In it, children would absorb the natural world through all their senses.  They would grow plants outdoors, exercise, dance and sing.   They would manipulate simple objects like blocks, wooden spheres and coloured papers, thus learning, almost despite themselves, the universal laws of geometry, form, physics and design.

Frobel’s naturecentric ideas didn’t disappear from Europe (as it had been thought).  To this day, European kids aren’t taught reading and maths in earnest until they reach age seven.  German has more than 1,000 ‘forest kindergartens” called Waldkindergarten.

Containerised kids as they spend increasing time in car-seats, high chairs and strollers, and then shift into sedentary media consumption

Ch 12 – Nature for the Rest of Us

…. How to bring the lessons back to where most of us live, in cities.  Here are some of the essential take-homes:  we all need nearby nature; we benefit cognitively and psychologically from having trees, bodies of water, and green spaces just to look at; we should be smarter about landscaping our schools, hospitals, workplaces and neighbourhoods so everyone gains.  We need quick incursions to natural areas that engage our senses.  Everyone needs access to clean, quiet and safe natural refuges in a city.  Short exposures to nature can make us less aggressive, more creative, more civic minded and healthier overall.  For warding off depression, let’s go with the Finnish recommendation of five hours a month in nature, minimum.  But as the poets, neuroscientists and river runners have shown us, we also at times need longer, deeper immersions into wild spaces to recover from severe distress, to imagine our futures and to be our best civilized selves.

… two big lessons from Singapore.  For greenery to truly seep into all neighbourhoods, there needs to be a strong governing vision.  Second, urban nature will serve us best when it’s allowed to be a little bit wild, at least in spots.  I couldn’t help but wonder if cities had something better to offer in the awe department.  Real nature, the kind we evolved in, incorporates entropy, blood, high winds, a beating, pulsing geophony.  In Singapore, nature more or less looked like nature, but It didn’t sound like nature.  It didn’t act like nature.

Olmsted understood the need for less formality.  In his principles for park design, he thought no features should stand our as too distracting or spectacular.  There should be no flamboyant flower beds and only a minimal amount of overt architecture.  The magic formula:  areas defined by trees.  Winding pathways leading to mystery, flirtatiously half concealed by trees.  Trees, trees, trees.

Toronto in Canada takes its 10 million trees  very seriously, valuing its urban forest at $7 billion.  A recent study showed the higher a neighbourhood’s tree density, the lower the incidence of heart and metabolic disease.


But are not exercise and the open air within the reach of us all?  Walt Whitman

… the benefits of nature work along a dose curve.  Tim Beatley, who runs the Biophilic Cities Project at the University of Virginia, promotes a concept called the nature pyramid.  It’s a recommended menu for getting the nature humans need, and I think it’s a genius idea.  It also happens to mirror the structure of this book, … etc.

Inspired by the food pyramid, Beatley places at the base the daily interactions with nearby nature that help us destress, find focus and lighten our mental fatigue.  These are the birds and trees and fountains in our neighbourhoods, our pets and house plants, public and private architecture that allow for daylight, fresh air and patches of blue sky and naturalistic landscaping.  These are our daily vegetable.

Moving up the pyramid are weekly outings to parks and waterways, places where the sounds and hassles of the city recede, places that we should aim to imbibe at least an hour or so a week in the Finnish fashion.