Can I Get a Ride to the Trailhead? I’m Late for My Therapy Appointment!
I’ve recently fallen in love with The Wild, a new podcast by wildlife researcher, conservationist, and educator Chris Morgan. His May 21 episode sat in my queue for a few days, though. I had a lot of stuff demanding my full attention: work deadlines, a minor family crisis, and a new website to build. None of these were compatible with tuning out the world, and I couldn’t spare the time and attention to listen.
So episode eight’s title Forest Therapy lingered in my notifications, apparently when I needed it the most.
Have you ever been so mentally exhausted that you couldn’t sleep? That happened to me last night. I finally stuck in my earbuds and hit play. Morgan talked about having recently read an article in a 2012 issue of Outside (yes, he found it in a doctor’s waiting room) called, Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning. He reached out to Florence Williams, the author, and she joined him on this episode to summarize what she learned while researching that article and her 2017 best-selling book, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.
Shinrin Yoku: Forest Bathing
In both texts, Williams introduces us to physiological anthropologist Yoshifumi Miyazaki. He and his team spent years comparing more than 600 subjects’ physiological responses to either peaceful forest walks, or dense, bustling urban environments. Their conclusion? Humans haven’t evolved beyond the point at which nature isn’t their default environment, and living outside of it is contrary to what we are on a cellular level. In other words, we need regular interaction with nature to maintain our physical and mental wellness.
And that applies to those who freak out at the sight of a ladybug. Especially so.
In the 1980s, Shinrin Yoku, or “forest bathing” became a thing in Japan. I prefer the other, more accurate translation, “taking in the forest atmosphere,” but I get it. Brevity. In the first half of the podcast episode, Morgan joined Julie Hepp, a certified forest therapy guide, on Washington State’s Bainbridge Island. Hepp’s training draws heavily from Shinrin Yoku philosophy, and from findings by Miyazaki and his colleagues.
Morgan’s spent most of his life in the forest, but listening to him narrate his experience as it unfolds, he seemed almost out of sorts as Hepp led him through some grounding mindfulness exercises. I imagine he felt as though someone was giving him a tour of his own home, pointing out things that have always been there, but he never noticed. Mindfulness, as practiced in forest therapy, invites us to stop and be acutely aware of each sensation we experience. In so doing, we can more easily tune out the chatter in our minds that distracts us from simply being.
Dirty Kids Are Happy Kids
The National Wildlife Federation has done a great job protecting our environment, and now they’re trying to save our kids. It makes sense; without a greater appreciation for our natural world, what kind of stewardship can we expect from the younger generations? NWG has published a series of reports summarizing studies that support what we already know: Kids should get off their screens, rebel against their over-scheduled activities, and indulge in unstructured outdoor playtime. Here’s what else they have to say:
- Students who regularly engage in unstructured outdoor play are better able to concentrate.
- Students who spend regular time outdoors are better at thinking outside the box during conflict resolution and general problem-solving.
- Access to nature in an educational setting positively influences learning by enhancing attentiveness, test scores and overall performance.
- Kids who play in the dirt experience elevated moods, reduced anxiety, and greater receptiveness to learning.
- Kids who spend time in natural environments may experience reduced ADHD symptoms.
These studies go back to at least the 1970s, when University of Kansas psychologists Paul and Ruth Ann Atchley and David Strayer of the University of Utah monitored participants in an Outward Bound course. At the end of three days romping around in the wilderness, the kids scored better on creativity tests than they had immediately before their adventure.
Those are just the psychological and emotional benefits. The writing’s on the wall: Kids who don’t get physical exercise and fresh air are at risk of diabetes, obesity, vitamin D deficiencies, and cardiovascular problems.
Williams is fully aware of that little ADHD factoid; she applauds the work of child advocate Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder and two follow-up volumes intended to get kids, adults, and families to take their “vitamin N.” The hits keep on coming as Williams uncovers more and more anecdotal and scientific evidence supporting this deeper symbiotic human/nature relationship. It’s enough to compel even the shrewdest HR directors to grant paid medical leave for family rafting trips down the Colorado River.
At the very least, all these reports should compel us to restore or implement recess, nature camps, enhanced biology classes, and interactive landscapes and gardens on our school campuses.
When You Can’t Go To Nature…
So much for my Machiavellian to-do list. Immediately after listening to the episode, I downloaded Williams’ book to my Kindle. When I scanned the introduction, I recognized some of the studies and terms from a gardening blog I’d recently read. For example, I knew that biophilia, or “love of life,” is becoming a catch phrase. In his 1984 book Biophilia, Edward O. Wilson discussed the Biophilia Hypothesis which infers that humans have an innate need to connect with life beyond our own species. You may never have heard the term before, but I promise you—now that you have, you’ll hear biophilia everywhere.
Biophilic design, for example, is becoming quite the big deal. Take for example the growing trend in which landscape architects build Patrick Blanc-inspired living walls in (and on) corporate office buildings, museums, and government facilities. Based solely on their aesthetic value, these living art installations certainly improve the workplace environment. The investment isn’t one hundred percent altruistic or cosmetic, though. Indoor landscapes reduce stress and improve productivity and work quality.
Do we need any more reasons to prioritize outdoor time? Can we stop feeling guilty about pursuing solitude, even if only for an hour spent watching bugs in the garden? The research is there. Most of us are psychologically malnourished and operating at a fraction of capacity. Things won’t get better—for us or for those who rely upon us—until we get outside and get dirty.
Featured image by Quentin Dr.