What if there was something you could do that would improve your life, make you feel better, make you more productive, and even help you live longer? What if it were available in many forms and in many places, frequently costing you little or nothing to access? And what if that something was simply nature?
An extremely likable Florence Williams travels the globe talking to people who are providing scientific evidence of this miracle cure. Specific guidelines and fascinating background are presented in her 2017 book, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, (W.W. Norton & Company, 280 pages).
In Japan, it’s known as forest bathing. South Korea takes it a bit further and provides you with a forest healing instructor. The Fins have power trails and the Scots enjoy their rambles. People the world over recognize the benefits of a walk in the woods and scientists have documented its effects. Exposure to nature lowers cortisol, blood pressure, and heart rate. It also reduces the symptoms of dementia and depression while increasing immunity. Since no one can patent or copyright nature, there are no advertising campaigns promoting these findings.
While humans have adapted to modern life and the urban environment, they evolved in natural settings. Our bodies and brains are naturally adapted to the sights, sounds, and smells of nature. The smell of earth after a good rain or the smell of certain trees like the Hinoki Cypress will increase the cells in your body that fight viral disease. While urban background noise increases hypertension, heart attacks, and strokes, nature can provide a remedy. Proximity to major airports negatively affects the reading comprehension and memory of elementary students while increasing the incidence of hyperactivity. You may think you can tune it out, but the noise catches up with you. Daily rests and substituting wind, water, and birdsong for sound pollution can mitigate the negative effects.
Of course, humans are visual creatures. Much of the information we need to survive enters our brain through our eyes. Williams reviews studies that indicate a simple view of greenery from the window can “support increased worker productivity, less job stress, higher academic grades and test scores, and less aggression in inner city residents.” Boring deeper into the cause and effect, she introduces the reader to the mathematical concept of fractals, geometric shapes that can be split into parts, each of which is an approximate copy of the whole. Nature produces these patterns in features like the branching of a tree, ocean waves, and cloud formations. An American physicist and a life-long lover of Jackson Pollack paintings, Richard Taylor, teamed up with a Swedish environmental scientist, Caroline Hagerhall, to test people’s reaction to landscapes. They determined the preferred ratio of large coarse patterns to fine detailed patterns. This ratio also reflects the way the human eye scans a scene.
“Your visual system is in some way hardwired to understand fractals,” said Taylor. “The stress-reduction is triggered by a physiological resonance that occurs when the fractal structure of our eye matches that of the fractal image being viewed.”
The book supports the concept of a pyramid of nature exposure. The bottom, daily layer consists of the views, plants, animals, natural lighting, and water features available to us as we go about our daily lives. Some of this exposure is set by where we live and work and how we commute. One step up 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.” The third level would be all day or weekend excursions to forests or another natural area each month. Some people maintain a small cabin in the woods or a lake house to meet this need. Finally, every year or two, she recommends a multi-day experience of the wilderness.
Like the fractals represented in the natural landscapes, the book is a pleasing blend of big picture narrative and finely teased details. Williams’ sense of humor and personality show through the pages as she relates her experiences meeting with various researchers, subjecting herself to experiments and participating in outdoor therapies herself.
Written by Gary Roe, Eco Partners Inc.