Getting Your Nature Fix

Yesterday I had the privilege to hear Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix, be interviewed by Vincent Stanley of Patagonia.  The whole event was hosted by the Yale Centre for Business and the Environment. A quick highlight summary of the Q & A is below:

Vincent: What made you write the book?

Florence: I grew up in New York city, worked in Colorado for 2 decades and then our family moved back to Washington, DC.  I was not used to noise pollution, crowds, and asphalt.  I felt I was missing that connection to nature.  I heard of Nature Deficit Disorder that was coined by Richard Louv. I wanted to know if I was having withdrawal in my nervous system.  As a journalist, I got assignments from Outside Magazine and National Geographic to research the effects of nature and thought, “This could be a book!“

Vincent: Patgonia started as Mountain climbing company and then got into clothing and started to give 1% back.  It really was a revolution to them that the health of nature underpins everything.  Has your idea of what nature is changed since you wrote the book?

F: We grew up assuming that we are different from nature and exist outside of it.  We play and recreate in it. It was interesting to spend time in Japan and South Korea to see how they engage in daily life with nature with tiny gardens (birds), etc.  I like Oscar Wilde’s definition, “Nature is where birds fly around uncooked!” I needed to develop a relationship with nature to help keep me sane in DC.  It is interesting, when you ask kids what nature is, they say things like, “Nature is caterpillar.” However, when you ask adults, they say something like Yosemite.  This year, more of us have developed more of a relationship with nature.

Vincent: Can you talk about the Dose curve and the benefits of nearby nature? F: People are always interested in the dose question.  (Slide she presented)

Annually/Bi-Annually – it is great to get out into the wilderness without outside urban intrusions for a number of days.

Monthly – Finland says individuals need 5 hours/month in a nature area to help prevent mild depression In the UK they say that 8 hours/month is required.

Weekly it is suggested to get to a park or wilder area for 2 hrs/week

Daily – This is the bread and butter.  This is getting out into nearby nature.  The dose recommendation is 30 minutes/day.  On a side note, in Japan, only 15 mins of time recommended in natural area IF engaging all their senses at the same time. This helps to lower cortisol levels and heart rate. 

There are health benefits all along the dose curve.  In fact, even just having a house plant helps.

V: – Effects of nature on the brain comes through the senses.  However, not all of nature has positive effects.  Could you speak to this?

F –Overall birdsong is a happy, soothing sound as are wind and water to the human ear.  For birdsong, it is only true if it is a nice birdsong, not a harsh or shrill sound. If we can pull ourselves out of ruminating in our own minds, it is beneficial for us to hear the soundtrack of nature.  If we are listening to our phone while outdoors, we are not hearing these soothing sounds and not getting the biggest benefits from nature.  Look for different sounds and fractals when you go out into nature.  It is a quick shortcut to restoration. 

V: Can you talk about how nature helps to relieve stress?

F – When we were cave dwellers, every night, we would sit around a fire to adapt to the stress from the day.  We don’t experience that type of decompression in our modern world anymore.  During this pandemic, our mirror neurons are not working as they used to.  Normal activities like conversing, laughing, and drinking with friends and family help to engage our social brains.  A lot of individuals have felt quite lonely, and nature can help fulfill this a little bit. Aldo Leopold had stated that when you are in nature, it is hard to feel lonely, but you need to be connected to it.   

V – With this pandemic, there seemed to be more animals coming out, bluer skies (usually had smog before) and trees seemed wider. While watching light on the meadow outside a cabin, I felt it related to a sense of our relationship to nature which can be quite complex.  We need both civilization and nature.

F: Nature is critical for civilization.  We need to have a sense of responsibility for one another, need to be part of community.  Being in nature makes that feeling of community.  All summer last year in DC was spent watching sunsets outside and other neighbours did as well.  People are grumpy and surly – so we need every ounce of nature we can get!

V – SOAR is a school dedicated to children with special needs.  The Headmaster was quoted as saying, “We are not reinventing the wheel, we are breaking it!”

F – SOAR was a school founded for kids with Autism as well as ADHD.  The founder discovered that when these kids were outside, that was when they really thrived.  This is because they are great at receiving multiple inputs and their brains were happy to be functioning at this level.  Unfortunately, this boarding school is awfully expensive. 

V – Can you speak to the Biophilic Design of Singapore?

F – Singapore seems like a city of the future.  It is a dense city, high population, which has a love for nature and desire to incorporate nature into daily life.  Here in the U.S., we have disparities between rich and poor and access to green space.  In Singapore, you have to more than replace the green space you take up as a developer.  That is why you see rooftop gardens and vines off sides of buildings.  There are electric trees by the waterfront which feels a little Disneyfied.  There were sights of nature but not the sounds of it.  Instead, there was pulsing rock music.

F – I am concerned about inequities that exist in access to nature.  Change will only happen once institutions change.  This includes things like how we design our cities and our parks. 100 Million Americans do not live close to a park. Two things I see as beneficial:

  • Free play and nature education like being able to grow things would be good for schools.
  • Some health care institutions are prescribing green prescriptions. 

Our bodies become comfortable when in nature, as opposed to traffic circles!

I am most excited about Grief and Trauma and how nature will prove to be extremely helpful and comforting for big mental health issues as well as daily challenges. 

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In closing, Florence was talking about how important quality outdoor spaces are for us well before our lives changed due to Covid.  We need these places for our physical and mental well-being.  May each of us realize that in fact we are nature and what we do to nature, we do to ourselves.  I would love to hear any feedback you have on this.