I’d like to invite anyone who is interested in mindfulness in nature to join me this coming Monday, August 15 at 7pm, when I will be talking about the practice of mindfulness in nature, the benefits of time spent in nature as well as the benefits of mindfulness. I’ll include a bit about my upcoming book about mindfulness in various places across Texas, with some photos by Meghan Cassidy, the photographer for the book. Additionally, I’ll touch on Kayla West’s and my LBJ Grasslands Project, an effort to document the natural and human history of the LBJ National Grasslands and take people out to introduce them to this wonderful place.
Guests of the Master Naturalist chapter are welcome, meaning that you do not have to be a member to attend. Details on my Calendar page and below.
There are no trees, birds, or mysterious nighttime choruses of frog calls in this post. There are only thoughts about how crucial it is to preserve the “our lives” portion of this blog’s theme – “our lives in nature.” Our lives are embedded in nature, and they are also embedded in societies and cultures. Whatever threatens our lives also threatens our role in understanding, protecting, and being with nature. When groups of people threaten our health and well-being, our ability to fully function as individuals, and our very existence, we begin to break down. And then our relationships with other people and with nature suffer.
So much is happening right now that is frightening. So much that threatens us and those we love. Against a backdrop of insurrection, there are calls for people to be murdered just because they are gay or politically progressive. Much of our government consists of people who insist that anyone should be easily able to get (and carry) a weapon of war. When anyone can carry a weapon of war, some of them will bring war to our communities. Americans own 20 million AR15-style weapons and when one of those owners murders school children, the power and danger of that weapon of war holds law enforcement at bay. To whom will we turn for protection when those who should protect us are out-gunned?
And now a Supreme Court that many consider to be at the lowest point in its history has decided that states, not women, have control over women’s bodies when it comes to abortion. The most extreme of the justices has announced that the court should go after the rights to use contraceptives, to privacy between sexual partners, and the right of people to marry who they love, regardless of gender. Some rights, like privacy and making our own medical and personal decisions, are not spelled out in the Constitution but previous Supreme Court justices protected them. The idea was that these important rights are implied by other parts of the Constitution, and government cannot interfere in such matters without a compelling reason. People talk about this as “substantive due process,” and the majority of the current Supreme Court is not a fan of substantive due process.
What can be done to protect our lives in society and in nature? What can I do to protect my own ability to be a meaningful part of society and nature, and not succumb to apathy, rage, or despair? Those things harm us personally and can destroy our ability to bring about change. I need to stay engaged with people and issues and feel emotions without being overwhelmed by them.
The work toward a more just and inclusive society is never really done. Social and economic pressures constantly shift, there are setbacks, and new generations bring new ideas and different perspectives. It is easy to become apathetic, especially for people who are working extra hard just to keep a roof over their heads and take care of their kids. People get tired. We sometimes feel the need to disengage with these problems, let someone else deal with it. The other side, people who want to impose their vision of how society should work, want us to be apathetic. They also want us to question whether we’re being reasonable because that’s one route to apathy. They suggest that we should calm down, but they have no such doubts about their own reasonableness.
When I feel the tug of apathy and the urge to disengage, I’m going to:
Be understanding of my need for rest and diversions
Recall how hard others have worked for issues that are too important to set aside
If necessary, re-evaluate what I do and choose tasks and roles that are a good fit for me
Visit the people and places that rejuvenate me
Re-engage – soon!
We also must avoid rage. I’m not talking about anger which is a thoroughly appropriate response to what is happening. Anger is almost unavoidable if what is happening truly matters to us. However, if I am consumed by constant anger, my energy may be wasted in attacks on others or a kind of simmering, unthinking rage. We can use the energy of anger, but we need to figure out how to use it effectively. This means I want to:
Attack problems, bad ideas, stupid arguments, cruelty, authoritarian political campaigns and the like; attacking the people associated with those things won’t help
Remember that rage comes from fear and helplessness, so when anger becomes overwhelming I will examine its sources and try to address them
That first commitment is difficult. I can think of one ex-President and several people in Congress who, in my view, deserve whatever ad hominem attack might come their way. It would feel good, but it wouldn’t really help. When I do it, my sense of identity is fractured between “we win through the ability to hurt others” and “we win through our ideas and through nonviolent resistance.” It’s difficult because giving a boot to the backside sure would feel good.
Another challenge is avoiding despair, that awful hopelessness where nothing seems possible. Despair paralyzes us. It’s akin to that protective response in the autonomic nervous system that shuts us down when nothing more can be done. That can happen when fighting is useless and all that the nervous system can do to get us through it is to make us immobile and numb. And I think that despair is its close cousin, a sort of surrender that sets in when nothing seems to work.
When we are at the point of despair, it is essential to swim back to the surface, to take care of ourselves for a little and get ready to try something else. Here’s what I hope I can do:
Connect with someone who understands – they could sit with me and listen, and I would not be as alone with the problem; the point is to not be isolated
Like in the case of apathy, visit people and places that rejuvenate me
Examine the situation and look for good news, even if it’s small and seems dwarfed by the size of the problem; remind myself that something is possible
Find ways to contribute, to do something because doing something feels like I have at least a little bit of control, a way of making a difference; fight the sense of helplessness
Establish a sense of safety – physical safety if need be, as well as psychological safety
That last one, about psychological safety, is a little tricky. If I’m going to take a stand about something, I can expect that some will disagree and disapprove. I have to figure out what is tolerable. Name-calling by strangers might be no big deal but death threats may not be something I can let roll off my back. I need to figure out what adds to my psychological safety and what erodes it past what I can tolerate. Each person’s tolerance for risk is different, and that’s ok.
If you want to work towards a just and inclusive society, thank you and I wish you great good luck in navigating the challenges I’m thinking about in these pages. We need healthy systems in nature as well as healthy societies. Our lives in one area depend on what happens to us in the other.
Look at what’s going on around us. World events, greed, cynicism, hate and disinformation squeeze our capacity for hope into a narrow thing, almost hidden away. And yet hope is essential. We have to believe in the possibility of good things and good people. We must have some expectation that things could get better, and that our actions could make a difference sometimes. We have to believe that there will be a flower among the thorns and that somewhere in our numb, angry or sad feelings there are moments when we will smile. Without hope, we would sink into despair. Hope keeps us from giving up, from spiraling ever downward. If we are lost to despair, everything gets worse.
Hope is a belief or an expectation, even if it sometimes exists below our awareness. Where does it come from? It doesn’t depend on thinking that a steady stream of good things will happen, or else hope would only belong to the naive and the lucky. Life is rarely like that. Hope sometimes appears when things are looking grim, and can get us through hard times. How is it that when we’re confronted with hardship, sickness and conflict, we can experience hope?
Does it depend on faith? Not religion, necessarily, but a belief in the future even without evidence. A belief in the world’s capacity for good, sometimes when there is evidence all around us that the world can be cruel and corrupt. By “the world,” I mean human societies and governments.
We have to be able to stand with one foot in the world of bad news and the other in the world in which people are good and kind. We have to face corruption, greed and incompetence in order to oppose it where we can. Standing a little in that world, we do our best to learn how and where bad things happen in order to keep ourselves and our loved ones as safe as possible.
But planting the other foot where we find good things is essential. If we are completely immersed in a world dominated by lies, cruelty and such things, we risk losing our perspective, becoming cynical, and slipping into despair – we lose hope. We have to remain some of the time in a place where our reality is shaped by things like kindness, generosity and peace.
I’m thinking of the person who does not sugar coat the problems of the world, but keeps looking for and noticing good things, nurturing and holding them in a place where they will not be overwhelmed by the bad news of the world. Where does that ability come from? I think such people are mostly made by experience, not born to be “immune” to troubles and worries. My training and experience with families and young children inform this opinion.
I think this ability to keep finding positive things in a difficult world is more likely to be present if we have had experiences early in life with a mostly trustworthy, loving world. It happens when we have had attuned caregivers, usually (not always, for we are all imperfect) meeting our needs and showing that they care. Such a person might be a parent, grandparent, or someone else with whom we live or spend a lot of time. As babies and toddlers, we still have moments of frustration and rage, and we might overwhelm our caregivers occasionally. But afterwards, they welcome us back and heal the breaks in our relationship.
There are people with a capacity for hope whose start in life did not include relationships like that. I’m sure that somewhere, later on, they had a teacher, relative, foster parent, or other important person who was steadfast, caring, and able to do their part to rebuild a relationship when it gets torn. These are the things we need to make sure to do for each other now. (If you are interested in how people who had early difficulty can later develop secure attachments, read this article by Dr. Hal Shorey.)
Regardless of what happened in the past, at times like these we can use a little nudge toward hopefulness, an idea or two about finding hope. Here are some thoughts to consider:
Stay close to those significant people who help you keep standing with one foot in what’s good. These are the trustworthy ones, those who really listen, reach out, forgive, make amends, and accept who you are. No matter how much people like me seek solitude, we are wired for relationships, and those relationships are the engines of hope.
Figure out how to budget your time so that you spend some of it in what’s beautiful and good in the world. Nature, art, time with friends, projects that contribute to what’s generous and good. Remember the difference between the distraction that comes from fun and the sustenance that comes from what is really good. (If you’re working very many hours, caring for children or those who are sick, there may seem to be no time for this. If that is the case, even a little bit of time spent in this way may make a difference.)
Find some time for quiet and stillness, time to reflect or at least to rest from the constant barrage of sounds and images we are confronted with. For some people, learning meditation or yoga can be helpful.
Find time and energy for self-care in whatever way you can. You could consider the first three ideas above to be self-care, but there may be specific problems needing to be resolved. Any improvement with such problems will free up emotional energy needed for hopefulness.
Remember that when you are stressed, tired and discouraged, the way you think about things is affected. It’s helpful to step back from your thoughts and conclusions and see them as your perception of reality and not reality itself. How you see your situation can be colored by the weight of what you are carrying. A more hopeful view may become visible once you recognize this.
(A version of this post first appeared on the website for my activities as a Licensed Psychological Associate.)
We want you to spend time in nature and come away in love with the place. We want your kids to love the grasses, ponds and woods. “We” are the LBJ Grasslands Project, and so far that is Michael Smith and Kayla West. We think time spent in nature is important, and we’ll meet you out there and show you around.
Why is it important? We value your experiences of wonder and fascination, as well as the sense of relatedness, empathy and peace that can come from time spent in nature. In addition, our world needs as many people as possible who have a strong connection with nature. Without that connection, we do not care for the earth around us, and the land, water, and all living things suffer as a result.
The suffering of the earth – the climate, the loss of species, the oceans choking on plastic and carbon, and other issues – is a moral challenge to us and ultimately it threatens human survival. The only answer to it is for us to live in a healthy relationship with all the lives around us. What would such a relationship look like? It would not require us to return to a primitive existence, but it would ask us to weigh our priorities differently. Taking less and giving back are things we do only when we truly care about someone or something.
Meeting people somewhere in nature, introducing them to the community of animals and plants, and finding ways to make the visit playful, memorable, inspiring – that might be a gift to you, but it is surely a gift to ourselves. Sharing places like the LBJ National Grasslands brings considerable joy. It was especially fulfilling to read what Jessica wrote in a letter to the grasslands: “I don’t think any of us play outside enough, and your beauty and diversity inspired such curiosity and creativity in my kids yesterday. I’m grateful.”
Let me spell out a little more about what we are doing. The two of us are naturalists, and that means we know something about living things and places like grasslands and woodlands. We are also really interested in how people benefit from nature and how they can spend time “soaking in” all the details of a wild place, paying attention to sights, sounds, smells, even the touch of the land and water. Some folks get outside because it is a pleasant setting for a picnic or outdoor sports, but when we walk in these places we are focused on any or all of the thousands of things we find – trees, birds, mosses and ferns growing on a shady embankment, clouds, a spider tucked away in tree branches, and so on.
Kayla and I have specialized interests in some species, and you’ll find us documenting some of what we see on the iNaturalist app. However, adding to a big list of species that we have seen is not the main point. You don’t have to have any special knowledge of things like geology or botany to walk with us. The walks we want to lead in the LBJ Grasslands Project are for spending time in the prairies and woodlands and following our curiosity wherever it leads us. Sometimes the emphasis might be on understanding the plants and animals and how they live. At other times we might be interested in practicing mindfulness, with little talking and an emphasis on the direct experience of being present.
Our walks are fairly slow and pretty quiet, with the goal of taking time to really see and hear the place, think about what is going on around us, and cause as little disturbance as possible. A big group would scare the birds, frogs, and other wildlife off, and we might not get much individual interaction with you. Instead of bringing a class with a bunch of people, we go in very small groups, maybe just two to five people. (In the pandemic that we are still struggling with, small groups allow for more distance between participants, too.)
Kids are welcome, as long as they are a pretty good match for the kind of walks I just described. That means that children nine or ten and older are the best fit. Fourteen-year-old Abbey wrote, “I loved the hike, I learned so many things that I wouldn’t learn in school.” If you are interested in bringing younger children, please talk with us and perhaps we can arrange something that will engage them and be meaningful for everyone.
I should also mention that we do not charge for these walks, which we do just because they needed doing and because we get intangible rewards for doing them. If this interests you, please join the Facebook group for the LBJ Grasslands Project, https://www.facebook.com/groups/lbjgrasslandsproject, where we talk about these things and plan future outings. If you don’t do Facebook, I would be happy to hear from you if you email firstname.lastname@example.org.
We need nature. Flowing water, plants, sunshine or clouds, the simple sounds of birds and breezes.
Research is confirming the substance of what most of us intuit: we are better when we spend time in nature – happier, healthier, freer from the darkness that clings to us when we are closed within our own contraptions.
Some people benefit from playing in nature, and some benefit from the quiet focus of mindfulness. Some embrace the study of animals or plants, or how their lives are entwined to make ecological communities, and others draw, paint, or write about it. There is certainly more than one way to spend time in nature and be renewed and nurtured by it.
I love quiet periods of mindful attention, and also taking the time to write about it while sitting at the edge of a meadow or prairie. Studying nature is also important to me. Someone else might want to play music in some open spot in the woods or spend the afternoon fishing. Is nature good for us regardless of what we do while we’re there?
I have some educated guesses about how we may get the most benefit from our time in nature. These are informed by what I’ve read and what I know about psychology and the research on the benefits of nature.
Taking time to notice and reflect. Whether it’s play, study, meditation or art, taking time to notice details and enjoy the experience is likely to be an important part of how nature benefits us. Related to noticing is pausing to reflect on it. In general the ability to reflect, to be aware of what we are perceiving and feeling, is beneficial.
Presence. If we are playing in the creek, we genuinely feel our connection with the rocks and water. You don’t have to read that in any mystical way; it is simply a kind of awareness of, and intentional interaction with, where you are at that moment. You are present in that creek. It is not just a “stand in” for every other stream – it is not a generic experience, like a creek video on an exercise machine.
Quiet mind. Except in some kinds of mindfulness practice, we don’t have to be silent. In a walk in the woods, people often talk with each other, and when we write in a nature journal, words come to us. A few comments and questions about what we are experiencing do not take us far from where we are, in the way that other thoughts and conversations do. In other words, “I think this is Glen Rose Yucca” keeps us in nature, while “What movie should we see tonight” separates us from it. When it comes to our busy, worried, chatty minds, quieter is probably better.
Acceptance and kindness. The more open and accepting we are towards what we are experiencing, the better off we are. The less we see something through the lens of our preferences and wants (and the more we can see it as it is), the more we benefit. This goes hand-in-hand with kindness, the wish for ourselves and everything around us to live in wellness and peace, with as few struggles as possible. These attitudes are closely connected with the practice of mindfulness. I think they are beneficial in visits to nature and in any other context.
This is another blog entry that is “off the beaten path,” but I’m looking at some of the studies on benefits of time spent in nature (as well as mindfulness), and you are welcome to come along for the ride.
Mayer, F.S., Frantz, C.M., Bruehlman-Senecal, E., & K. Dolliver. 2009. Why is Nature Beneficial? The Role of Connectedness to Nature
This paper contained three studies looking at the effects of exposure to real or virtual nature. They used questionnaire-type data to measure positive emotions and ability to reflect on a real-life problem.
The authors noted that years of research have established that time spent in nature “decreases negative behaviors and states” and “increases positive ones.” They also noted that we aren’t so sure if pictures and videos of nature are as effective as the real thing, or how exposure to nature works to produce benefits. Among the possibilities that have been considered are: nature helps us recover from stress and attention fatigue, it encourages exercise, it may facilitate social contact, it may encourage optimal development in children and/or perhaps it provides “opportunities for personal development and a sense of purpose.” They wondered if increases in connectedness to nature might be a mechanism through which time in nature yields benefits.
To measure this sense of connection to nature, the first two authors developed a self-report scale, the “Connectedness to Nature Scale” (CNS). With it, participants rate (on a seven-point scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”) their agreement with statements about feeling kinship with animals and plants or a sense of belonging with the natural world. The authors reported that earlier studies have shown that the CNS measures a real “thing” and does its job effectively.
The authors also wanted to see whether exposure to nature can lead to increases in the ability to reflect on a problem and feel more prepared to address that problem.
Seventy-six students participated. One group was taken to an urban downtown area and the other went to a nature preserve. While on the way, they were asked to reflect on a personal issue that needed resolving. After taking a walk in the assigned setting (downtown or preserve), they were asked to spread out from each other and independently complete some measures of attention, positive/negative emotion, connectedness to nature (the CNS), self-awareness, and a rating of how they perceived their ability to resolve that personal issue noted above.
Those in the nature condition reported positive emotions to a significantly higher degree than those in the urban condition. They also rated their ability to reflect on their personal issue as much greater. Spending time in nature also had higher scores for connectedness to nature. Further, those in the nature condition made fewer errors on the measure of ability to pay attention.
In this study, the investigators looked at whether real nature provides more benefits than virtual nature. Ninety-two undergraduate students participated. They met on campus and one group walked to an arboretum while the other walked to the psychology building where they were further divided into a group that watched a ten minute video of a walk at the arboretum and the other watched a video of a busy metropolitan street.
Those who walked in the arboretum had significantly more positive emotion either the virtual nature or virtual urban conditions. Participants’ ability to reflect on a problem issue was greater after either the real or virtual nature exposure and worse after the urban exposure. The measures of connectedness to nature were higher for both nature groups and lower for the urban video group.
This study was done to further examine the effect of real and virtual nature on participants’ ability to reflect on a personal issue that needed solving. Sixty-four students participated, meeting at an on-campus building. One group walked to the arboretum and the other group walked to the psychology building. Once arriving, the nature group walked for 10 minutes in the arboretum and the virtual nature group watched a 10 minute video of a similar walk in the same arboretum.
Again, those who took the real walk in nature reported more positive emotion. This time, with greater statistical power because there were only two groups to compare, the “real” nature group were significantly more able to reflect on an issue needing to be resolved.
A Final Note
The authors looked at the relationships among the variables, and for each study concluded that a person’s sense of connectedness to nature generally predicted the positive emotions, ability to reflect, and other positive results. Their conclusion was that exposure to nature increases the sense of connectedness to nature, and that is what brings some of the other benefits of time spent in nature.
Doing research to investigate these issues is challenging. To compare the reactions of different people, you must design experiences that do not have unintentional differences that could bias the results. The way you measure things must be the same across different people, or else you could get results that are skewed because of different ways that you measured your results. These challenges tend to result in studies that use paper-and-pencil measures and brief or limited exposure to nature.
Many of us might think “connectedness with nature” is hard to capture in a 13 or 14 item rating scale. We might note that our ability to reflect on problems might not fully be captured by having people rate how much they think they have that capacity. Additionally, positive or negative emotions were measured by having participants rate the degree to which they were experiencing mood states like enthusiasm or engagement, or anger or fear (the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule, or PANAS). That is different from directly measuring emotions (and just how would we really do that?).
I do not mean to say that the study isn’t meaningful, and I’m not suggesting that it is misleading. On the contrary, the authors were careful to design studies that creatively come up with measurements and exposures to nature or to urban settings that allow different groups of people to be compared.
Three people took a walk in the woods. One of them loved being outside, but spent most of her time texting and checking Facebook. At the end of her walk, she hardly felt like she had been in the woods at all. She had been in the woods, but her mind was somewhere else.
“Her mind was somewhere else.” That’s a strange thing to say, isn’t it? As if her mind could be somewhere else, in a different place than her body. Would that mean that she was out of her mind? It’s hard to say.
The second one wasn’t using his phone, but he spend a lot of time thinking about how he was going to talk with his friend about something that happened at school. He saw a frog at the edge of a pond, but then began to think about his friend again. He kept imagining different things his friend might say, turning it over and over in his mind. He hardly noticed the birdsong in the trees above him.
Sometimes a worry can pull us away from ourselves, so that we don’t notice what is going on around us. We can be lost in uncomfortable thoughts, and not even notice what is right in front of us. On a walk in the woods we would like our minds and bodies to be right where we really are, able to be connected with everything around us and “tuned in” to it.
That’s how it was for the third person who walked in the woods. Here is how she did it: She started her walk by going to a quiet place and looking around, at the same time paying attention to each breath she took. Each breath brought in the air of that place, and its oxygen became part of her. Every time she breathed out, the carbon dioxide from her breath joined the air around her, ready for the trees and other plants to use in order to grow. “It’s like I’m becoming part of this place,” she said to herself. She noticed her thought and let it go. She didn’t want to get tangled up in her thoughts – she wanted to stay here, connected to this place.
As she started to walk around, she noticed a beetle running along the sandy trail ahead of her. It was brilliant metallic-green from its antennae to the back of its abdomen. It took off and flew a few feet away, and the girl noticed that the green was on the wing covers – called the “elytra.” When the beetle landed, she noticed that six little white spots were scattered on the back half of those elytra. She watched the beetle for several minutes, noticing how amazingly fast it could run on those little legs, and how it flew just out of reach whenever she got too near.
Further down the trail, she saw a butterfly being tossed around in the autumn breeze. And yet, maybe the butterfly was going where it wanted to go. She noticed that it sailed behind some trees, then came back around near her. The breeze didn’t do that. Maybe those fluttering wings knew what they were doing, even though the butterfly looked almost exactly like a yellow leaf being blown around by the breeze. A big dragonfly came on the scene, heading straight for the butterfly. Bouncing around on thin butterfly wings, it maneuvered around the tree branches and disappeared, leaving the dragonfly behind.
The walk continued in this way, as the girl took in the sights, sounds, and smells of the place. When she found some animal, she stopped to follow what it was doing, and found that with a little patience – with the ability to just be there without hurrying – she noticed lots of things that she might have missed. She didn’t even have to know all the facts behind what she saw. With a little checking, she could discover that the green beetle was a six-spotted tiger beetle, a fierce predator of smaller insects. But she could also just appreciate it as a beautiful, fast creature with whom she shared the path on that wonderful walk in the woods.
She and her mind and body had all been together that day, open and ready to see, hear, feel and smell everything that the place could offer. It was a walk that she remembered for a long time.
(This article also appears in the October, 2019 issue of “The Treefrog Times,” a young readers publication available free at www.jsdragons.com)
It was almost two weeks into autumn, and summer’s heat held on. On October 6th, when the high temperature in Arlington reached 97ºF, a cold front was scheduled to roll through late in the day. It would be an interesting time to be at the Southwest Nature Preserve. Would the change take the form of a whisper of cool air, or a line of storms? A good friend, Shelsea Sanchez, came with me to witness what might be the end of summer heat and drought. We got there a little after 5:00pm and stayed for a couple of hours.
The initial walk around the north pond felt like a late afternoon in summer. We passed a little Texas Spiny Lizard positioned on a tree trunk, stalking insects in the hot sunshine as if it was back in August. Actually, two months ago this very young lizard might not yet have hatched from the egg, but now he or she was feeding and growing as it if was endless summer.
the path up the gentle climb on the back side of the preserve, to pay a visit
to a Post Oak that will be proclaimed as a Texas “historic tree” later this
month. It is estimated to be over two hundred years old, with huge twin trunks
and massive limbs that stretch out over the surrounding vegetation. It is being
called the “Caddo Oak,” recognizing that it would have been an adult tree when
the people who lived on this land were Caddo hunters and farmers.
A good way to
spend time in a place like this is to clear our minds of the mental traffic
that pulls us to past worries or future plans, so that we can simply be open to
the present experience. A good strategy for this is to notice our breathing,
how the body expands and relaxes with each breath. From this focus on present
experience, we can connect more deeply with our surroundings – in this case a
massive old tree with deeply furrowed bark and a giant canopy of leaves. There
is a lot to notice and appreciate when practicing mindfulness in nature, simply
opening oneself to the present experience without judging it or being tugged
away from the moment by the internal “chatter” that often captures our lives.
We stood for a
while, taking in the tree, the sky, and all the surroundings. Later we talked
about what we had noticed: Shelsea’s perception was that those big limbs would
just go on reaching out to the woods and sky, ever wider. It impressed her as a
“wise” tree, something that had lived a long time and experienced a great deal.
The branching limbs of our oak trees often suggest to me a parallel with blood
vessels, extending into the surrounding air, supporting life in the process.
Following the trail as it turned and skirted a yucca meadow with deep sand, beyond a thicket of sumac and past a big juniper, we talked about how trees are linked together below the soil. A fine network of fungal threads, called mycorrhizae, connects with the roots and helps provide water and minerals. In exchange, the fungus gets nutrients from plant roots. It is a mutually beneficial relationship, and it is thought that mycorrhizae make possible a sort of communication between trees. For example, a tree that is attacked by insects may respond by releasing volatile organic compounds, and the surrounding trees connected by the fungal network respond in a similar way.
We spent some time in stillness and quiet, looking to the west toward some oaks in the background, and a scrubby open area with prickly pear cactus and a thicket of greenbriar. The front was coming, and darker blue-gray clouds were massing, and the distant thunder was a welcome and soothing sound. A couple of doves flew overhead, as we continued to absorb what we were experiencing. Afterward, Shelsea commented about how a nearby greenbriar was overtaking and pressing a shrub closer to the ground. Greenbriar is a strong, tough vine that I’ve described as like botanical barbed-wire, and this particular one was attempting to climb a shrub that could not support the vine’s weight. However, the main thing that we had both noticed in the last few minutes was the occasional low rumble from the advancing clouds.
You hear distant thunder when it is quiet – when there are no airplanes, no car engines, no roar of freeway traffic, no loud humming air conditioners. At an urban preserve, some of those things are inescapable, but if those noises are muffled – or if you are in a wild natural place away from mechanized sounds – you can hear breezes, birds, insects, and distant thunder. Through most of our history as humans, those sounds have usually been audible to us. We could hear coyotes howling on a nearby ridge, or a chorus of frogs a quarter-mile away. In a quiet glade we could hear water moving in a creek, and bees buzzing in nearby flowers. The sigh of wind in tree leaves was familiar. It makes you wonder if the loss of all those “quiet sounds” leaves an important gap in our lives, and if constant mechanized sounds and the ever-present TV and video sounds might be a source of low-level stress for us. The answer is yes, it is a source of stress, based on studies showing poorer concentration, increased anxiety and depression, and disrupted sleep because of noise pollution. Even low-level noise tends to increase the body’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and chronically elevated levels of cortisol interfere with the brain’s ability to focus and plan, as well as putting us at risk of digestive and cardiac problems, weight gain, headache, and other problems. And so I place a very high value on those experiences of quiet, when a bird’s song or a breeze stirring leaves in a tree can be heard.
Looking up the
trail toward the west at 6:30pm, we saw a hawk rise above the tree line,
soaring in the turbulent air below the oncoming clouds. A second hawk emerged
near the first one. As they flew, the sun shone through a break in the clouds
and highlighted the wings of these birds. Another couple of birds joined the
group, which flew higher and stayed visible above the tree line. The aerial
dance continued and rose higher, with other hawks coming into view. Shelsea and
I needed a real birder with us; I did not see rusty reddish tail feathers that
would have identified a bird as a Red-tailed Hawk, and so I was at a loss. I
could tell that the underparts were light-colored, but my eyes and brain could
not follow the movement well enough to remember their color patterns as they
rode the fast-moving air currents.
As the number
of hawks grew and they spiraled higher, Shelsea pulled out her phone and began
recording video. I began doing the same thing, framing the swirling “kettle” of
hawks. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reminds us that hawks sometimes gather in
“kettles,” using rising air currents to gain altitude, especially when
migrating. In his book, The Birds of Texas, John Tveten notes that in
early fall, Broad-winged Hawks begin their migration south into tropical
America, rising on air currents and forming large swirling flocks. I do not
know if these were Broad-winged Hawks, but it seems quite plausible.
We stood for a
moment, taking all this in. Life at the preserve was in sudden motion, as the
cold front came through with distant thunder and the promise of rain, and this
seemed to have spurred the soaring, wheeling kettle of birds to rise into the
And then, raindrops began to fall. After the heat and drought, it was delightful, and we stood there enjoying the feel of a few cool drops of water on our skin. In our state of fascination with every detail of experience, I noticed that every drop created a little dimpled medallion of mud as it struck the fine red sand of the trail. If the rain continued, those little mud-craters would join and the preserve would get the water it needed. In the meantime, we walked through these sprinkles and enjoyed the feel of the rain.
We spent two
hours there, but we had little awareness of the passage of time. It didn’t seem
to go quickly or last a long time, because we tried to let go of the past and
future so that we could fully experience the present. Although we didn’t pay
attention to the passage of time, we had a great time!
Florence Williams’ book, The Nature Fix (Norton, 2017) summarizes some of what we know about how time in nature affects our well-being. It’s a “popular” book, but that’s not to say it is short on substance. Among the endorsements inside the cover is one from famed biologist Edward O. Wilson, whose work includes the biophilia hypothesis which says that evolution has “wired” us to be drawn to nature and all its plants and animals.
Williams is a journalist, and what she writes in this book is woven into a series of interviews, walks, and back country expeditions with experts in the field. It’s the story of her active, “hands-on” research on the subject, and so it is an engaging read. It also lays out some of the evidence and a few of the theories about how nature might decrease our stress hormones, lower our blood pressure, and have other benefits to our well-being. My notes here are part of my effort to understand this better; it seems intuitive to me that being in nature has benefits to our bodies and souls, but I want to look at the science behind it. So here are a few notes from the first section of her book.
In Japan, forest therapy (sometimes referred to as “Forest Bathing”) or “Shinrin yoku” is quite popular. It is based on Shinto and Buddhist practice and seeks to let nature into your body through all five senses. It is also linked to E.O. Wilson’s idea of biophilia, that we have an innate emotional affiliation with other living organisms. In forest therapy, people spend time in forests and become immersed in the sights, sounds, smells, and other experiences there.
If this sounds a little sketchy, consider the results found by Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a physical anthropologist in Tokyo. He found that leisurely forest walks decreased cortisol, compared to urban walks. (Cortisol is a stress hormone, and with chronic stress cortisol creates problems, from dysregulated blood sugar to heart problems, depression and anxiety, memory and concentration problems, and so on.) Forest walkers had decreased sympathetic nerve activity, lower blood pressure and heart rate. (The constant stimulation and demands of life trigger activity from the sympathetic nervous system, resulting in “fight or flight” reactions. On the other hand, relaxation and feeling at ease are associated with a system that works in opposition to it, the parasympathetic nervous system.) When the walkers completed questionnaires, the nature group report better mood and less anxiety.
More evidence comes from psychologist Roger Ulrich, who connected subjects to EEG and showed them slides, either of nature or of urban scenes. Those who watched nature slides had greater alpha rhythm, which is associated with relaxation and release of pleasurable endorphins. He also exposed subjects to a stressful activity, and then had them watch 10 minutes of either (a) nature scenes, or (b) urban scenes. Within five minutes, the sympathetic activity of the nature scene group returned to baseline, while the other group only partly recovered.
Qing Li, an immunologist at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, looked at the impact of mood states and stress on the immune system. Li was interested in NK cells, a kind of white blood cell that sends self-destruct messages to tumor cells or virus-infected cells. Stress can decrease the number of these beneficial NK cells. Li took a group into the forest for three days that included hiking in the woods for a couple of hours daily. They had a 40% increase in NK cells. Li wondered if this was due to aromatic volatile substances coming from trees, and so Li had thirteen people spend three nights in a hotel where a humidifier could vaporize oil from hinoki cypress trees (or, for a control group, just water vapor). The cypress oil resulted in a 20% increase in NK cells, compared to controls.