I’m sitting outdoors. That’s the idea, right? To be outdoors. I will, in fact, be outdoors most of the day. The sun is shining, the temperature is hovering in the mid- to high-70s. The breeze is light, if present at all. There’s a family gathering later today that will be staged in a lush and spacious back yard hedged in by fragrant, blooming lilac bushes. We can expect the usual visitation of bees and mosquitos (it’s Minnesota, after all), along with the occasional inch worm spinning its tiny ladder down from the skies. But for now, I am in that more classically suburban outdoor venue, surrounded by asphalt and concrete and except for the scrubby grass patches in the median, the only visible green space is confined to the oversized umbrella hovering over my table on a tiny caged patio.
In its broadest interpretation, nature includes the material world and all of its objects and phenomena; by this definition, a machine is part of nature. So is toxic waste…On its face, New York City may not appear natural, but it does contain all manner of hidden, self-organization wild places, from the organisms secreted within the humus of Central Park to the hawks that circle above the Bronx. In this sense, a city complies with the broadest laws of nature; it is natural (as a machine is part of nature), but wild in its parts. (Last Child in the Woods, p. 8)
One spring and summer I sat on my deck most mornings. The daily ritual wasn’t extensive or elaborate, just enough time for a pot of tea to steep. I followed the seasonal cycle of the red-leafed tree that overhung the deck. I used an Internet app to try to identify the tree’s scientific name. The app tried to persuade me it was a dogwood. The app was wrong. To this day I still call it the flowering-whatever tree, but it didn’t stop me from writing a series of poems about the tree.
It would make sense, I suppose,
to learn the proper names
of the trees in my yard.
It suits me better not to know,
but to learn the way they behave
[College professor Elaine Brooks] believed people are unlikely to value what they cannot name. “One of my students told me that every time she learns the name of a plant, she feels as if she is meeting someone new. Giving a name to something is a way of knowing it.” (p. 41)
The season I sat on the deck was one of those with the harder type of days that can be common to the human experience. Those few minutes outdoors each day watching the flowering-whatever tree bud, then blossom, then produce plump red berries that glistened in the morning dew became more than a momentary respite, but provided the space for a healing of sorts.
Many studies credit exposure to plants or nature with speeding up recovery time from injury. [Howard Frumkin, M.D.] pointed to a ten-year study of gallbladder surgery patients, comparing those who recovered in rooms facing a grove of trees to those in rooms with a view of a brick wall; the patients with the view of trees went home sooner…Roger Ulrich, a Texas A&M researcher, has shown that people who watch images of a natural landscape after a stressful experience calm remarkably in only five minutes: their muscle tension, pulse, and skin-conductance readings plummet. (p. 46)
We’re reading Last Child in the Woods together in our book club this month. In parts I and II, author Richard Louv lays the groundwork for the need for both children and adults, for both body and mind, to engage in physical activity in the green spaces of nature. In addition to the quotes highlighted above, here are some other favorites from this week’s reading…
A Few Favorite Quotes from This Week’s Reading
Pediatricians now warn that today’s children may be the first generation since World War II to die at an earlier age than their parents. While children in many parts of the world endure hunger and famine, the World Health Organization warns that a sedentary lifestyle is also a global public health problem; inactivity is seen as a major risk factor in noncommunicable diseases, which cause 60 percent of global deaths and 47 percent of the burden of disease. (p. 47)
Adults, too, seem to benefit from “recess” in natural settings. Researchers in England and Sweden have found that joggers who exercise in a natural green setting with trees, foliage, and landscape views feel more restored, and less anxious, angry and depressed than people who burn the same amount of calories in gyms or other built settings. Research is continuing into what is called “green exercise.”
“Our brains are set up for an agrarian, nature-oriented existence that came into focus five hundred years ago,” says Michael Gurian, a family therapist and best-selling author of The Good Son and The Wonder of Boys. “Neurologically speaking, human beings haven’t caught up with today’s overstimulating environment. The brain is strong and flexible, so 70 to 80 percent of kids adapt fairly well. But the rest don’t. Getting kids out in nature can make a difference.” (p. 103)
Much of our learning comes from doing, from making, from feeling with our hands; and though many would like to believe otherwise, the world is not entirely available from a keyboard. As Wilson sees it, we’re cutting off our hands to spite our brains. Instructors in medical school find it increasingly difficult to teach how the heart works as a pump, he says, “because these students have so little real-world experience; they’ve never siphoned anything, never fixed a car, never worked on a fuel pump, may not even have hooked up a garden hose. For a whole generation of kids, direct experiences in the backyard, in the tool shed, in the fields and woods, has been replaced by indirect learning, through machines. These young people are smart, they grew up with computers, they were supposed to be superior — but now we know that something’s missing.” (p. 67)
Whether you’re reading along with us or just picking up the highlights, share your thoughts on this week’s reading and the question of relationship with nature in the comments. Have a favorite quote or excerpt? Let us know, and read with us again in the coming week as we explore Parts III & IV.
May 17: Introduction, Parts I & II
May 24: Parts III & IV
May 31: Parts V, VI & VII
Photo by Philippe Put, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by LW Lindquist.