THE NATURE FIX. Florence Williams is a journalist, author, and podcaster. She is a contributing editor at Outside Magazine and a freelance writer for the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, The New York Review of Books, Slate, Mother Jones and numerous other publications. A fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature and a visiting scholar at George Washington University, her work focuses on the environment, health and science.
Florence Williams, from forest trails in Korea, to islands in Finland, to groves of eucalyptus in California, in your book “The Nature Fix” are you investigating the science behind nature’s positive effects on the brain?
On average, is it true that people are significantly happier outdoors?
YES, they experience boosts to their mood, greater feelings of well-being and reduced feelings of agitation, anger, and frustration.
You are a city girl; can you share your experience of your awareness of the importance of nature?
Although I grew up in New York City, my father loved the wilderness. Every summer we would go camping and canoeing along the rivers of the mid-Atlantic, the South, and out West. From him I learned to feel comfortable outside, to have fun there, and to see it as a soothing and adventuresome space. I learned to love it. Even in the city, I spent time growing up in Central Park nearly every day, one of the world’s great loamy, green, wonderful democratic parks.
In your book “The Nature Fix” you write about our brain becoming relaxed when a person is outside in a park or in a wood. Why do you think this is so?
There are a couple of theories about this. I find the most compelling the idea of “biophilia”, that humans have a natural affinity for nature and living things because we evolved outside. Our perceptual systems and our nervous systems evolved in natural environments, and they know how to read those environments and how to feel comfortable there (as opposed to a roundabout in rush hour, which definitely stresses us out). When our brains are stimulated and engaged, but not on high alert, we are in a happy place neurologically. Nature provides a sweet spot for interaction with the world.
“Feel some sunlight and the breeze on your face. Take some deep breaths.”
Florence Williams, can you please describe for our readers the positive effects for the human brain and soul of being in contact with nature? As you write in your book, do you have evidence that pine trees are specially beneficial for the immune system, and that listening to birdsong is calming?
There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that being in nature has beneficial effects for our bodies and brains. Dr. Qing Li, an immunologist in Japan, has found that Natural Killer cells, part of our bodies’ immune system, increase in the presence of anti-fungal compounds emitted by trees. The sounds of birdsong and falling water can lower our blood pressure and make us feel both calmer and mentally sharper. A team of neuroscientists at the University of Utah found that after being in the wilderness for three days, we perform 50 percent better on measures of creativity. And people who live near green space show lower rates of stress and stress-mediated diseases, even after adjusting for income.
Why don’t we do more of what makes our brains happy?
We’re not always very good judges of things that are good for us. We crave ice cream and shopping, but the benefits of nature are more subtle than immediate gratification. Also, we are busy and hassled and sometimes we think we don’t have time for a walk in the park, even though taking that break might make us more productive and more pleasant to be around for the rest of the day.
Do you think that in modern times people have enough contact with nature or do you think that we have lost touch with nature somehow, and if so what should we do to recover it?
In the history of the human species, we have never been as disconnected as we are today from the natural world. We are living in the middle of the largest mass migration in human history, and it’s the migration to indoor spaces. Because both adults and our children live disconnected lives, it’s hard to gain it back. The chain is broken.
How much should we be in such contact? Is it dangerous that American and British children, for example, spend half as much time outdoors as their parents did? Is it true that children spend 7 hours a day on screens, not including time in schools?
People are always interested in the “dose” question and it varies by individual, need, etc. Finnish researchers recommend that adults seek a little over an hour a week in nature to prevent mild depression. Researchers in the UK found that people who get more than that – 2 hours a week – are the happiest and healthiest. If you’re going through a stressful time, you might need more. Young children generally love being outside and exploring nature. It’s great for their physical health and for their social and emotional development, as well as for their attention spans. Especially during these times when so many of us are on screens all day, it’s more important than ever to counter it with full-sensory stimulation outside. Feel some sunlight and the breeze on your face. Take some deep breaths.
You write in your book that wilderness experience can be most helpful. Why?
Again, I think it depends on the individual and what he or she is going through at a particular time in their life. When we are experiencing life transitions or grief or trauma, it can be so helpful to have the time and space to reflect and be mindful or gain some self-confidence or just step back from the demands of modern life to take a breather.
“We have a greater understanding now that we are all in this together.”
Florence Williams, Aristotle believed that walks in the open air clarified minds. Was he right?
Apparently, he was. Many philosophers and poets swear by the ideas and creativity they gain from walking. St. Augustine said, solvitur ambulando – in walking it will be solved. Wordsworth composed much poetry while walking in the country, and Tesla invented the idea for his revolutionary engine while walking in a park.
The famous German writer Goethe says that humans are entirely part of nature. Do you think we are aware of that, and if not why not?
Much of western civilization has supported the opposite notion – that we are separate and that nature exists to serve us. To the extent we might think otherwise, I think we then easily forget it. We are easily distractible creatures, and we simply don’t spend enough time outside to feel truly connected to the nature’s cycles and delights.
During the period of quarantine many people suddenly paid more attention to their surroundings, watching with surprise what they didn’t pay much attention to before, like the beautiful slow changes of the season, day after day as the leaves unfurled to the sound of birdsong. Will this attention continue?
I hope and believe it will! We don’t often get opportunities to slow down and notice what’s around us. I’ve made it a new ritual to walk down the street every evening to watch the sunset, along with many of my neighbours. It’s a ritual I would like to maintain, at least sometimes. It helps me sleep better, connects me to the natural world in a peaceful way, and is great for blood sugar and digestion. What’s not to love?
During that period there has been another special element, that of silence – no cars, planes, machines. Is silence as good as walking in a forest for the human brain?
What we call silence is actually the sounds of nature, and what we call noise is technically unwanted human-world sounds. Sometimes our attitudes about these are subjective, for example, the sounds of a nightclub. But the science is pretty clear that industrial sounds from transportation and machines are bad for our stress levels over time, as well as for learning and cognition. I hope there will now be increased advocacy for sensible noise regulations, demands for quieter engines and better airplane routing, among other things.
The world has stopped for the first time in years because of the corona virus. Some observers say that this has had a great benefit for air quality and as a consequence nature as a whole. Do you agree?
I think the benefits experienced by wildlife, for example whales experiencing less sonic disturbance, are sadly temporary. We need a more sustainable economy moving forward if we are to realize the many benefits to humans and natural systems of a less polluted world. It remains to be seen whether we will be capable of producing this.
After the corona virus do you think that many people will leave the cities and go to live outside, or do you think that in the near future, when this virus has gone, people are going to go back to the same kind of neurotic life they had before, or are they going to learn a lesson?
I hope cities will continue to be vibrant, stimulating, enriching places, but I also hope we continue to move forward to make our cities more sustainable, humane and nature-rich places for all residents. We need cities and their many benefits, and it’s better for the planet if we live in concentrated, energy-efficient communities. I think many people, especially young people, will continue to crave the excitement, employment, educational and health opportunities of urban life.
Photo of Florence Williams © Luka Dakskobler
A nature trail in Singapore
Singapore residents benefit from their green spaces
Children enjoy a woodland adventure playground in Scotland
Walking amidst tall trees never fails to calm and impress.
“People who live near green space show lower rates of stress and stress-mediated diseases, even after adjusting for income.”
Florence Williams, the largest number of Covid cases seem to happen where there is a lot of smog and heavy industrialisation. Will having a better relationship with nature and the environment slow down the emergence of new pandemics?
As long as human populations and pressure dislodge natural ecosystems, we will have novel viruses. I would like to see an end to the wildlife trade, poaching, and destruction of ecosystems for many reasons, but human health is certainly one of them.
Can you suggest a specific type of protective behaviour? The only real recipe for protection that we have been offered is washing our hands and keeping our distance. This is very basic advice. How else can we stop infection being diffused?
It’s clear that this virus is not so easily transmissible outside. I’m passionate about the idea of moving hospitals, clinics, and classrooms into outdoor spaces. We’ve put restaurant tables on the streets – why not classrooms? Many schools and hospitals did this during the 1918 flu, and it worked. It will take some logistics, planning, and creativity, but we can and should do this for the benefit of our children, teachers, and parents who need to get some work done without putting their families and communities at risk. I’ve been frankly stunned by our lack of imagination in considering the outdoors to be a viable solution to many Covid-related challenges.
In recent elections in Europe, as well as the nationalistic/populistic parties getting stronger, so are the Greens. Is it a sign that a large part of the population is now more and more aware of these problems?
I think there is no doubt we are more aware now of the problems posed by unsustainable development, climate change, environmental justice, massive health disparities and runaway greed. We have a greater understanding now that we are all in this together, that our fates depend on one another, and that we can’t just buy our way out of global problems. But during times of great stress, we tend to either crave deep social change or to fear it and seek authoritarian rule, and it remains to be seen which way we will go.
It often seems that technological progress and money are on one side and on the other side are the green economy, vegans, people who value the planet and so forth. Is a compromise between these apparently opposing elements possible?
Absolutely. The green economy is still an economy, and it’s one that is more just, humane, equitable and sustainable.
Can we go forward and take advantage of scientific progress and be green at the same time?
Of course, in fact being green relies on science, data, and technology. A win-win!
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