“Science is now bearing out what the Romantics knew to be true.”
After a move from mountainous Colorado to the intense urbanity of Washington, DC, journalist Florence Williams found herself stressed and even depressed by the change of scene. DC was grey and full of concrete, traffic, and the constant sound of airplanes arriving and departing the nearby Regan National Airport. The idea of the evils of the city, and the virtues of the countryside is age old, and was particularly popular during the Romantic period, which was a backlash to the Industrial Revolution. But Williams interests herself in the much newer science of the benefits of exposure to nature on human health, both physical and mental. From the wilds of America’s national parks, to the mountains of Japan, and the urban greenery of Singapore and Glasgow, she talks with the various scientists who have been investigating the effects of nature since E.O. Wilson proposed the biophilia hypothesis.
Because this is a newer area of investigation, the exact mechanism by which nature benefits people is still under debate and investigation, making it a particularly interesting area of exploration. Much outdoor activity involves exercise, for example, which has its own well-documented beneficial effects. Williams engages with the different scientists and their various hypotheses about why these interventions are effective, but she is understandably more interested in knowing what works and can be put into practice. But despite her own experiences, she still approaches the subject with a journalist’s skepticism, asking rigorous questions about potentially cofounding variables.
Williams structures her book to look at nature exposure in terms of dosing. What is the effect of mere urban vegetation, for example, a tree outside a hospital window, or a small city park? She then progresses through relatively larger doses, considering what happens when we go for a day hike, or a weekend camping trip, or a long nature retreat. She finishes with a group of female veterans on a weeks-long rafting trip. The women are suffering from PTSD, either from their time in combat zones, or from experiencing sexual assault while in the service, but many experience significant improvement from a multi-week outdoor adventure.
Traveling widely in pursuit of her subject, Williams investigates interesting practices such as shinrin-yoku, or Japanese forest bathing. This a sort of mindful hiking popular in Japan and, increasingly, Korea. It emphasizes a multisensory experience, and researchers there have deeply studied the effects of the scent of the hinoki cypress tree. However, it also has a business aspect, encouraging tourism to Japan’s natural areas, and helping to justify their preservation. The term shinrin-yoku itself was officially created by the Japanese government, Williams finds, although the practice has older roots in Shinto practices.
For those looking for the brief download, Williams provides it in the form of a quote from Qing Li, chairman of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine, who advises, “If you have time for a vacation, don’t go to a city. Go to a natural area. Try to go one weekend a month. Visit a park at least once a week. Gardening is good. On urban walks, try to walk under trees, not across fields. Go to a quiet place. Near water is also good.” These practices can lower the stress hormone cortisol, and even measurably reduce your blood pressure. Anxiety can only be subjectively measured, but researchers have also found reductions in this form of mental distress.
In addition to the benefits of nature, Williams also explores some of the aspects of urban living that can be less than good for the body and mind, such as soundscapes. Traffic and other urban noise can be a surprisingly significant stressor, especially for sensitive people. Even if you aren’t aware of urban noises actively waking you up in the night, they can disturb the quality of your sleep and leave you feeling less rejuvenated come morning. Other studies have shown the deleterious effects of living too close to a freeway, which is a major source of both noise and air pollution for urbanites. Taken together, these studies make a compelling argument for urban design that preserves or enhances natural features, rather than paving over them.
The Nature Fix is a well-rounded exploration of the budding investigation into the benefits of nature on human health written in the style of readable science journalism with a touch of the travelogue.
You might also like Rest by Alex Soo-Jung Kim Pang