What we need from nature

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Nature means many things to many people, some of us drawn to the cascading rhythm of beaches or rocky shorelines, others to the quiet dignity of ancient forests, others still to public gardens and the ornateness of urban green space. While some people seek out these places very intentionally, I dare say the majority of us have no clue why we take the time, organizing hikes or choosing a trail through the Halifax Public Gardens rather than the continuity of sidewalk. I must have strolled through Bedford’s Hemlock Ravine hundreds of times, and if you were to ask me why, I could do little more than shrug, and admit to a vague sense of calm inspired by its colossal trees. The human being is an animal like any other, at the mercy of mammalian impulses we often cannot justify or explain, and our attraction to nature ranks among them.

This is changing, however, as the restorative effects of time in nature move from the realm of folk wisdom to that of legitimate scientific inquiry. In the past decade it has been demonstrated that even short sojourns into natural settings (as little as 15 minutes) can enact profound changes in our bodies, lowering blood pressure, heart rate and stemming the flow of the stress hormone cortisol. Feelings of anxiety, tribulation and rumination dissipate rapidly while feelings of happiness, curiosity, creativity, vitality and awe welling up. These are not the fancies of a nature addict, but the results of published studies and inspired research, and it gets even weirder.

Among children, regular doses of nature have the long term benefits of improved self-esteem, vision, body weight, attention and overall academic performance. In surgical recovery rooms, patients with windows overlooking greenery are less dependent on painkillers and easier to work with. Having ten more trees on your city block improves self-perceived health equivalent to being seven years younger, or $10,000 a year richer. These findings and others are no longer theoretical, speaking to a phenomena as powerful as it is mysterious, borne out by data if not by common sense.

There are two theories as to why time in nature brings us such abject peace. The first is that modern life keeps our brains in a constant state of overstimulation, with cell phones, television, artificial lights, traffic racket and work, all of which requires our focused attention, while nature provides us a passive experience, giving our brains something to chew on without requiring dedicated attention, thus soothing our overworked minds. The second theory recognizes that human beings evolved in natural settings, associating rivers with water security, forests with food security, mountains as viewpoints from which to recognize danger or dramatic environmental change. According to this theory, nature makes us calm because thousand of generations of human beings (until recently) depended on the omnipresence of nature in order to thrive. But these are just theories, and while compelling, we really and truly have no idea why time in nature is so powerful.

Our understand has, however, become actionable. The world over, academics and physicians alike have begun recommending time in nature for things like depression, anxiety, stress, attention disorders, even concussions, and the list of appropriate ailments continues to grow. I’ve spoken to Canadian physicians who, over the past decade, have been writing nature prescriptions for ADHD, and have sat down with veterans of conflict in the middle east, treating the symptoms of PTSD with walks in the wild. The provincial and national parks of Canada have, in ways big and small, begun enabling visits to their land for the sake of human health. We are in the middle of a medical revolution, harnessing the bizarre and transformative influence of nature.

We need something from the great outdoors, something mysterious and potent which has been lost in the age of tamed lawns, indoor living and mobile devices. In my opinion, nature doesn’t make us healthy so much as its absence makes us sick, a perspective which has enormous implications for how and why we protect wilderness. Not only do such spaces house the biodiversity on which we depend, but also a special blend of sights and sounds that play on our primate brains, keeping us sane. We need to take these revelations about nature and health to heart, leveraging our wilderness as a healthcare tool and, wherever possible, creating more. I eagerly await the day that nature prescriptions arrive in Nova Scotia, and that natural settings are safeguarded for the express benefit of public health. In fact the Halifax Wilderness Park was established for this exact purpose.

We all have nature that’s significant to us, and we need to pursue that nature for all we’re worth. Our wellbeing depends on it.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes


Shown above is a stretch of Nova Scotian old growth forest. (Zack Metcalfe photo)