Nature Can Save Us All
Nature, it turns out, may be one of our best hopes for building, and maintaining, civilization
Last week, I tried to think of ways to celebrate my birthday. In what already seems like another reality, I had plans to go to a favorite restaurant with my teenagers, but we scrapped that. Instead, they cooked up a surprisingly edible meal. (I’m sure I will be leaning on their newfound skills in the coming weeks.)
One plan I did stick with was my Monday morning walk with a few friends on the C&O Canal, a National Park Service unit near the Potomac River. We made it a bit more special by adding a picnic breakfast. “No gifts,” I said in my email to them. “No hugs. No food sharing.” We brought our own thermoses of coffee and our own snacks. Although it felt awkward, we succeeded in walking and sitting six feet apart, and we found plenty to commiserate over and laugh about, including the vultures who seemed to be waiting for us.
Outside, in nature, seems to be one of the last safe places left where we can still casually be together. And keeping in mind to stand, walk, or run six feet apart from others, we are all learning to practice what some people are preferring to call physical distancing instead of social distancing. Many experts agree that being outside in nature is one of the best ways to alleviate anxiety and fortify our immune systems. Make no mistake: In addition to facing a dangerous virus, our nation is also now facing a mental health crisis occasioned by stress, anxiety, and social isolation.
To boost her patients’ physical and mental health, Dr. Suzanne Bartlett Hackenmiller has been prescribing time in nature for the past four years. Now, she says, it’s more important than ever. Hackenmiller, an OB-GYN and functional medicine practitioner at Van Diest Medical Center near Des Moines, Iowa, tells her patients that absorbing vitamin D from sunlight strengthens their immune systems, and she points to studies suggesting that people who visit green spaces with trees experience a boost in their immune cells, specifically killer T cells and the proteins and proteases that help them target bacteria and viruses.
Now is the time, she says, to “grab a tree and hold on.”
One possible reason? Plants emit copious amounts of compounds called phytoncides that protect them from molecular invaders, and perhaps, some researchers suggest, humans also benefit from inhaling these aerosols. Now is the time, she says, to “grab a tree and hold on.”
Other studies show that spending just 15 or 20 minutes in nature improves our moods, calms our nerves, and lowers our blood pressure. Listening to birdsong, watching clouds, and otherwise tuning in to natural phenomena can help distract us from worry through “soft fascination.” The idea is these elements of nature easily compel our interest just enough to keep us from obsessing about our to-do lists or ruminating about our problems.
A 2019 study from the University of Exeter Medical School suggested that people who spend two hours a week in green spaces are significantly mentally and physically healthier than people who spend less time outside, even adjusting for income and physical activity.
Perhaps even more pertinent to these challenging times, seeing beauty and finding awe in nature appear to make us behave in more communitarian ways and feel more connected to one another. Public spaces are also a reminder that we are still part of a civic collective at a time when maintaining this sense of collective will give all of us the best odds. As park designer Frederick Law Olmsted said in 1870, visiting these spaces is critical to democracy as well as to “our ability to maintain a temperate, good-natured, and healthy state of mind.”
Recognizing our human impulse to seek nature in times of crisis, the National Park Service has waived entrance fees even while closing some iconic parks and all indoor facilities. It encourages visitors to venture close to home, gather in small groups, and pack out all their own trash. The federal agency and many city park authorities around the country are hoping to keep parks open as long as they can, although the situation is changing daily.
“It’s not only okay, but we need to push people to go outside as long as they maintain six feet of distance.”
“We need to stay outside as much as possible right now,” says Dr. David Sabgir, medical director for cardiac rehabilitation at Mount Carmel Health System in Columbus, Ohio, and the founder of the national Walk With a Doc program. “It’s not only okay, but we need to push people to go outside as long as they maintain six feet of distance.”
Now is also a great time to cultivate your or your kids’ naturalist skills. The app iNaturalist, a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, not only helps you identify plants and animals but lets you upload your findings to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, yet another way to reinforce our collective enterprise.
If you can’t spend time in a park, there are other evidence-based ways to benefit from trees, sunlight, and salutary breezes. An influential study from 1984 showed that surgery patients recovered faster and requested less pain medication if their hospital rooms faced natural greenery.
If you’re working from home, place your desk or chair near a window. Look outside at a tree, often, if you have one within view. Play recordings of birdsong, rain, or flowing streams as an antidote to the news. Consider making a regular habit of watching the sunset from your roof or street, or just look up at the clouds as a reminder that we all live under the same sky.
Nature, it turns out, may be one of our best hopes for building, and maintaining, civilization.