Time outside in Winter offers its rewards--pristine settings, a feeling of adventure, and the beauty of nature's muted palette. But let's face it. Winter tends to be a time of huddling indoors and enjoying warmth and shelter. In this way, we are no different than our fellow animals, and as with the shelters of other animals, our shelters make use of available natural features and materials.
Consider caves and simple built structures, such as earthen pits covered with thatched roofs and tents. Writes Roma Agrawal in her delightfully informative and readable book Built: The Hidden Stories Behind our Structures,
For a long time ... humans simply built from the materials that Nature provided, without changing their fundamental properties. Our ancient ancestors' dwellings were made from whatever they could find in their immediate surroundings: materials that were readily available and could be easily assembled into different shapes. With a few simple tools, trees could be felled and logs joined to create walls, and animal skins could be tied together and suspended to form tents.
Nowadays, amid canyons of concrete, steel, and glass skyscrapers, it may feel like a stretch to imagine these simple structures occupying the land that is now New York City. But these were the structures used by the indigenous Lenape people and by European settlers, and many of the engineering principles of these structures find expressions in the giant skyscrapers that give Manhattan its signature skyline.
It's a new year and a new decade, a time for new beginnings and, with a nod to the number of the year we've entered, perhaps clearer vision of what we hope the coming time will bring.
While we often think of Spring, with its plant life bursting forth, as a time of awakenings, Winter's shorter daylight hours and colder temperatures offers a time to retrench, restore, and rejuvenate, to collect one's energies and dive deeply into one's inner creativity. Indeed, writes the Italian poet Pietro Aretino, "Let us love winter, for it is the spring of genius." One also is reminded of T.S. Eliot's lines from The Wasteland:
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
While nature, with its withered stalks, may appear dormant in winter, there is a drawing inward that supports life and growth. Writes Gary Zukov,
The winter solstice has always been special to me as a barren darkness that gives birth to a verdant future beyond imagination, a time of pain and withdrawal that produces something joyfully inconceivable, like a monarch butterfly masterfully extracting itself from the confines of its cocoon, bursting forth into unexpected glory.
Allow yourself time during these wintry days to draw within, nurture, and replenish.
Christmas season has arrived, and with it decorated trees and wreaths, harkening back to earlier, pagan traditions. In Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama describes these traditions in the context of a "verdant cross", a blending of tree symbolism and Christianity with ancient origins. Writes Schama,
"Tree cults were everywhere in barbarian Europe, from Celtic shores of the Atlantic in Ireland and Brittany, and Nordic Scandinavia, all the way through to the Balkans in the southeast and Lithuania on the Baltic.... Why should Christianity have denied itself the irresistible analogy between the vegetable cycle and the theology of sacrifice and immortality? Had it been adamantly ascetic, Christianity would have been unique among the religions of the world in its rejection of arboreal symbolism. For there was no other cult in which holy trees did not function as symbols of renewal. Even a summary list would include the Persian Haoma, whose sap conferred eternal life; the Chinese hundred-thousand-cubit Tree of Life, the Kien-mou, growing on the slopes of the terrestrial paradise of Kuen-Luen; the Buddhist Tree of Wisdom, from whose four boughs the great rivers of life flow; the Muslim Lote tree, which marks the boundary between human understanding and the realm of divine mystery; the great Nordic ash tree Yggdrasil, which fastens the earth between underworld and heaven with its roots and trunk; Canaanite trees sacred to Astarte/Ashterah; the Greek oaks sacred to Zeus, the laurel to Apollo, the myrtle to Aphrodite, the olive to Athena, the fig tree beneath which Romulus and Remus were suckled by the she-world, and of course... [the] fatal grove of Nemi, sacred to Diana, where the guardian priest padded nervously about the trees , awaiting the slayer from the darkness who would succeed him in an endless cycle of death and renewal"
Noting how Christianity followed in this tradition he states,
"It was to be expected, then, that Christian theology, notwithstanding its official nervousness about pagan tree cults, would, in the end, go beyond the barely baptized Yggdrasil of a twelfth-century Flemish illumination where the boughs of the world-tree support paradise. But it was only when the scriptural and apocryphal traditions of the Tree of Life were grafted onto the cult of the Cross that a genuinely independent Christian vegetable theology came into being." (219).
Indeed, writes Schama, consider "the timber history of Christ": "born in a wooden stable, mother married to a carpenter, crowned with thorns and crucified on the Cross." Even lore around Christmas mistletoe has ancient tree cult origins. Schama notes that "according to Pliny, the druids believed mistletoe to grow in precisely those places where lightning, dispatched by the gods, had struck the [pagan] oak [of Jupiter]."
As many celebrate the Christmas holiday with verdant symbolism, think about humans' long tradition of venerating trees.
With the first snow storm of the season hitting New York City, out comes the salt, sprinkled on sidewalks and streets to reduce ice formation and slippery surfaces by lowering the freezing point of water. The salt, formed eons ago in the ocean, with chlorine derived from volcanoes at the bottom of the ocean combining with sodium washed off the continents, to form sodium chloride. Salt deposits are left behind by oceans that have dried up, and much of the salt spread on roads in the New York City area is shipped from deposits in the Atacama Desert in Chile.
The volume of salt distributed on roads and sidewalks is staggering: 55 billion pounds are distributed on U.S. roads every year. It can be detected miles from where it is deposited, sixty floors above the city streets, and runs off into nearby waters, increasing their salinity. And it impacts living organisms. Chemically similar to potassium, salt it can work its way into the potassium-supported functions within cells. However, it cannot perform the processes powered by sodium, and thus is harmful to many organisms.
Yet, as described by Menno Schilthuizen in Darwin Comes to Town, some living creatures have evolved in urban areas--that is, have genetically mutated--in ways that enable them to survive the road salt inundation of sodium. "Organisms that manage to cope with saline situations have usually evolved mechanisms to counteract the salty onslaught on their cells. [Thus, ...] salt-tolerant beach plants colonize the hard shoulders of major inland roads, pushing out the regular verge verdure. But chances are that the animals and plants that are already there also evolve salt tolerance thanks to road salting."
Schilthuizen describes a lab experiment in which batches of small crustaceans--water fleas--were placed in tanks with different salt concentrations to live for 10 weeks (5-10 generations). The descendants were then removed from their salty environments, cultured for 3 additional generations in tanks of unsalted freshwater, and then tested for their salt tolerance. It turned out that "the water fleas retained the evolutionary signature of having adapted to salt water. When placed in brackish water...the strains that had lived under moderate salt concentrations ...survived well, whereas the ones previously naive to salinity experienced only 46 percent survival."
Humans are transforming the environmental conditions of the places we inhabit; while harmful to many creatures, some creatures evolve to survive the harsh conditions we create.
In my previous blog I described Naomi Sach’s and Gwenn Fried’s presentations and Regina Ginyard's and Jenn Hertzell's audience participation activity at The Transformative Properties of Horticulture symposium held on November 15. Concluding the activity was a presentation by Amos Clifford, founder of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Services, the organization from which I received my training as a forest therapy guide.
It seems only appropriate to be writing about Amos’s presentation during Thanksgiving week, as there is so much about his insights to be thankful for, and in what is a virtuous circle, I am confident that he in turn would express his gratitude for more-than-human world around us.
Amos began by asking if Forest Therapy can play a role in responding to the global climate crisis, or as he noted, what should more aptly be called simply “the crisis” given its broad scope: the omnipresence of plastics, the “insect apocalypse” and collapse of entire ecosystems. He noted that we are in a “liminal time” –- an in-between time when things are not predictable. This was his motivation in founding ANFT. In the course of a vision fast, he asked, “what can I do as I enter my elder year to help?”
“We have to remember who we are in the context of this beautiful planet and all the beautiful creatures on this planet. We need to remember that we’re in relationship with more than human beings. This is not about being a naturalist or scientist. It is about being in our bodies. It is about being in our senses. It is about being here, not getting to there. … Plants are fundamental in what we do. Our relationship with plants, thinking of them as sentient beings, capable of having a relationship with us, thinking of the forest as sentient and intelligent. Science is beginning to catch up to this understanding.”
Amos highlighted the importance of imagination, noting that Albert Einstein said that “imagination is more important than knowledge.” He encouraged the audience to think of imagination as a sensory field, one that inspires. "Through an imaginal journey we can explore trees, stones, clouds, and bird by shifting how we experience them. We can shift to a remembering, recognizing that it was not very long ago in human history that we thought of the more-than-human world as sentient."
"People are born out of the Earth. We are a part of Earth. Earth has seeded within us the potential to transition into a deeper state of knowing. And now is when we need action. When do you write the best poetry in your life? The best songs? When you are suffering. May this be the time that the poetry of who we are can be beautiful."
"We need to transition our way of thinking, to move away from desiring “more of” to rather something “different from”. We need a connection to nature that embraces whimsy, curiosity, and following nature’s simple pleasures. These are new ways of knowing and being, and they help we redefine “wellness” to take into account “what it means to be whole. We can't be whole apart from a relationship with nature, because we are nature."
Amos asked audience members to take a look at their hands, and to appreciate all that they have done. He added, "The mind is wise enough to hold its place in the family of things. He conveyed the notion of "plants as persons" and noted how "plant blindness" has become a disease. "We overlook plants, misunderstand their time scale. For example, forests are migrating. Yet, they move in "forest time", over periods of time that are difficult for human beings to readily discern."
Amos went on to postulate the notion of new ways of being and knowing in relationship with nature. He described the idea of "Earth Dreaming", which came to him in connection with the concept of an "entangled mind" and that "leads to the question of whether immersion in this field of vegetal learning cause an evolutionary leap, the Earth's invitation to learn a new way of being. Relationships are like neurons within an expanded mind. Think of the forest or plants and places as part of our brain. What is diversity and reciprocity? What if the entangled mind is what knows how to live?"
How lucky we are to hear Amos's insights and perspective.
Last week I was fortunate to attend and offer a small Forest Therapy walk following a symposium on The Transformative Properties of Horticulture, sponsored by the Madison Square Park Conservancy. The symposium featured inspiring speakers engaged in breathtakingly impactful work.
Naomi Sachs, a professor of therapeutic landscape architecture at University of Maryland and founder of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network, a resource for gardens and landscapes that promote health and well-being, spoke about "restorative landscapes" and the importance of providing access to nature in healthcare settings. Hospitals are stressful places where patients and their visitors are at their most vulnerable. “Health”, she added, is not just “not being sick”. It is also about physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing, which is enhanced by natural environments. She described the notion of “restorative landscapes”, which are landscapes that promote health and wellbeing, and could be as simple as a fire escape or memorial--any place that where a person can find peace and solace.
Sachs described the many scientific and medical studies supporting the beneficial impact of nature, including—among medical patients—more rapid recovery from surgery, reduced patient complaints, and reduced need for medication, and--among the general population--improved memory and attention and a reduction in ruminative thoughts.
Gwenn Fried, Manager of Horticulture Therapy Services at NYU Langone Medical Center, then spoke about therapeutic horticulture in public spaces and underscored the value of targeting the certain populations that can most benefit from it, including:
Regina Ginyard and Jenn Hertzell then engaged the audience in a networking activity focused on green spaces that give people joy. Ginyard is a founding member of Black Urban Growers (BUGS), an organization committed to "building networks and community support for growers in both urban and rural settings." Jenn Hertzell is a Bronx-based farmer and founder of At the Rood: An Herbal Eastery, Farm, and Apothecary that exists to create opportunities for people of the African Diaspora to hear their relationships with their bodies and with the earth.
How fortunate we are that scholars and practitioners like Sachs, Fried, Ginyard, and Hertzell are improving lives through the transformative properties of horticulture.
Stay tuned for my next blog entry to learn about what Amos Clifford said at the conference.
Natural Areas Conservancy, a New York-based organization that works across the city to restore the city’s natural areas and to help New Yorkers discover the natural areas in their neighborhoods, recently hosted a symposium on “Forests in Cities: Nature-Based Climate Solutions”.
A range of speakers, leaders from academia, non-profit organizations, and government, discussed the important yet undervalued ways of urban natural areas addressing climate change in cities is significant but has been traditionally undervalued. Discussed the following topics:
Among the key points raised were that more than 100 cities in the United States are managing forests, and 1.7 million acres in urban areas are natural areas, more than twice the acreage of Yosemite National Park. These areas play a critical role in climate change mitigation, including by sequestering carbon, cooling temperatures, and mitigating flooding and storm runoff. The carbon sequestered by trees in urban areas is the equivalent of the emissions of 500,000 cars per year. Essentially, they area an enormous carbon sink.
The power of nature of provide climate solutions raises the question of how we will organize ourselves to leverage these benefits. Eighty-two percent of U.S. citizens live in cities. There is a need to mobilize around the issue of nature-based climate solutions. Yet, it can be challenging for people to care about nature if they have not experienced it. Thus, part of the change in the way we embrace nature as offering solutions needs to come from a change in people's relationship with nature.
Natural Areas Conservancy has been a leader in restoring New York City's green areas and connecting urbanites with local natural areas and has been a significant voice supporting policies that benefit urban natural areas. One such initiative is the Climate Stewardship Act, which was introduced into Congress in September, 2019. If passed, the Act will fund the planting of 4.1 billion trees by 2030 and 16 billion trees by 2050. The trees would cover nearly 64 million acres and would capture more that two years of the U.S.'s greenhouse emissions, 13 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, by the century's end. Four hundred million of these trees would be planted in urban areas, resulting in a cooling effect in the event of heatwaves and, in turn, a reduction in energy usage associated with air conditioning.
Nature is at risk because of climate change--a nature offers solutions.
Dr. Yoshifumi Miyazaki spoke yesterday at the Japan Society, describing his findings about seeking wellness through nature. Miyazaki coined the term “forest therapy” in 2003 as a way to convey the essence of the Japanese term “shinrin-yoku” (forest bathing).
Miyazaki is generally considered the father of Forest Therapy. His key insight is that the human body is made for nature. Humans evolved over a 6-7 million year period; the time since the Industrial Revolution—that is, the introduction of the urban world—represents just .01% of that time span. Urbanization has led to overwork for our brains and bodies; nature offers a return to a calming normal state.
Miyazaki has supported this finding with abundant, seminal research, both in laboratory and field experiments. In one lab study, the presence of merely a bouquet of roses on a desk resulted in a calming effect on the brain’s prefrontal cortex activity. A similar effect resulted from the scent of air-dried wood chips. Similarly, a calming effect was identifiable when a subject viewed an image of forest scenery versus city scenery and when a subject’s hand ran over uncoated wood versus wood featuring urethane and other finishes.
Field experiments produced similar results. Parasympathetic nervous activity, which helps with relaxation and slows the heart rate, increases in forests, both from 15 minutes of viewing a forested area versus an urban area and from 15 minutes walking in a forested area versus an urban area. Likewise, the stress hormones Cortisol and Adrenaline decrease when humans view or walk in forested settings. Notably, these measures, as well as blood pressure and pulse rates, remain reduced for several days following a few hours in a forested area.
Miyazaki also reported on his studies of the impact of nature therapy for depressed and highly stressed people. There too, even a Bonsai tree or bouquet of flowers sitting on a desk had a favorable impact. The favorable impact was felt by healthy people (with a 15% improvement in parasympathetic nervous activity); however, in highly stressed people the improvement was nearly 100%.
Miyazaki's findings are a reminder that the benefits of Forest Therapy are available to almost everyone. While access to a park or garden, or of course a rural setting, is desirable, his research shows that significant improvements in physiological relaxation are achievable even with the presence of essential oils, recordings of natural sounds, natural wood products, and flowers and other house plants.
Interested in learning more about Dr. Miyazaki's findings and recommendations? Check out his book, The Japanese Art of Forest Bathing.
From time to time I play a thought experiment that involves reflecting on what it took to arrive at a certain moment in time in my life—the people, circumstances, choices, and opportunities that led to my doing something as routine as commuting to work or sending a text to a friend. Perhaps I owe this way of thinking to Carl Sagan’s comment, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
I found myself engaging in this experiment while walking among the crowds that had gathered in lower Manhattan on Friday, September 20 to bring attention to climate change. What has it taken for us to arrive at this point?
With a nod to Sagan, first we needed a universe--a Big Bang, and the creation of Earth 4.5 billion years ago. Fast forward to the appearance of Homo Sapiens 300,000 years ago, and in time the emergence of new technologies, from the use of fibers to make baskets, clothing, and bags 26,000 years ago, to pottery for food storage and cooking 20,000 years ago. The first city, Jericho, emerges 11,000 year ago. Cattle are first domesticated 10,500 years ago, and the first depiction of a wheeled vehicle appears 5,500 years ago.
Fast forward again to the industrial revolution, 250 years ago, and the rise of machine tools and manufacturing, chemical and metal production, factories, and steam and water power, which led to unprecedented population growth. It took over 200,000 years for the human population to reach 1 billion, and 100 years for it to reach over 7 billion, leading to increased urbanization and a growing appetite for ever more natural resources.
Metals, ores, petroleum--refined, purified, rarified, smelted, condensed for our use. Plants and animals cultivated and bred for our consumption. Land devoured for our agricultural needs, roads, and sprawling mega-cities. Styrofoam and other throw-away plastic containers replace bags and baskets made from woven leaves or strips of carefully selected and tended wood. Cars and planes replace travel on foot or horseback, and even in many regions by train. Our reliance on petroleum, derived from ancient decayed plants and all the carbon they harvested, now releases that same carbon into the air.
So how did we arrive at a moment when thousands of children all over the world would be protesting inaction against climate change? There are infinite strands that lead us to this point, and I have provides the lightest of sketches here. The bigger question is, "What will it take to change the course of this ever accelerating and alarming trajectory?"
When planes struck the Twin Towers 18 years ago, New Yorkers and the world witnessed the perverse deployment of one type of human invention—airplanes—against another—skyscrapers. Of course, it was not the human-engineered aeronautic and architectural innovations themselves that resulted in the horrific loss of life, but rather al-Qaeda’s heinous scheme to appropriate them for harm.
Yet, the scale of loss could not have been achieved without the capabilities made possible by human innovation. And, while we know that airplanes and skyscrapers derive from metals and petroleum harvested from the Earth, these materials, once smelted, shaped, and refined on an industrial level, hardly appear recognizable as “nature”. On September 11th we witnessed a Frankensteinian deployment of natural resources.
What a contrast to that sinister application of human invention is the Ground Zero Memorial. With water cascading into hollowed imprints of the former sites of the two towers, names of the murdered etched into stone, and trees interspersed along the pavement, the memorial site brings together sustaining elements of nature: water, rock, and trees.
I do not know what theories underlie the planner’s vision for the memorial site, but with my office just a few blocks away, I frequently stroll through the site and am regularly taken by how comforting it is. The continual rush of the sound of falling water as it catches the daylight; the solidity of stone holding in perpetuity the names of the deceased; and the color and fragrance of shade-providing trees, along with the musical sounds of the birds they host, offer strong reminders of the solace offered by elemental nature, particularly in contrast to technology gone rogue.
About this Blog
Hi! I'm Nancy Kopans, founder of Urban Edge Forest Therapy. Join me on an adventure to discover creative ways to connect with nature in your daily life, ways that are inspired by urban surroundings that can reveal unexpected beauty, with the potential to ignite a sense of wonder.