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.
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.
However imperceptible day-to-day, nature’s seasons are always changing, until one day it becomes apparent. In these waning days of August I have noticed how twilight comes earlier. To quote Emily Dickinson, “The Dusk drew earlier in”. As I walk around the City, I see increasing hints of what is to come. Not only does the sun sets earlier; we encounter more frequent cooler days—welcome refuge from debilitating heat, yet also a reminder of waning summer—and a few leaves are starting to change colors, with tinges of yellow now mixed in with deep greens. Here and there, an occasional yellow leaf floats to the ground.
With these early harbingers of Autumn come the awareness of the changes that loom in our human ordering of time, conventions and rituals that align with nature’s cycles. Though seemingly removed from nature in our built environments, with temperatures regulated by air conditioning and heating system and artificial light tricking our circadian rhythms, our bodies unavoidably sense the changes in nature around us.
People fortunate to vacation out of town return home, packing away beach chairs and flip flops. Children return to school. It will soon be time to exchange shorts and tee shirts for sweaters and other warmer clothing, and work has a way of ramping up. Like the harvest season that is to come, our energies shift from a state of greater languor (why hurry when it will be light out until 9:00?) to a feeling that it is time to hunker down and focus more fully on work – even for those of us working full time through the summer.
But as Dickinson’s poem suggests, with the waning of Summer, and the Summer’s waning light, we transition not into grief but rather, with the coming of Autumn, another season of beauty.
As Imperceptibly as Grief
By Emily Dickinson
As imperceptibly as Grief
The Summer lapsed away –
Too imperceptible at last
To seem like Perfidy –
A Quietness distilled
As Twilight long begun,
Or Nature spending with herself
Sequestered Afternoon –
The Dusk drew earlier in –
The Morning foreign shone –
A courteous, yet harrowing Grace,
As Guest, that would be gone –
And thus, without a Wing
Or service of a Keel
Our Summer made her light escape
Into the Beautiful.
With longer daylight hours and more time spent outdoors in the warmer air, Summer offers an opportunity to consider the play of sunlight and how it interacts with other natural features.
Consider the magical, filtered light of the sun distilled through a canopy of trees. Shafts of light beam down like spotlights, capturing particles moving in the air. The light feels awe-inspiring and effervescent. The Japanese have a word for this: "komorebi".
Consider too how sunlight interacts with water. If you find yourself near a body of water--one of New York City’s beaches, like Coney Island/Brighton Beach, the Rockaways, or Orchard Beach, a pond or lake, or even a pool (I am a great fan of NYC’s public pools, like the one at John Jay Park), take note of the light and its dazzling, crystalline clarity. Observe how it reflects off the surface of the water, and how the reflecting changes if the water is still or choppy. Slices of light--patches and dancing light--offer a full-on light show. Notice how the light reflects off the water onto nearby objects--rocks, trees, and other surfaces, offering shimmering reflections of continual movement, with almost cinematic effect, like an experimental film.
If immersed in the water, notice how the light filters through the water--a variation of komorebi?--and the shadows on the bottom. Shape-shifting forms moving with the smallest of waves connect the features of light and water. Even raindrops gathered on tree leaves and branches offer a dynamic show as light filters through these tiny translucent reflecting chambers, like small mirrors or lights.
Take a moment during these Summer days to notice the light shows around you.
Running around the Central Park Reservoir in the warmer months, I often eye the milkweed plants along the north side of the path, wondering when the monarchs will arrive. These beautiful orange and black-patterned butterflies, seemingly delicate, make an epic annual migration over four generations in the course of a year. To my delight, this morning I noticed a number of monarchs, likely the year’s third generation.
Averaging 50 miles a day for four to six weeks, monarch Generation 1 begins its migration in early September from as far north as Canada and travels as far as 2,100 miles to cool regions east of Mexico City. Arriving by the end of October, they hibernate until March, when they awaken, mate, and migrate to the Southern United States where they lay their eggs on milkweed and die.
Generation 2 hatches, feeds, metamorphoses, and migrates north where it lays eggs, reaching the New York City area in late June. Generation 3 survives for 4-6 weeks, into late July/mid August, the monarchs we observe now around New York City. Their offspring, Generation 4, will arrive in Canada by August, where they will store energy to prepare for their September flight to Mexico.
Milkweed offers monarchs important protection. Monarch larvae ingests the milkweed leaves and with them the plants toxins, which are poisonous to monarch predators, such as birds. On eating a monarch, birds learn of the toxin, vomiting up the butterfly and subsequently avoiding ingesting it. Other species of butterfly even mimic the monarch’s colors, nature’s way of helping them avoid predators who may confuse them with monarchs.
Milkweed might look like an innocuous plant, standing without fanfare in a patch along the Central Park Reservoir. It takes on a different level of significance when one thinks about its role in the epic annual, multigenerational migration of monarch butterflies
Shadows evidence physical presence--the instantiation of our bodies and of other creatures and structures. Bathed in daylight, our corporeal forms have the power to block the Sun's rays and cast dark reflections on the ground, what David Abram calls our "shadowflection". Even nighttime, as Abram notes, is nothing other than a hemisphere of the Earth enveloped in its own shadow.
So too, shadows remind us of the sun's presence, and our position relative to it as we stand upon the Earth, our orbital home in continual motion. As the Sun migrates from low on the eastern horizon in the morning, to overhead, to low on the western horizon in the evening, our shadowflections shapeshift by the hour and season. Transitioning from elongated versions of ourselves, as if we were giants standing on the earth, to squat, to long again, they remind us of the continual motion of the Earth relative to the Sun, and perhaps other cycles and changes our bodies experience over the cycles of days, months, and years.
And far more than a two-dimensional surface-restricted image, shadows have three-dimensional depth. Writes Abram in Becoming Animal:
"My actual shadow is...more substantial than that flat shape on the paved ground. That silhouette is only my shadow's outermost surface. The actual shadow does not reside primarily on the paved ground; it is a voluminous being of thickness and depth, a mostly unseen presence that dwells in the air between my body and that ground.
With the summer sun high in the sky, it is prime time for shadowflections, reminders of the our ever-present connection with the Sun, as the Earth turns and turns.
While we celebrate July 4th--Independence Day--with fireworks and barbecues, America's Revolutionary War still can seem like an event in the distant past. After all, 1776 was 243 years ago. Yet, traces of the war are apparent, vestiges written into, if not shaped by, the topography of the landscape itself--even in New York City.
Central Park's steep bluffs overlooking the Harlem Meer were important strategic features during the American Revolution, their elevation and expansive views providing the site for the military fortifications Fort Fish, Fort Clinton, and Nutter's Battery, sites still on view today. During America's War of Independence, George Washington defended New York against invading British forces from this high-ground position that is now the northeast section of Central Park. The British defeated Washington in the area and built a series of fortification extending from the bluffs to the Hudson. In addition to Fort Fish, Fort Clinton, and Nutter's Battery, the British constructed a chain of blockhouses, the site of one of which is in Central Park's Northwoods, adjacent to 109th Street. Each of these locations was subsequently used by Americans to defend against the threat of British invasion from the north during the war of 1812.
McGowan's Pass was another key topographic feature during the Revolutionary War in what is now Central Park. Located along the steep hill and switchbacks of what is now the park's East Drive north of 102nd street, it was a Hessian (conscripted German soldiers) encampment for much of the war, from 1776 to 1883. At the war's end, the Hessians and British retreated north through pass, while George Washington reentered New York through the pass.
Gazing at today's runners and cyclists traversing topographies of Central Park that during the Revolutionary War were strategic locations suggests more than weekend warriors. One can, with a little imagination, time travel and conjure warriors of the American Revolution traversing the same terrain and making use of its features. Landscapes carry memory.
Summer solstice, when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky, is an opportunity to connect with cyclical changes and embrace the bounty of nature around us. Summer is upon us, a time of abundant growth. The day that provides the most light, it is perhaps then a time for enhanced clarity and insight as well as chance to appreciate the world's plenitude.
Derived from the Latin words "sol" (sun) and "sistere" (to make stand), the word "solstice" connotes an inflection point, a moment when what is before differs from what is after, as is fitting for the day that marks a shift from the sun progressing northward to tracking southward and with this a shift from lengthening daylight hours to shortening daylight hours.
Humans have a rich traditions honoring the summer solstice. Ancient Northern and Central European pagans--including Germanic, Celtic and Slavic tribes--celebrated Midsummer with bonfires, which were thought to enhance the sun’s energy and promote a good harvest for the fall. Early Christians celebrated the day as St. John's Day, commemorating the birth of John the Baptist. The Great Pyramids of Egypt are situated such that, from the viewpoint of the Sphinx, the sun sets directly between two of the pyramids on the summer solstice. The ancient Chinese regarded the summer solstice as connected with the feminine force “yin,” and celebrated with festivities honoring Earth, femininity.
The Mayans of Central America built structures to align with the sun's solstice path. And many Native American tribes engaged in solstice rituals, some of which continue to be practiced. The Sioux sun dance entails cutting and raising a tree as a symbolic connection between the heavens and Earth, placing teepees in a circle to represent the cosmos., and participants decorating their bodies in colors of red (sunset), blue (sky), yellow (lightning), white (light), and black (night).
While many ancient cultures were attuned to the sun's cycles and engaged in solstice rituals, contemporary urban dwellers may fell less connected to this astronomical happening. But as entrenched as we may be in our day-to-day lives, the eternal dance between the Sun and Earth continues, a reminder of the extent of time beyond humanity and forces that are bigger than ourselves.
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.