A viral pandemic is spreading across the globe. We are advised to wash our hands, avoid touching our faces, maintain social distancing, cough and sneeze into our elbows, and self-quarantine if not feeling well. An invisible force of nature has led to illness and death, schools closing, social gatherings cancelled, and a plunge in the stock market. And, it highlights how interconnected we are.
What began in Wuhan, China has arrived in every continent except Antarctica, and is spreading within countries. Just thinking about the vectors of contact, multiplied across people infected, is mind boggling. An individual in a Westchester suburb of New York City with no recent history of travel to a hot spot is diagnosed with the virus and its illness COVID-19. His communities go on high alert; his house of worship shuts down, his office shuts down, his family and various contacts are found to be diagnosed. The virus pops up in Nassau County, Long Island; in Queens, in New Jersey, in Connecticut, far away from the initial U.S. hot spots of Seattle and California.
And so many of us move into a state of hyper-awareness. Is that occasional cough a Coronavirus cough? Do I dare take the subway? Is that person coughing over there going to make me and my family ill? Do I even need to worry since I am not among the more vulnerable sub-populations (although loved ones are)?
All if this vigilance, on top of contributing to workplace awareness and response planning in my day job, is making me a little nutty. I find myself experiencing tightness in my chest, and wondering if it is a sign of the COVID-19 - or more likely my tendency to feel that way when I am experiencing stress (and a day hunched over a computer to track the latest developments for my organization doesn't help).
So I went for a walk.
And I am reminded that there is a beautiful world out there.
In case you haven't noticed, with the clocks springing forward over the weekend, darkness arrives at close to 7:30. And we can all probably agree that 70 degree weather in New York City before mid-March is alarming and a likely indicator of an existential crisis far greater than Coronavirus. .... But it did feel nice to walk in Central Park amid the soothing, warm air, to feel the sunlight and to notice the earliest of blooms, the beginning flowerings of dogwoods, cherry trees, azaleas and forsythias.
None of this takes away from concern about a highly contagious virus that is potential deadly, particularly for vulnerable populations. But a walk outside noticing the beauty of evening light and early spring blooms sure helped to relieve that tightness in my chest.
From Having it Out With Melancholy
by Jane Kenyon
What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment?
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright, unequivocal eye.
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.
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.
Far more than a concrete jungle, New York City boasts miles of coastline, which in late May and early June are the setting of an annual ritual that has taken place for nearly 500 million years, one of the oldest rituals to occur among animal species.
During a recent stroll on Orchard Beach at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, I came across horseshoe crabs pulling up onshore. Intriguing looking, ancient creatures, they remind me of small tanks, able to ambulate while being fully protected by a hard carapace. Japanese legend too identifies the horseshoe crab with military symbolism. It was said that brave warriors who died honorably in battle were reborn as horseshoe crabs, with their shells like samurai helmets, forever traversing the ocean floor.
Why were these creatures migrating onto the sand? Why now? Thanks to the Historical Signs Project of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, answering my questions -- and more -- was a nearby sign, "Horseshoe Crabs in New York City Parks, Orchard Beach - Pelham Bay Park." This is what it said about the fifth oldest species (after cyanobacteria, sponge, jellyfish, and nautilus), which has contributed greatly to medical science:
Every May and June, horseshoe crabs emerge from Pelham Bay and Long Island Sound onto Orchard Beach in Pelham Bay Park. Female horseshoe crabs arrive on the beach to lay their eggs, with their male counterparts literally in tow. Males grasp onto the back of the female's shell using their specially adapted, hooked legs, sometimes two, three, or four onto one female. When they arrive on the beach, female horseshoe crabs dig a hold in the sand and lay up to 20,000 tiny olive-green eggs . The males then rush to be the first to fertilize.
The process is heavily tied to the lunar cycle and its effects on the tides. The mating begins when the moon's force is strongest and the high tide allows the horseshoe crab to venture further onto the beach. As the force weakens, the water is never able to reach the eggs. Two weeks later, when the moon's force peaks again, the eggs are ready to hatch and the water sweeps the newborns into the sea. While this timing has provided protection from the sea, the eggs face other dangers. The thousands of protein-rich eggs provide a feast for hungry migrating birds, which can eat enough to double or even triple their body weight before moving on. Some birds are believed to time their migration to coincide with this mating ritual and its resulting source of nutrition.
The horseshoe crab...has been around since before he dinosaurs.... This prehistoric creature may resemble a crab, but is actually more closely related to the spider and scorpion. While the horseshoe crab has a tough exterior that has helped its survival, it is one of the most harmless creatures on the seashore. Its high tolerance for pollutants has also allowed the horseshoe crab to thrive where other species have failed. When not swarming on the beaches in the spring, the horseshoe crab stays mainly on the ocean floor, feeding on mollusks, worms, and seaweed. In the winter, it burrows into the ocean sediment. While the lifespan of a horseshoe crabs in the wild is not clear, they have been known to live up to 15 years in aquariums.
This "living fossil" plays an important role in modern medical science. Its blood contains Limulus Amebocyte Lysate (LAL), which is used by scientists for the detection of bacterial toxins. Tests using LAL are required by the Federal Drug Administration for medications and vaccines. Blood from the horseshoe crab is also used to make a variety of products, from fertilizers and conch bait to hairspray and contact lenses. These uses have led to the overharvesting of the horseshoe crab and a decline of its population in the Atlantic. However, the ancient horseshoe crab can still be seen crawling onto the shores of the Bronx, at Orchard Beach, every year.
On a friend’s recommendation, I am reading Circe, by Madeline Miller. Miller brings Greek and Latin myths to life, "novelizing" the stories of Homer, Aeschylus, Ovid, and Virgil. She creates an extended narrative that brings to light stories’ coherence with one another and animates the characters’ inner lives.
Circe, the daughter of the sun god Helios and Perse, an Oceanid nymph, was a sorceress, whose magic derives in part from her understanding of the power of herbs and plants. On several occasions, she makes use of a flower, “pharmaka”, which turns creatures into their true selves. Administered to the poor, mortal fisherman, Glaucus, he becomes a sea God who rescues sailors from storms. Added to the bathing area favored by the beautiful yet conniving nymph Scylla, she turns into a tentacle sea monster, much like a giant squid. And through the use of plants, Circe turns Odysseus's ravenous and disrespectful sailors into pigs.
Reading of Circe’s awareness of plants and their potency, their magic, underscores how nature can awaken our true selves. This isn't to suggest that our true selves are gods or raging demons. But time in nature aids the work of our parasympathetic nerves to help us relax and overcome the fight or flight reaction of sympathetic nerves, which read modern-day stimuli as threats. Nature has a way of releasing deeper truths, exhuming our inner state of being, one that can respond to nature's gifts, our home for 99.99% of the time humans and humanoid creatures have existed on our planet.
Think about what true aspects of yourself a connection with nature might reveal.
There has been much discussion lately about colonizing Mars. SpaceX owner Elon Musk expects to initiate Mars spacecraft test flights as early next year and plans to land cargo spaceships on the Red Planet in 2022, with a manned landing targeted for 2024. Mars One aims for a permanent manned landing in 2032. One has to be in awe of the vision, science, and courage it takes to plan and participate in these initiatives.
Perhaps the desire to settle Mars is motivated by core characteristics of human nature, our innate curiosity impelling us to voyage ever onward to faraway reaches. From the time hunter gatherers traversed ice bridges across the Bering Strait and vast bodies of water on wood-carved canoes, humans have used their ingenuity to venture forth to distance lands. Even our origin stories, from the Navajo creation myth Upward Movement and Emergence Way to Old Testament desert wanderings in search of the promised land describe similar outward migrations. Perhaps colonizing Mars is the latest chapter in this narrative.
Yet, some of what is motivating consideration of Mars colonization appears to be an evolving sense of dissatisfaction with the condition of our planet, a sense of unease about political and resource stability and with this concern about the future survival of humankind. Two hundred years ago there were less than 1 billion people on our planet. Today there are more than 7 billion, with the population expected to exceed 10 billion in another 30 years. Population growth combined with the impact of climate change and resource depletion have prompted concerns about a dystopian future in which human life on Earth is at risk. Perhaps this is not dissimilar to what motivated our ancestors to migrate as well.
But the fact is that we have a pretty great planet right here. Colonization of Mars or other potentially habitable reaches of our galaxy requires addressing complex challenges regarding gravitational differences, oxygen and water production, food production, energy production and storage, building habitats, and countless other challenges. While human ingenuity could surmount these challenges let's be clear: Earth, our home, offers plentiful water, oxygen, and natural resources for food, clothing, and shelter, as well as for transportation, energy, and medicine, and if well-tended by us can support us for future generations. At the same time that we look to colonize Mars, how can we tend to our current home in a way that recognizes how much we are part of it and dependent on it, and in a way that secures it for future generations?
Our ancestors understood this, even if they too responded to yearnings to explore faraway reaches. Long ago, people lived in close relation to the Earth, highly attuned to this symbiosis. They understood that being human means being part of the natural world, having a sense of belonging and recognizing that the Earth nurtures. As Robert Wolff writes in Original Wisdom: Stories of an Ancient Way of Knowing,
[Aboriginals] lived off the land or the ocean. They did not have to rely on the outside for any of their needs. They could find all the food they needed to sustain themselves, they could find or make material for shelter and clothing. They carved canoes and made blowpipes, they rolled a powerfully strong rope from the fibers of coconut husks. And beyond what they could find and make in their environment, they did not need anything, nor did they want anything more. They lived life. Life did not live them, as it does us.
Most of us have ventured far from this way of life. We no longer live in tightly bound communities. We no longer live directly off the land, nor do we eschew material possessions, regarded by nomadic people as a burden to carry. Yet the truth remains that everything around us, ourselves included, derives from the Earth. We are nearly 70% water, and beyond that a combination of elements with a magical spark of life. Our food, our clothing, our shelter all derive from earth. The concrete underfoot in our cities, the metal comprising our cars, the elements that comprise the computer I am writing on and you are reading on, our sources of energy--all derive from the earth and the systems in which it exists.
On this Earth Day, take a moment to think about the threads that connect us to our ancient lineage, to ways of life closely tied to the Earth and its resources, and think about how the core of that lineage has not changed. While perhaps one day humankind will colonize Mars, appreciate the wonder and beauty of planet Earth and the many ways it nurtures us.
Today at sundown marks the Jewish holiday Yom HaShoah, Holocaust remembrance day, commemorating those who perished and the heroism of rescuers and survivors. It also is a reminder of those who are persecuted today simply because of who they are. How does this day, remembering unfathomable human cruelty and the horrific consequences of science, and industrialized mass planning and coordination directed towards the darkest of purposes, relate to nature? What can we possibly learn about the power of nature in this context?
In Man's Search for Meaning, published in 1946, Victor Frankl described his experiences as a concentration camp prisoner during World War II. Frankl was a psychiatrist, and his agonizing situation provided a vantage point for observing how people reacted to extreme, dire circumstances. In this context, he perceived ways of thinking that facilitated survival, namely identifying a purpose in life that enabled positive thoughts and deeply imagining that outcome.
While reading the book recently, I was struck by Frankl's references to prisoners' observations of nature--how a glimpse of nature could offer a small tonic.
Below are several such excerpts, from Ilse Lasch's translation. I reference these not to suggest that nature somehow negated the unfathomable atrocities experienced by concentration camp prisoners or others in extreme dire situations. Yet, it is noteworthy that during such dark times nature awareness was helpful, if only as a distraction from one's immediate horrific circumstances. If nature awareness can be helpful in the most extreme of circumstances, one wonders how it can assist those of us encountering life's more benign ups and downs:
"As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before. Under their influence he sometimes even forgot his own frightful circumstances. If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty. Despite that factor--or maybe because of it--we were carried away by nature's beauty, which we had missed for so long." (p. 39-40)
"One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, 'how beautiful the world could be!'" (p. 40)
"Pointing through the window of the hut, [a young woman] said, 'This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.' Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. 'I often talk to this tree,' she said to me. I was startled and didn't quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. 'Yes' What did it say to her? She answered, 'It said to me, '"I am here--I am here--I am life, eternal life.'"'(p. 69)
Next time you feel the blues coming on, or that sharp sense of worry, see if you can notice nature--perhaps the leaves of a potted office plant, a view of the sky outside a window, or a bird chirping rhythmically in the background as you walk along a busy street. See whether noticing the natural world beyond yourself changes your emotional sense, if only for a little while.
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.