Just as nature’s creations present in a range of colors, from birds' vibrant plumage and flowers' alluring array to the infinite variations of human skin tone, nature is agnostic about the color of skin of humans who enjoy outdoor pursuits. Flora and fauna have no preference or bias about whether the humans they encounter are white, pink, brown, or black, or any other shade.
Yet, for too long people of color have felt, and have been, excluded from outdoor pursuits, like backpacking, hiking, climbing and swimming. For People of Color living in urban areas, outdoor resources often are more challenging to access. To reach a hiking trail may require a car, and the most well-tended and spacious urban parks are often not conveniently located. The challenges of accessing nature results in reduced participation, which in turn reinforces perceptions that PoC do not belong in nature.
It is in this context that the encounter between dog owner Amy Cooper and birder Christian Cooper in Central Park’s Ramble is troubling beyond the alarming potential for Amy Cooper’s call to the police complaining of harassment by “an African American man in the Ramble” to result in a gentle birder, who happens to be black, falling victim to policy brutality. Chris Cooper is a familiar, friendly face to many who frequent the park's wooded areas. Yet, Amy Cooper’s reaction highlights the all-too-frequent perception that people of color do not belong in the outdoors, or if they are there, it is for menacing reasons. The encounter drew appropriate outrage, and coupled with recent horrific murders of black people by police no doubt contributed to the strong, continuing protests for racial equity.
Until only recently, organizations aimed at connecting people with the outdoors conveyed a sense that outdoor pursuits were the domain of white people. While this likely was inadvertent, benign oversight can have insidious results, reinforcing perspectives about black people in the out of doors. Fortunately, this is changing. The incident in Central Park gave rise to Black Birders Week, an initiative to celebrate black nature enthusiasts, and called out the challenges for black people pursuing outdoor activities (witness the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery while jogging). Organizations like REI, the Sierra Club, and the Appalachian Mountain Club increasingly are diversifying the people pictured in their marketing materials and have featured programs and discussions aimed at equity and inclusion. Organizations like Outdoor Afro, Black Urban Growers, are emerging to facilitate greater participation by black people in nature-focused activities, and right here in New York City, Vivian Kurnitz’s Harlem Wellness Center has launched a number of initiatives to engage black people with nature-based experiences.
Since its founding in 2017, a core part of Urban Edge’s mission has been Community Outreach and enabling a nature connection, and its benefits, for those for whom access to nature has been challenging. While we are on pause now during the COVID-19 crisis, when we can resume gathering people together it will be with added vigor in enhancing equities in access to nature.
These are important steps, but there is more to be done.
The events of the past several weeks—the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor by police officers--exposes the extreme systemic racism and violence directed at certain human beings because of the color of their skin.
These deaths follow the horrific murders of Black people by law enforcement over the past several years--Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddy Gray, and sadly many more.
And these deaths overlay the wretched circumstances of the last few decades: mass incarceration, persistent discrimination, and lack of access to decent housing and environmental conditions, banking, education, and health care.
Which follow the shame of the past three centuries: slavery and all of its brutality and Jim Crow.
Racism is a human invention. It does not exist in nature. Yes, to quote Tennyson, there is the image of nature “red in tooth and claw”, a world of Darwinian competition. But that is different.
Nature does not discriminate, and there is much we can learn from our interactions with nature. How we admire the beauty of nature’s kaleidoscope of variation! The rainbow of colors of birds and flowers; the alluring shades of green among plants; the stripes, spots, blotches, of mammals fill us with awe and wonder. Would we ever suggest that one hue of flower is to be singled out, castigated, and destroyed? Would we dare say that a blue flower is somehow less worthy than a pink flower, or that a yellow bird is less of a bird because of its tint?
And yet, all too often people of color find themselves viewed and treated as lesser humans simply because of their skin color. All too often the color of one’s skin can lead to a destiny that is diminishing, with opportunities denied, and futures destroyed.
This is a human invention, and we have the capability to remedy the widespread racism that has become impossible to “white wash”. Let us learn from our encounters with nature to think no less of fellow human beings because of the color of their skin.
Martin Luther King Day offers a time to reflect on the impact of the great civil rights leader and his legacy of respect. A corollary to respecting other human beings, regardless of race, ethnicity, or skin color is respect for nature -- respect for other leaving creatures and the ecosystems that support them.
Respect for nature, like Civil Rights, is rooted in the notion of "inherent worth." In the context of environmental ethics, Paul W. Taylor, in his groundbreaking book Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics, describes "inherent worth" in this way:
Our duties toward the Earth's non-human forms of life are grounded on their status as entities possessing inherent worth. They have a kind of value that belongs to them by their very nature, and it is this value that makes it wrong to treat them as if they existed as mere means to human ends. It is for their sake that their good should be promoted or protected. Just as humans should be treated with respect, so should they. (p. 13)
There are a range of ways to regard nature, many of which ultimately are about what nature can do for people. Nature can be regarded as a resource to be exploited (e.g., "natural resources"), focused on energy, agriculture, timber, and extraction-oriented activities. It can be experienced as a playground for outdoor activities. Perhaps more nobly, nature can be considered a refuge, an escape from hectic modern life. It can be engaged with aesthetic appreciation and with scientific curiosity. Yet, all of these, notes Taylor, differ from the attitude of respect for nature grounded in a moral sense of nature's inherent worth.
A sense of nature's inherent worth is central to a biocentric outlook on nature and the attitude of respect for nature. From the perspective of a biocentric outlook, writes Taylor,
[O]ne sees one's membership in the Earth's Community of Life as providing a common bond with all the different species of animals and plants that have evolved over the ages. One becomes aware that, like all other living things on our planet, one's very existence depends on the fundamental soundness and integrity of the biological system of nature. When one looks at this domain of life in its totality, one sees it to be a complex and unified web of interdependent parts." (p. 44)
Environmental ethics is not an obvious legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Civil Rights work. Yet, there are interrelated threads, rooted in the notion of inherent worth and an awareness of the inter-dependencies of living creatures. As King himself said,
It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.
On MLK Day, we can reflect on the wisdom and courage of the great Civil Rights leader, and the broad impact and application of his vision.
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.
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.
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.