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Archive for October, 2009

Doctor’s prescription: Take two aspirin and go hang out with a tree. That may sound like a joke, but perhaps it shouldn’t.

In 2001, a group of researchers at the University of Illinois made an incredible discovery. They had been studying the effects of exposure to nature on health and well-being.

Years of findings by their group and other research teams had documented clear benefits of being around natural features, such as trees and parks. It was known, for example, that surgical patients with green views from their rooms got better faster and needed less pain medicine than those who could only see the walls of neighboring buildings. Likewise, college students with leafy views reported better concentration than those with more urban views.

These researchers had a new question. They wondered if there was some minimum amount of nature in the environment that would provide benefits. Was a shrub under the window enough? Would a potted begonia do the trick?

They set up camp in one of the worst places on earth: Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. This vast, blighted, crime-ridden housing project stretched for nearly two miles. In a testament to the miseries of homelessness, there was a long waiting list for apartments. Available units went to the next family in line; tenants did not have the luxury of choosing the apartment they liked best.

The projects were originally built with small pockets of green space between the buildings, mostly just lawns and a few shrubs. Over time, many of these spaces had been paved over to save on maintenance costs.

The researchers discovered that people living in buildings nearer to one of the remaining green spaces were significantly better off than those living farther away. Apparently looking out the window at a patch of scrappy lawn and a tree or two was related to better concentration, stronger ties to neighbors, better parenting, and an enhanced capacity to deal with problems.

It was a startling finding. How could exposure to a square of beat up grass, a beleaguered missionary from a distant natural world, produce any positive benefits, especially in a setting as impoverished and desperate as this one? It is a stretch to imagine that walking by a tree every morning could provide support for people worrying about finding food and dodging stray bullets.

More startling still was the size of the benefit. Living near greenery appeared to have as large an effect on well-being and coping as did health and age. As one example, it was found that only three percent of the people who lived closer to green spaces reported hitting their kids during the past year, compared with fourteen percent of people in the less green areas. These were powerful effects.

What could explain the findings? The researchers looked at everything they could think of to help figure out the answer. They examined if people living nearer the green spaces got more exercise, were exposed to less noise, less air pollution, or experienced less crime. They could find nothing to explain their findings except that the simple experience of seeing more greenery was in some way healing and important.

Other striking findings have come out of this vein of research. In the same year as the Chicago study, another group of researchers looked at the effects of natural settings on children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Kids suffering from ADD find it excruciatingly difficult to sit still and focus.

The researchers asked parents to rate their children’s symptoms after a variety of activities including playing outside, playing inside, school, video games, being alone, reading a book, etc. The parents did not know what the researchers were trying to figure out.

Again, the findings were compelling. Parents reported that their children’s symptoms were significantly reduced after being in more natural areas. These findings held true even after the researchers considered other related factors that could explain a reduction in symptoms, such as level of exercise or being outside.

The more natural the outdoor setting, the better the kids were. The longer they were in that setting, they better they were. And, even more impressive, the benefits held for children who already lived in relatively green neighborhoods.

The take-home message: the more nature, the better, and even small amounts of exposure can provide remarkable benefits.

No one in Maine lives in as bleak an urban environment as a Chicago housing project. Indeed, one would be hard put to find anyone in this state who couldn’t see a tree from his or her window, or right out the front door. Yet, the studies described above make clear that there are profound forces at work in the interface between people and nature that we have yet to understand.

Does it matter that the fifteen minutes our kids spend between home and school are spent outside or on a bus? Does it matter that schools have recess? Or green play spaces? Does it matter that parking lots have trees? Does it matter that hospitals and nursing homes have courtyards with plants?

It may matter more than we think.

This spring my mother passed away from a long illness. One day in the hospital I wheeled her to the lobby for a change of scenery. Although she was quite sick, it suddenly occurred to me that there was no good reason why I couldn’t just wheel her down the block to see a glowing carpet of daffodils and hyacinths that had cheered me on the way in. She readily agreed.

Weeks later, just before she died, she took my hand and said, “Thank you, Sarah, for taking me to see the flowers.” She looked up at my face and said, “It’s okay if you cry.” She glanced out the window at a river far below. “You can cry as much as you want, as much as the river out there.”

In the darkest inner city slum and the darkest hour of life, nature weaves the texture of our lives.

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A Chinese lord watches his butcher at work. “What a joy to watch you; what great skills you have,” he exclaims. The butcher puts down his knife and explains, “I have not sharpened my knife for over nineteen years. I find the spaces that already exist in the meat and simply slide my knife through these openings until everything falls to pieces. I never cut through a tendon or a joint.”

The lord replies, “You have taught me the way to nurture life.” So wrote the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu some 2,000 plus years ago. The story of the butcher is one of the central tales in the philosophy of Taoism. The word Tao means “way” and is used in Taoism to refer to the deep processes of the universe (and please don’t ask me what those might be).

I love the tale of the butcher; I want to put it in every column. Although scholars might argue with me about its meaning, in my mind it speaks of living more simply and more in harmony with the natural world. It speaks of the joys of knowledge, understanding and skill.

Are these lofty pursuits held up in contrast to a life spent in chasing material goods? A life spent struggling to hold on to more possessions? A larger house? A bigger car? Well, no, not directly.

But I see a convergence between the steps we might take to nurture our own lives and the steps we might take to nurture the planet. So often we think of saving the planet as requiring many sacrifices, when more often than not a less resource-intensive existence could also be a much better one.

Let me tell you why I’ve recently been musing about my friend the butcher.

For a while I have wanted to write a column about the benefits of living in a small house. For all the obvious reasons, small houses are much easier on the environment than large ones. They use less material to construct and furnish, they take up less land, and they require a fraction of the energy to heat, cool, and light.

A few months ago, I was reading the newspaper and found that someone had written my column for me. Not only that, but she didn’t mention the environment even once.

Many of you are familiar with Sarah Smiley’s nationally syndicated column, Shore Duty, about life as a military wife. Last September, Smiley’s family was relocated from Florida to Bangor, Maine. Smiley writes of her shock to discover that most Maine houses are quite small.

Her Florida house, and most everyone else’s down there from the sound of it, was a huge sprawling affair, with distant play spaces for the kids, multiple unused guest rooms, and an attic in which one could park a van. Their voices echoed off the walls.

Her Bangor house is a comparatively tiny 1,500 square feet. Her kids share a room. She can hear their conversations and their TV shows through the walls. Underfoot and intertwined, her family finds themselves reconnecting with each other: an unexpected blessing of a small house. And what a profound blessing it is; this is the stuff of which quality of life is made.

Yes, it is ridiculously simplistic to suggest that using less always makes us happier. Lots of things that make me happy are hard on the planet: hot showers, flying thousands of miles to visit my sister every year, and coffee, to name a few.

But there’s also an unimaginably huge seething vat of stuff we consume out of habit or indifference that has little or no effect on our happiness, stuff we could do without and be just fine, stuff that makes our lives more complex, harder to manage, more expensive, and less harmonious, stuff that eats our free time and our disposable income.

The trick is figuring out what these things are; they differ for each of us. I found that it was surprisingly easy to discover ways to lower my environmental impact without feeling as though I was making any sacrifices.

I used to mildly enjoy getting catalogs from different companies, but I also wasted time looking at them, wasted effort lugging them out to recycling, and wasted money buying things I didn’t need. I cancelled most all of them, and I find I don’t miss them.

I realized I didn’t mind if the house was cold on winter mornings, so now I wait to turn up the heat until later in the day when I really care. I found I liked local cider as much as orange juice trucked up from Florida. Each of these changes, along with many others, were easy for me to make and were better for the planet.

It was funny, though, that I had to be paying attention to figure them out.

Smiley ends her small house column with a anecdote about overhearing one of her sons ask the other if he’d noticed how much happier ‘mom’ had been since moving into their little Maine house. Smiley whispers “I love you guys” up through the floor vent.

Although she wasn’t planning to live in a small house, she had the insight to realize the benefits it brought to her family. In these types of insights are the way forward, sliding like a knife between the open spaces, along the path of least resistance.

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