Posts Tagged ‘Nature’

Scientists in Norway have just announced the discovery of a non-toxic high-tech building material with a host of economic and environmental benefits. Homes made from this substance are expected to use 10-50% less energy for heating and cooling than homes made from traditional materials.

The new substance was discovered by a team working to identify chemicals that could absorb carbon dioxide, a major cause of climate change.

A pilot home built in 2005 was found to absorb nearly 50 pounds of carbon dioxide every year. Projections show that if every house in Northern Europe was made from this material global carbon dioxide emissions could be cut by 5%. As a completely unexpected side benefit, the material also absorbed other air pollutants, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. In every test the scientists ran, air quality was higher in and around the pilot home than in a traditional home.

Most amazingly, using this material was estimated to add only a few hundred dollars to the cost of a new home. However, based on the material’s beneficial effects, including significantly reduced energy costs for homeowners, it was projected that building with it may increase a home’s value by up to 20%.

If you were thinking this story is too good to be true, you’d only be partly right. On the one hand, there is no newly discovered health-promoting, planet-saving, dirt-cheap, inexpensive building material. In this, you were correct.

On the other hand, you can have all the benefits above, plus many more, and for the same price, by simply planting some trees next to your house. Well placed trees and shrubs can indeed save 10-50% on heating and cooling costs. Just one mature tree can indeed absorb 50 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, along with a long list of other air and soil pollutants. A single large oak, for example, can pull 40,000 gallons of water per year out of the ground and discharge it into the air, reducing flooding and soggy lawns.

For communities, the impacts are even more striking. Tree-lined streets are 10-15 degrees cooler in the summer. Pavement on these streets lasts far longer and the streets are far less likely to flood. Urban tree canopy can reduce stormwater runoff by up to 7%, and when combined with other natural landscaping, by up to 65%. This results in huge cost savings for towns and significant improvements in water quality in nearby streams, lakes and aquifers.

If the environmental and economic benefits of trees are not enough, the social benefits are equally compelling.

Studies from blighted urban Chicago housing developments show that residents who could see trees from their windows had stronger ties to their neighbors and engaged in less physical violence against their children than those without trees. These studies are striking because the residents were largely homeless families who were randomly assigned to apartments as their names came to the top of long wait lists. In other words, the people with greener views were no different to begin with than those without.

Green views have also been shown to enhance healing in hospital patients and concentration among college students. Children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) had the fewest behavioral problems after being in green spaces with lots of trees when compared with any indoor activities, including sports, or outdoor activities in spaces lacking greenery, such as urban parking lots. This finding held true even for children who lived in green neighborhoods.

I’m intrigued by this last bit of data. It suggests that even if a child has trees outside her window and walks past trees to get to school, it may still matter that there are trees on the playground at recess. More natural settings may have more powerful healing effects than we realize.

This fall the town of Brunswick built a new school. Where possible, efforts were made to preserve older trees, and many new trees have been planted around the property, although none next to the children’s play areas.

Recently a little friend of mine who attends the new school told her mother how much she missed the playground at her old school. So they returned for a visit to the empty little playground, nestled into a grove of old pine trees.

With a huge smile on her face, the girl roamed about the play structures, sliding down slides, ducking under hideouts, trying out the swings. Many of these same features were present at the new space, so the mother asked her daughter what she’d missed so much.

It’s the trees, she replied.

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Each garden has its own personality, distinct oddities that make it unlike any other patch of ground in the world. My current garden amuses itself by sending me a mystery vine every summer. It’s always in a different spot, it’s always something from the squash family, and it’s never the same species.

One year enormous yellow flowers turned into hard green balls which slowly resolved into pumpkins. Another year, the vine climbed around a wire bin in the shady northeast corner of my garden and by season’s end dripped with tiny jewel-like decorative gourds.

Two summers ago, as I awaited the huge sexy flowers typical of squashes and gourds, I was startled by spikes of white flowers poking out along my vine: it was a wild cucumber.

Last year, however, I could find nothing. June came and went. Maybe I missed some offering to the garden gnomes. But then, in mid-July I saw it beginning to creep along between the house and the garage. Just before the leaves dissolved into black mush this fall, I harvested two perfect acorn squash. Last night I baked them for dinner with apples and a touch of butter and brown sugar.

I had not left space for this squash (it grew into a path and we stepped over it all summer), I had not purchased the seed, I had not planted the vine, nor had I watered or weeded. The squash, all on its own, planted itself, harvested its own sunlight and extracted its share of limited rainfall. It was free in every sense of the word: no labor, no money, no planning, no time.

But, least you think that the “no free lunch” adage applies only to lunch, I have to tell you it applies to dinner too. It turns out there was a cost to my squash. It goes by the eye-glazing name of soil depletion. The squash took from the soil the nutrients it needed to grow–nutrients that will be gone from this patch of land for years to come unless someone returns them, perhaps via a handful of compost or some chicken droppings.

In the words of Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute, “The thin layer of topsoil that covers the planet’s land surface is the foundation of civilization.” Looking back on world history is more often than not a study of soil productivity. Where soils were deep and life-giving, people flourished, when soils were over-tapped and over-grazed, civilizations fell.

Indeed, when we consider what is necessary to support life on earth, productive soil is right up there near the top of the list, close to sunshine and water.

Healthy soil is a world unto itself: a mix of minerals, organic matter, insects, bacteria, fungi, and animals, that provides both the critical nutrients plants require as well access to water and air.

Soil formation begins with a pocket of minerals such as sand, glacial grit, or lava, worn fine enough for a rugged pioneer plant to sneak in a few roots. When the plant dies it returns some of the nutrients it used as well as adding organic matter. As the soil becomes richer, more plant species are able to survive.

Insects and animals appear, contributing their droppings and eventually their bodies to the gradually deepening soils. Its a beautiful natural process, but unfortunately rather slow: a single inch of topsoil is approximately five hundred years in the making.

The planet is now losing topsoil 10-20 times faster than it is being replenished. Much of this erosion is due to farming and grazing practices that leave bare soils exposed to wind and rain.

As topsoils are washed into our waterways and blown into dust storms, so are vast quantities of carbon released. Scientists estimate that there is three times more carbon locked in soil than there is currently in the atmosphere. This carbon is released as soils are disturbed, and may contribute up to 30% to global warming.

If there were vast swaths of untapped agricultural land just waiting in the wings, none of this might be a problem. But farmland is in scarce supply in many places. A few years ago South Korea tried to purchase a 99 year lease to half of Madagascar’s arable land. South Korea and Madagascar are 6,500 miles apart.

Virtually all human food calories come from the land. Global food production has kept pace with population growth largely because of reliance on chemical fertilizers. However, overuse of fertilizer, along with many other modern farming practices eventually destroy soil structure and the soil ecosystems that maintain it. The result is that food production per acre of land is declining.

Although most people pay no attention to it, good dirt is a resource sorely in need of protection. Practices that protect soil fertility, soil structure, and retain soil carbon include low or no-till methods, leaving some of the crop behind after harvest to hold soil in place, and planting cover crops, windbreaks, and vegetative buffers along waterways.

On my quarter acre square of the planet, I try to minimize the amount of organic matter that leaves our property. We compost our food scraps, pile up our oak leaves, and allow our grass clippings to disappear back into the lawn.

The area where my acorn squash grew used to be a compacted beat up piece of grass. A few years ago I put down a thick layer of partially decomposed oak leaves to kill the grass, and topped it with pine needles swept up from Brunswick streets. The result was a lovely rusty golden path between the structures, edged with a few ferns, and other plants–and no need for mowing. It was here that my squash chose to grow, perhaps a thank you for giving something back to the soils.

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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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Carl Newmark, age 10


Nothing upsets our chaotic daily departure for school like an earwig in the shoe.  I have two girls, and you might imagine that such an event would elicit shrieks of disgust.  Indeed, there were a few shrieks as I mushed the offending bug and chucked it in the toilet.  But, about a block from the house, my youngest daughter turned to me with a quiver in her voice and said, “Why did you have to squish it?  Why couldn’t we have taken it outside?”


I was expecting this.  She’s the same daughter who wanted to know why we killed the tick that we pried off her back last summer.  “Wasn’t it just trying to get some food?” she inquired.  “Shall I put the next one in the garden?” I asked.  “Yes,” she replied earnestly, “you should.”


So, in an effort to salvage our teetering morning, I cast about for a reply.  Some bugs, I say authoritatively, get squished when they show up in the house, and other bugs get taken out to the garden.  That’s just the way it is.  Earwigs, I say flatly, get squished.  What about ants, she asked, as we walked along.  Squished.  Pillbugs?  Taken out to the garden.  Yellow jackets?  Squished.  Honey bees?  Taken out.  Mosquitoes?  Squished.  Spiders?  Left where they are, unless on the ceiling above your bed.  Armadillos?  Taken out, most definitely.  Fortunately, by now, she was smiling. 


She can get pretty upset over the fate of the world’s creepy crawlies and I have some sympathy for her perspective.  As a child, I was the one who diligently escorted the spiders out of our third floor walk-up.  I remember my dad calling, “Sarah, get this critter outta here or it’s a goner!”  My mom, with a bit less drama, quietly squashed them.


Some interesting studies by researcher Martin Seligman in the 1970’s showed that it is much easier to cause people to have a fearful emotional reaction to things like snakes and spiders (if they didn’t already have such a reaction) than to have a fearful response to flowers (not surprising) or even guns (surprising).  Seligman speculated that modern humans have evolved with an inborn aversion to things that could harm our ancestors.  


One could easily imagine that people who happened to be afraid of snakes lived longer and therefore may have had more children than people who were were not afraid.  Over thousands of years, more people would be born carrying genes that made them inherently fearful of snakes.  Folks who did not happen to be bothered by snakes were more likely to get bitten by them (and possibly killed); thereby they would be less likely to pass their fearless genes on to potential children.  


Fear of guns, in contrast, cannot be transmitted through our genes (yet) because guns have not been around long enough to affect our genetic make-up.  Thus, being scared of guns is learned and not inborn.  Seligman called his theory “Biological Preparedness.”  


Other explanations for Seligman’s findings have been put forth, but I find his theory compelling.  It makes sense that part of our reaction to creepy crawlies is inborn.   Yet, some of must be learned as well.  Do we spend time teaching our children to appreciate beetles, worms, and eels, or do we only teach them to admire panda bears and unbearably cute soda-can sized Saw Whet owls?


Part of the answer, I think, has to do with our sense, or lack thereof, of the interconnectedness of everything in the natural world.  Might we not have more fondness for bees, for example, if we spent more time thinking about how life on earth is entirely dependent on them for pollinating most of our plant species?  


The sweet fuzzy creatures of the world inevitably depend on the smaller creepy creatures, whether directly for food or indirectly for services such as pollination and decomposition.  If we poison the bugs eating our prized dahlias we may also be poisoning the bluebirds pulling worms and the butterflies sipping nectar.


Perhaps it is easier for a child than an adult to summon forth a deep and abiding respect for the whole spectrum of life forms.  Perhaps it is easier for a child than an adult to intuitively grasp how intricately intertwined is all life on our planet.  


Most of us adults, at least in our culture, generally act as if everything in nature is discrete.  If all our bees die (and indeed, bees are declining at an alarming rate), why then we just won’t have bees.  We act as if having bees or polar bears or mosquitoes is not profoundly linked to having food or a stable climate in which to grow crops.   


One of my daughter’s favorite books is called Thanks to the Animals by Passamaquoddy storyteller, Allen Sockabasin.  In this tale, an infant tumbles unnoticed from his family’s sleigh as they move from their summer dwelling to their winter home in the woods.  The child would have frozen to death, but all the animals of the northern forest come out one by one and pile around him to keep him warm.  Finally realizing the child is missing, his father spends the night hiking back along the trail.  At sunrise he finds his son amidst a heap of animals, all sheltering under the wing of the great bald eagle.  


According to the text, the father thanks each animal, one by one.  But the lovely illustration by Rebekah Raye shows him thanking not the charismatic moose, the sweet beavers or the lordly bald eagle, but rather he is talking to the tiniest mouse that helped keep his son alive.  This is my daughter’s favorite picture in the book.  I think she’s on to something.  

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