- Author: Sarah Angulo
The start of a new year is often a chance for many of us to reflect, start fresh, and make resolutions. This year, you might want to consider adding more time in nature to your list.
Many of our naturalists can attest that being outside just feels… good. It's a hard to describe feeling that perhaps Wendell Berry may have captured well in his poem, “The Peace of Wild Things”:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
This healing power of nature to soothe us in our worries of everyday life is shared by all who enjoy nature. No matter what the experience looks like to us individually, it's this common feeling that unites us and inspires us to value, protect, and advocate for natural spaces.
As it turns out, there is scientific research to back this up.
Jim Robin writes that a team led by Mathew White at the University of Exeter completed a study of 20,000 people and "found that those who spent two hours a week in green spaces — local parks or other natural environments, either all at once or spaced over several visits — were substantially more likely to report good health and psychological well-being than those who don't.” Multiple studies have documented improvements in blood pressure, stress hormone levels, nervous system arousal, self-esteem, anxiety, and mood.
Ming Kuo studies the effects that nature has on human beings at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research suggests that exposure to nature has lasting positive impacts on our immune systems. Natural killer cells can be boosted from the baseline by an average of 50% after a few day period of time in nature, and an approximately 25% boost can still last within your system a month later. The same period of time in an urban space does not yield these same benefits.
Benefits of green space may ripple out from individual health, too. In a study from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, neighborhoods where they added greenery to select vacant lots saw the amount of gun assaults go down in the neighborhood by a significant 9.1%.
Important to this discussion is who has access to green space, and consequently, who may have access to better health. Poorer communities tend to have less green space. In general in the United States, census tracts with a higher proportion of racial or ethnic minorities have less green space, even independent of income. While huge strides have been made to made to increase accessibility of public lands to people with disabilities, many may have to travel further to places that can fit their needs. It should also be noted that even if there is access to the space, community members may not feel welcome, safe, or comfortable in using it for all the benefits it offers.
Adding to the discussion, Katherine Toy of the San Francisco Parks Conservancy argues, “It's also important to consider why aspects of culture can drive people away. We spend a lot of time thinking about, ‘Is it a barrier that people can't get there? Is it a barrier that it's too expensive?' Yes, all these things are barriers, but it turns out that the number one barrier is actually irrelevance. People don't see themselves in that action.” Health might not always be the main motivator for people to be using their green space. There are so many other reasons to go outside, that in working to reduce all types of different barriers for ourselves and others, we can integrate health in nature into every visit.
With these challenges, UC California Naturalist encourages our naturalists to use their local natural history knowledge to think critically about what you've gained from nature, and why. If you're someone who is able to easily access nature and receive its benefits, the next time you go outside, you may ask yourself “Who is missing? Who don't I see here?” We all deserve to have the peace of wild things fill us up this year.
Casey, J.A.; James, P.; Cushing, L.; Jesdale, B.M.; Morello-Frosch, R. “Race, Ethnicity, Income Concentration and 10-Year Change in Urban Greenness in the United States.” Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2017, 14, 1546.
Robbins, Jim. “Ecopsychology: How Immersion in Nature Benefits Your Health.” Yale Environment 360, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. 9 January 2020. https://e360.yale.edu/features/ecopsychology-how-immersion-in-nature-benefits-your-health
Toy, Katherine. CNRA Speaker Series - Improving Access to California's Natural and Cultural Treasures. California Natural Resources Agency. 14 January 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57mETx2vsb k
Vedantam, Shankar, host. “You 2.0: Our Better Nature.” Hidden Brain, NPR, 12 August 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/08/12/750538458/you-2-0-our-better-nature.