Florence Williams is the author of a must-read book, The Nature Fix. Why must-read? Because contact with nature, it turns out, is one of the foundational elements of human health and well-being.
To be well, in other words, we need to
- Eat nature (whole food, plant-based diet)
- Breath nature (clean air)
- Drink nature (clean water)
- Move in our natural habitat (bipedal locomotion)
And now, thanks to The Nature Fix, I realize that we must also bathe our senses in nature in order to be vibrant and well (and sane!).
Florence is not only a great science journalist, she's a fantastic storyteller, and all-around hilarious writer. In case you think of science books as medicine, this one is coated in enough sugar to make you feel like you're reading a guilty pleasure.
In our conversation, we covered:
- Florence's first book on how environmental degradation is harming our health
- why The Nature Fix focused on the positive aspects of nature
- from two decades in the Rocky Mountains to the noisy suburbs of DC: “like a stress bomb had gone off in my brain”
- the new scientific tools that allow exploration of brain states in nature
- the initial impetus for the book: an assignment from Outside magazine on Forest Bathing in Japan
- the difference between the Asian and American approach to the benefits of nature
- reconciling romantic and reductionist views of nature
- the surprisingly non-obvious fact that humans are animals
- our epidemic dislocation from our natural environments
- “biophilia”: our innate connection to living systems
- particle physics, Jackson Pollock, and our brains on fractal patterns in nature
- nature as a treatment for ADHD
- nature as a treatment for PTSD
- the noise epidemic: 85 of all land in the lower 48 US states is within a mile of a roadway
- why airplanes, and leaf blowers trigger our body's fight or flight response (even when we're asleep)
- schools in flight paths show lower reading scores
- Oregon's Prop 99 and other solutions
- and much more…
Enjoy, add your voice to the conversation via the comment box below, and please share – that's how we spread our message and spread our roots.
The Nature Fix, by Florence Williams
Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, by Florence Williams
Download transcript in PDF format: The Nature Fix with Florence Williams: PYP 212
Howard Jacobson: Florence Williams, welcome to the Plant Yourself Podcast!
Florence Williams: Thank you so much; it’s great to be here.
HJ: Yeah! Your book, The Nature Fix, is so important and it’s so much fun. I started recommending it to people based on a recommendation someone had made on Facebook — it said, like, this is one of the most important books ever, and everybody should read it, and when I hear something like that I order it like medicine!
FW: (laughing) That’s great! You made my day. Thank you; that’s great!
HJ: Yeah, but then, like, five pages in I started recommending it to people. Like: this is so well written; this is just like a fun story.
FW: (laughing) It’s like sweet medicine!
HJ: Yeah, it’s not medicine at all, it’s like nature.
HJ: Right? It’s just good for us.
HJ: So, I’m partly a writer, and I’m always looking for the genre of the book, and it feels like it’s kind-of half romantic comedy, with you and nature trying to get together, and half apocalyptic potential tragedy, like if humankind doesn’t figure it out.
FW: Wow! (laughing) You make it sound very dramatic!
HJ: Well, I mean, it is. And we can talk about what the stakes are, but first I’d love for you to just tell us who you are and where this book came from in your mental life.
FW: Sure. I am a science journalist, and I’ve been writing about science and the environment for a long time, for various mostly magazines, newspapers. This is my second book. My first book was really on women’s health, and I’ve been interested in the space of the environment and human health for a long time.
My first book was primarily about cancer and sort of how modern industrial life is kind of harming our health. And it was just kind of a downer, even the parts of it I thought were also still fun, and engaging and conversational.
But I don’t think people really want to read about how the environment is harming us. They’re much more interested in this kind of topic, which is really how the environment can help our health. And help our mood, and our cognition, and our creativity. So I felt like it was definitely a more positive kind of message.
HJ: Hmmm... and you write that it really started flowing through your brain when you moved from the sort of nature-rich environs of Boulder, Colorado to urban DC. Can you kind of describe what that move felt like, as you made it, and then as it dawned on you what you had lost and gained?
FW: Yeah, sure. The inquiry that — I sort of undertake in this book really did start with my personal journey of, um... I had lived in the Rocky Mountains for two decades, and my husband took a job in Washington, DC and so we all sort of reluctantly moved here and I immediately felt like this sort of stress bomb had gone off in my brain.
You know, landing here it was so noisy, it was so miserably hot (laughing) - although that can happen in nature too – but it was loud, it was dirty, it was dusty, it was grimy; there were sirens and this monochromatic landscape of asphalt, where I was used to seeing my pristine peaks.
I was kind of spoiled, I guess, from a nature perspective. So, yeah, you know, I really felt it. I felt stressed-out; I felt depressed; I felt anxious; I wasn’t sleeping so well. I felt like my brain wasn’t working very well.
All things that are classic kind of stress responses. And so I started thinking more and more about what the science really had to say about this interaction between our environment and our sort of emotional state.
And it turns out there is kind of a long body of work there; in things like environmental psychology. But it’s really only been in the last five or ten years that science has kind of brought new tools to bear on these kinds of questions. So an ability to kind of scan the brain, in the field; to measure brain waves, to measure cortisol levels on the fly. And so that’s what I really wanted to explore.
HJ: So what was the first body of modern science that really captured your interest? Like there might be something here? There’s so many things going on in science all over, you really kind of have to filter and pick and choose. What drew you in first?
FW: Well the first trip I took for the book was really an article that was assigned by Outside magazine. And they sent me to Japan to write about this kind of quirky practice called Forest Bathing — they called shinrin-yoku — and it doesn’t involve taking your clothes off! It’s really just a way to kind of be present in the forest, where you’re engaging all of your senses, and kind of taking a mindful approach to really paying attention to what’s going on with the sounds, or the sights and smells and so on.
And at the same time researchers were actively measuring the nervous system. So they were taking subjects into the woods for just twenty minutes, and seeing a drop in blood pressure, a drop in heart rate and heart rate variability, lowered cortisol stress hormones and then, kind of more subjective measures of people reporting an increase in mood and vitality and creativity.
And at first I thought, I was a little skeptical; I thought well maybe this is just an exercise effect; you’re taking people away from their stressful work environments, and you’re putting them in a place where they don’t have to work, and they can walk around and get oxygen in their brain; all things that we know are sort of positive for our psychology.
But, you know they kind of had that same question, and they sent similar groups of subjects to walk in an urban environment for twenty minutes, and they really only saw the marked positive effects in the forest walkers. And so that impressed me really quickly that really, you could see the effects after just twenty minutes.
HJ: Hmm... And... From there, is that when you knew you had a book? Like you wanted to kind of explore this further?
FW: Um... Yeah, that was the beginning, because it drew me into the research and the background and then I found out that there was kind of interesting history and different lines of inquiry and there were also researchers in the U.S. who were doing some really interesting work, but I thought, from a slightly different perspective and that was interesting too.
For example I think, in the Asian countries (that I visited, anyway) there was this primary focus on mental well-being, and stress, you know to manage stress. Using nature to manage stress. In the United States, the line of inquiry was more about how to increase productivity.
It was like in some ways it was the opposite, it was like: how do we more efficiently use our mental resources. Will a nature break make us more productive and efficient when we go back to work?
HJ: Right. So, I love the chapter when you talk about going out with David Strayer and his merry band of scientific misfits. As I was reading it I was both enthralled and excited that these top-level scientists were trying to figure this stuff out, and I was also uncomfortable with what I saw as kind of a reductionism, where they were going to figure out exactly what ingredients in nature are good for us and extract it somehow into modern doses. Did you also have that unease?
FW: Well, I think a lot of us are used to thinking of nature through a more romantic lens; you know, through the lens of poetry or lyrical writing or just a more kind of Zen engagement; a spiritual engagement. But, you know, science, that’s what science is. Science is reductionist; it needs to ask and answer questions. So I don’t think it’s necessarily something against the scientists that they’re looking at nature this way.
I think there’s an understanding and a recognition that we do live in this evidence-based society, for better or worse, and if we really want to have an impact on the way people live, so that institutions can embrace these kinds of interventions; so that schools can take this kind of work seriously, and the medical profession, for example, and the insurance industry; we need to come up with some kind of reductionist data.
HJ: Yeah. One datum that really struck me both ways was that you say trees in the U.S. are worth 6.8 billion dollars in human health benefits. And, partly, I was excited to see that. Like: look that’s like, proof to some planner, to some urban planner that we should keep trees, and at the same time it made me sad to think if they were only worth 1.6 million we could just cut ‘em down.
FW: Yeah, that’s right. And I think what you’re saying is really reflected in this larger debate too about what they call ecosystem services which is something that some conservationists are really embracing: if we can prove how much water is purified by a particular ecosystem and how much a municipality can save, it’s another kind of weapon in the arsenal for conservation.
And then there are other people who are like: God, do we have to value everything? Don’t we, can’t we just, like, understand that there is value in feeling better, and in knowing that there are species on the planet that we care about.
HJ: Yeah. So, one of the things that you write very early on is that human beings are animals. And it’s so obvious, and yet nobody ever thinks about it. I certainly don’t think about it. Where did the implications of that come from for you, for how you think about nature and what we should be doing about it, and how you presented it in the book?
FW: Well, one think that writing this book really taught me is that we do really think of ourselves as separate from nature. And that’s why we’re so disconnected from it. I feel like we are now living in this age of sort of epidemic dislocation from nature. And it’s because we don’t have a recognition that we evolved and that we need it and that it’s normal for our brains to interpret information from natural environments, as opposed to from these really Euclidean, straight line, sort of monochromatic urban ones. So I think there’s a big implication in that separation from nature.
And so I felt like if we’re really going to sort of embrace this innate biophilia you know, that we have ( and that’s a word that comes from Ed Wilson, really meaning that humans really do have this innate connection to living systems and to living things) if you believe that then we do have to kind of embrace this idea that we are part of nature; and how do we get that connection back?
HJ: Yeah. As I was reading it, it struck me that — you know, like, my work is largely about teaching people how to return to our authentic human roots, mostly around food and movement — so I always ask the question: What would be a naturally attainable quantity of X? Whether it’s kale or skittles or movement, and the question had never come up to me: What’s the naturally attainable quantity of nature? Because it kind of is like, one hundred percent!
FW: Yeah, that’s right. And I’m not necessarily advocating that we go back to living in trees! But i think there’s a way for us to acknowledge and understand that our brains are just comfortable in these natural environments, interpreting green and blue and natural fractal patterns.
And so that even little bursts of that can sort of subconsciously just restore us and relax us and give our cognitive-thinking more modern brains a little bit of a break, that ultimately makes us actually feel so much better.
HJ: Yeah. Can you talk a little bit, I found the fractal discussion really interesting especially Richard Taylor, and being able to tell a Jackson Pollock from a fake. Can you talk a little bit about that whole fractal brain?
FW: Yeah, sure. Well one thing, when I wrote this book I realized that a lot of these scientists have a very specific idea of why nature makes us feel better and it reflects their particular part of academia. So, the people who study vision, or study hearing or study smell, have their own particular sort of answer.
So, Richard Taylor is a particle physicist and he thinks there’s something about the way our visual perceptual system perceives patterns, that then kind of changes our brain waves and makes us feel a particular way. So he grew up fascinated by Jackson Pollock, who’s a modernist abstract painter who threw a lot of splattered paint onto canvases.
At some point Jackson, Jackson Pollock, well at some point Richard Taylor realized Jackson Pollock was painting in a fractal dimension and that his paintings actually conformed to a particular ratio of fractal patterns. And fractal patterns are basically just patterns that repeat at scale and they’re often found in nature.
So you often can see them in forests or in waves in the ocean or in stones in the river bed or in cloud patterns. They’re not usually found in abstract paintings.
But Richard Taylor was convinced that they are found in Jackson Pollock’s, in fact so much so that Jackson Pollock has a particular signature for these fractals, and that Richard Taylor became convinced that he could actually identify fakes. Fake Jackson Pollocks.
Just by looking at their fractal geometry (laughing) and, in fact, that’s what he did. He identified a trove of fake Jackson Pollocks and that turned out to be true during later paint chemical analysis. So, it’s pretty interesting.
HJ: Yeah, and so that our brains are actually soothed by what turns out to be mathematically describable, the D-range...
FW: The D-range is that dimension of fractal geometry, so you can have a sort of low D-range or high D-range depending on how busy a particular pattern or repeat pattern is.
And Richard Taylor came up with these tests, where he showed research subjects pictures of different patterns, mostly found in nature, and measured their brainwaves. Subjects were looking at fractal geometry in nature, of a certain dimension, kind of this mid-range dimension; their brains just loved it.
Their brains waves went right into this alpha state, which is prized by surfers and monks for being this very relaxed but also alert brain wave state that is not so easy to attain, actually, in or normal, daily, busy, chaotic lives. So yeah, so he is convinced that there is, it’s these fractal patterns in nature; that’s what makes us feel so good.
HJ: It’s almost like the entire history of modern humanity has been the search for various drugs to make us feel as good as we would naturally feel if we just hadn’t embarked on the whole civilization thing in the first place.
FW: (laughing) That’s right, that’s right! And well, it’s interesting if you think about it that way because we don’t tend to see nature as being a mental health intervention; and yet it does have these very powerful effects, even in small doses.
So, for example if we seek out little moments of awe in our daily lives, like looking at the sunset or watching a butterfly in a tree. Just sort of being open to these moments, even in urban life, it can really improve our perception of time and our perception of sort of pressure and stress. It can improve our relationships; it can improve our mood and our productivity, and yet, it’s really simple.
HJ: Yeah, and just that whole idea of what’s the base rate? If we think of our base rate as our current technological society, and we’re looking for the minimum effective dose of nature.
FW: What’s the minimum required dose?
HJ: Right, which I guess is sort of a big theme in the book, and you come up with, or you cite someone who’s come up with the nature pyramid: of how much we need every day, of what, and when do we need intensive doses.
FW: I think the dose question is really interesting, because it gets to sort of the crux of how easy is it to sort of balance our urban wants and lives with our optimal mental health. And it seems to be that it’s very variable. If you think about it, there are times in our own lives when we may be going through tougher transitions, or when we’re dealing with grief, or dealing with trauma, or having these kind of rights of passage.
There are times when we seem to really need a more immersive, kind of more profound journey into wild; into wild country or wilderness. And yet, for a lot of people too, it seems like even if we just get a quick fix during our work day, it’ll just make us a little happier and a little more productive.
So there’s this range depending on where we are in our lives, but in general, the idea of the nature pyramid is that we all need sort of nearby nature all the time, which is the bottom of the pyramid, that kind of easy-to-access, everyday nature that’s kind of the bread and butter of our nature diet.
Yet there are times when we need deeper immersions, in the middle into kind of big parks or even big city parks, but more intentional doses, and times when we need that really rarified but really profound and special hit of wilderness.
HJ: So, one of the chapters that really got me sort of on the warpath was when you’re talking about children and ADHD.
Because I’ve done a fair amount of research into the ADHD drugs, and I think it’s all a scam; and when you describe the interventions, and how logical and simple and accessible and cheap they are, and the thought that there are millions of children taking these meds, that I think are leading them to bipolar diagnoses in five or ten years.
Can you talk a little bit about what you discovered when you looked at the relationship between nature and the lack thereof and kids and attention?
FW: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I don’t think it’s really kind of the purview of the book to say whether the drugs work or don’t work or you know there are people who need them or don’t need them.
It was more really looking at how we do seem to make symptoms of ADHD worse when we take these really active, curious human infants and animals and children and we put them in these incredibly confined spaces, like a typical schoolroom.
You know, we put them at a desk with a chair, and a pen and a piece of paper and we say: here’s what you’re supposed to do, and sorry that there are no windows but that’s the way it is; and you know, kids brains are evolved to learn — their neurons grow through — exploration, right, and it’s really supposed to be full sensory exploration and if you’ve watched kids check out there environment, that’s how they do it.
And so I visited an adventure boarding school, which was really an interesting experience for me. It was kids in middle school and high school years; and what they do is they spend two weeks on a really wooded, beautiful campus, and then two weeks actually on an adventure. So they’re going rock-climbing while they’re learning about geometry. Or they’re backpacking through the South and learning about the Civil War.
And these kids who have a really hard time functioning in a conventional classroom seem to really thrive at adventure boarding school because they’re brains work really well with processing multiple stimuli at once.
And if they’re hanging, dangling, really from a cliff face, and you know, the wind is blowing and the rain is starting to come down, and their partner is belaying them and all of a sudden they’re kind of in their happy zone.
They like that multiple stimulation and all the sensory engagement. So I talked to some of these teenagers who told me the were able to go off their anxiety and ADHD meds. And I had one teen tell me that he really thought this program had just saved his life. It was quite, quite moving.
HJ: Yeah, and some of the discussion is looking at what our brains are supposed to do and the bell curve of what different brains need to do for a human society to function and be safe in nature, that there are people for whom the kind of attention has to be always on the lookout for danger, for new opportunities, and when we cram all those people into four walls with a desk and a blackboard, that turns out to look like some sort of disease.
FW: Yeah, and it’s miserable for these kids. You know, I heard the sort of metaphor that we’re taking hunter-gatherers and turning them into farmers. You know that a lot of kids – a lot of humans! – have these brains that really do thrive on sensation – they’re sensation seekers – and when we take that ability to roam and to explore away from these kids, they do, they just kind of go batty, it’s just a miserable existence for them.
HJ: To me it comes down to sort of, like I can think of a lot of parents who would say: boy, I’d like my kid to be happy, but they’re not going to get a good job if they go to this school, or if they spend all day in nature. It’s like we have this profound lack of trust in this planet that gives us absolutely everything we need.
FW: Well, it’s true that the worst thing you can do for a kid is restrict his love of learning. So if you put them in a school environment where they’re just going to hate it that doesn’ seem to work either. And in fact, a lot of those kids end up dropping out of school, they end up finding risk elsewhere – in drugs, and in crime, and a lot of kids with severe ADHD end up in jail, so the sort of normal, conventional path obviously isn’t working either.
HJ: And so, you also write about: when human beings have been damaged by their life circumstances and specifically this group of women who had come back from war and were suffering from PTSD and like really, tragic, moving stories; and you write about a raft trip with them on what they dubbed “The Boob Tube” (FW laughing), based on your previous book about breasts.
Tell us a little bit about what the theory was that — ‘cause they’re at war; we sort of think about war as like “out in nature” like, you know they’re not in urban environments — like, what was supposed to be healing about this trip and this approach, and what did you see?
FW: So, to even be qualified to go on this trip, these veterans – these were all women veterans – had to have a diagnosis of PTSD. so, whatever their war experience was, whether it was combat or whether for a lot of these women it was actually sexual trauma which is incredibly common in the military. They came home really in a lot of pain and suffering. Depressed.
You know, symptoms of PTSD is the world just closes off. You become very isolated, socially isolated. A lot of these women hardly wanted to leave their homes. They did not feel comfortable any more in their bodies. They were shut off.
And so the theory is that when you’re out in nature, especially in these very kind of dramatic, beautiful, compelling landscapes, that you have the opposite of a PTSD experience. That there’s something about the nature experience that actually draws you out. It forces you to look outward and to pay attention and to see the beauty around you.
And a lot of these women also saw metaphor in that beautiful landscape. And I thought that was quite powerful for them as well. They said it was. So, for example: we were in the largest wilderness area in the lower forty-eight, along the Salmon River in Idaho.
And that’s an ecosystem that’s been burned, there were literally these huge wildfires that have blown through there at various times, and yet you can see through the charred stalks of these large evergreens, you can see the forest regenerating, and the green coming back.
And this one woman said to me: “Wow, you know, nature is teaching us how to recover. It always comes back and the seasons keep changing and life goes on”.
And for them there was just a tremendous amount of strength to be seen in natural ecosystems, as well as just this kind of calming down of their nervous systems; when they’re outside; when they’re viewing this kind of nature; when they’re bonding socially by this kind of shared adventure they’re having. And then also by using their bodies again.
So these were women who were rowing through rapids; they were sitting in inflatable duckies, literally powering themselves down the river; another really powerful metaphor that they came away with.
http://amzn.to/2rkpYU7 Right. And it’s interesting that you write about how happy our brains are in nature and yet you also quote that Woody Allen line: “I love nature. I just don’t want to get it all over me.” (FW laughing)
And most people I know, unless they’re sort of die-hard adventurers, have some degree of discomfort in nature. And the raft trip you described, right, one of the women, I think Lopez, was like wet and miserable and grumpy. Like we do – it’s like just nature is not just this like, you know, Candy Land.
FW: (laughing) It’s not like a spa, right? It’s not like a spa experience.
HJ: We kind of have to be OK with some degree of discomfort in order to reap the benefits.
FW: Well, and there’s some people, as I say in the book, there’s this small subset of people, maybe ten or fifteen percent who will just like never really relax in nature. You know they just can’t stand it (laughing). You know, whether it’s the bugs, or the rain or whatever, they just like really calm down to nature. And it’s probably, sadly, just because they’ve never learned to become comfortable in nature as children.
And that’s a big fear I have and something I write about in the book: that children today are more disconnected from nature, and that we’re potentially depriving them of this ability to reap the benefits of nature as they get older because they don’t have this comfort in it.
And I think there’s a very strong message here for parents and for schools and for educators, to make sure that that profound disconnection doesn’t happen. But yeah, I think you’re right, and I think the more time we spend in nature the more comfortable we become. And we’re not going to be comfortable every minute in nature. There are bugs, and there are big storms.
But, the cool thing about nature that our ancestors were so good at is that it does provide recovery. It’s a place to recover from stress.
HJ: Mmm. Yeah, I think you talked about the metaphor, but there was one of, I think the nature walks you went on, I think it was one of the Asian countries where people are invited to like, actively make metaphor out of nature; to like, find their inner poet, and say: this tree, or this leaf reminds me of something about myself.
FW: Yeah, there’s psychologists who, I think, are trying to help people get shortcuts, you know, to the mindfulness experience of being in nature. So there are little exercises you can do.
I went on this so-called power trail in Finland, and every quarter of a mile or so there was kind of an interpretive sign, that had a suggestion, for sort of how to look around in this particular spot. You know: “Find a tree that represents how you feel about yourself today” or “ Find something that looks like it would smell good, and go smell it.”
Or “Sit down on the ground and look up and get a different perspective.” You know, so it was, this kind of neat, these neat tips for just accessing that restorative effect pretty quickly.
HJ: Right, it’s like giving your neocortex a cookie, so it shuts up and has something to do.
FW: (laughing) Yeah, and how to just engage the senses, too, which sometimes we’re not very good at. You know, we go out in nature and we still have our earbuds on, or we’re still replaying the argument that we had with our loved one the day before or whatever.
HJ: Yeah. And I love how three of the early chapters in the book are around three of the senses. And I especially was drawn to and bothered by the research on sound. I think I’m quite sound-sensitive – I guess that’s why I’m a podcaster. But you know, I downloaded one of those decibel apps and was just walking around (FW laughing).
I told you before we got on the call, I went outside to ground myself in nature and there was a fucking plane that took up like three of the five minutes that I had to spend outside and you know, the fact that somebody has to go to, was it like the Hoh Forest to find a spot that doesn’t continually have human noise, like as the most persistent pollutant. Like, that really bothered me.
FW: Yeah. I think that it’s actually one of the most profound and less talked-about changes in our modern lives, is just how incredibly loud our environments are now. We haven’t even noticed it happen. There’s this amazing statistic from the book that there’s something like eighty-five percent of all the land in the lower forty-eight United States, is within less than a mile – I think it’s like 800 meters or something – of a roadway.
So there is only 15 percent of the land you can actually get farther away from a road than one mile. So that’s incredible!
And then if you think about the airplanes, you know, and if you see maps of like where these airliners go, and how vastly, exponentially more airplanes there are in the sky now than even fifteen or twenty years ago. And that’s just gonna keep happening. It’s quite profound, yeah.
HJ: And there is one case where I was really appreciative of some of the modern science, because I was under the impression that you, you know, acclimate to the noise, because that was my experience: I stopped hearing the air conditioner, or the compressor or whatever it is. But you show research that shows just because we stopped processing it consciously it’s still stressing us out, right?
FW: Yeah. Our bodies still have to process it subconsciously. And even when we’re sleeping; researchers have done experiments sort of measuring peoples nervous systems when they’re asleep and an airplane goes overhead.
They still have a little stress response in their body to that noise. Which makes sense, I mean, evolutionarily, if you hear a loud, rumbling sound, your body is supposed to be able to react to that, because historically, in Paleolithic times that was probably a predator.
So, that happens, and then just the act of filtering it out, blocking it out all the time, blocking out the sort of extraneous noise and sound in our world takes a toll. It actually uses up quite a lot of kind of fuel in our brains to filter out that stuff. And so, on some level we become very fatigued by it even if we don’t sort of know it.
HJ: And then there are those studies, I think in Germany, of school performance based on distance from flight paths.
FW: Yes, they showed that students who lived closer to, or who went to schools that were closer to flight paths, in even, I think it was like five decibel increments. For every five decibel increment in sound (which is an exponential difference in sound, the way decibels are measured) that there was a drop-off in reading and test scores.
So that kids who lived really close to these airports (and I think these were from studies in L.A. and in parts of Western Europe) you know it was it was equivalent to kind of a one-year decline in learning that happened in these loudest school environments.
HJ: So, we have to close soon for your next appointment. But what, ah – what – you have a coda of sort of recommendations for humans, right? Which I thought was just —
FW: (laughing) Oh yeah, I do!
HJ: You beautifully, you write – can you talk about, like, what should we do. What do we do with all this new information that also is old information. Right? It’s been sort of confirmed. What’s next?
FW: I stole the idea of a coda from Michael Pollan. You know, he says: “Eat food, mostly plants, not too many.” And, ah, so mine is: “Go outside, go often, bring friends (or not) and breathe.”
HJ: Yeah! Yeah. I love the simplicity of that. And I love the “or not”! Like, like this is —
FW: (laughing) Right! I mean there are benefits to being with friends and there are also benefits to being alone, so, you know, whatever feels good!
HJ: Right. And what are your hopes for the book in terms of waking up policy-makers. What would you like the world to start doing, given that we can’t go back to caves and trees?
FW: (laughing) Right.
HJ: Where’s our sweet spot, and what are the first steps?
FW: Um-hm! So, I think, you know, we need to go outside as often as we can, and we need to foster and facilitate these connections to sort of living things. And that’s something that sometimes we can do in the family, so I encourage, you know, parents to get your kids outside. But I think it’s also really the responsibility of our built environment.
So, our institutions like our schools, our housing projects, our offices, and then, the cities themselves, because the problem now is that most cities in America have really great parks, but those parks tend to be clustered, you know, in the higher income areas.
And where I live in Washington, DC, you can actually see from space kind of where the poverty is, and it’s where there is the least greenery, which is pretty interesting.
So I think that it’s up to cities to figure out how to make that connection to greenery more accessible for everybody. And then how to kind of incorporate it into everyone’s everyday life. Because, you know, I think ultimately we have to acknowledge that nature is not just a luxury, it’s really a necessity.
HJ: Hmm. So who’s doing it well, now? Can you point to like a couple of things that we could look at and say: Yeah, this works and it’s doable and we can gather the political and civic will to make it happen?
FW: Sure. I’d look at cities like Seattle, where there’s been I think a tremendous effort to create more greenways and parks, where the city has undertaken things like tidal basin walks for schoolchildren, to get school kids outside. I’d look at Oregon.
The State of Oregon just passed this incredible referendum called Proposition 99, and this was passed by the voters, saying that the State has to use lottery money to provide outdoor school for every fifth or sixth-grader throughout the entire state.
So that’s a week of outdoor ed for every single kid going through that school system, which I think is an amazing model, and certainly does provide for everyone.
HJ: Wow! That’s great. Well, the book is called The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative. It is fun, hilarious, deep, tragic, comic and I agree with my friend: this is a book that we all need to read, because it’s like an invisible substrate of our lives, and losing it has been invisible to us, as well, and you bring it out and color it in high relief – both the benefits and the potential losses.
So, Florence, thank you so much for taking the time to be on the podcast.
FW: Thank you so much! It’s been a pleasure.
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The Plant Yourself Podcast theme music, “Dance of Peace (Sabali Don),” is generously provided by Will Ridenour, a kora player from North Carolina who has trained with top Senegalese musicians.
It can be found on his first CD, titled Will Ridenour.
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