On this Mothers’ Day, I am remembering my mother, now gone 8 years. I believe my childhood might be considered tough by other people’s standards. My father had a serious illness and died much too young. My sister was born with mental and learning issues. We were certainly lower-middle-class. I was forced into adulthood by circumstances at age 11. But my mother was always there, and my overall memory of childhood – those first 10 years and especially the summers – is of many good days.
Though I lived in a very urban, densely populated town in New Jersey, there were pockets of green in my neighborhood and green places that I could escape to on my bicycle.
From our backyard garden of vegetables and the apple, peach and plum trees, to the front rock garden full of my mother’s flowers, I felt surrounded by nature.
I am convinced that the greenish light, the smells of soil and herbs and flowers, and learning about plants and trees had a powerful effect on my life. Our dog, our rabbits, even the salamanders, turtles and safe snakes that I temporarily had as pets and then released to their real homes made me feel connected to what we later called the “web of life.”
So, I am not surprised when I read articles that confirm that researchers believe that a greener childhood is associated with a happier adulthood.
Of course, I love getting out into a big forest or on a tropical island, but those experiences are out of my ordinary life. And so, I cling to those same islands of green that fascinated me as a child and offered me refuge as a teenager in a troubled home.
Green spaces are shrinking. Scientists are still studying the association between green spaces and mental health. I’m glad that research shows that growing up around green (vegetation) is associated with a significantly lower risk of mental health disorders in adulthood. But I knew that.
The green of my childhood couldn’t prevent my father’s illness or my sister’s cognitive development, but it helped me. I don’t want to overstate the power of green spaces. One of the scientists in those studies cautions that studies have limitations: and some of the findings are correlational. They can’t definitively say that growing up near green space reduces risk of mental illness.
Many questions remain. Would a forest have more impact than a park? Are positive effects evolutionary or cultural? Can the effects be physiological as well as psychological? Maybe having more green spaces around us simply encourage social interaction and exercise, both of which improve mood. Does a decrease in air, water and noise pollution have a positive impact on mental health?
My non-scientist mother maintained that exposure to the dirt (a wider diversity of microbes) would make me healthier. Mom knew.