Two Hours in Nature

Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.
Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild

We are bombarded online with advice on how to be healthier and happier. I just read recently that coffee is not bad for me. In fact, it can reduce my risk of cancer, Type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s, heart disease, increase my short-term focus and endurance and increase your life span. Talk about a wonder drug.

Of course, research next year may say the opposite about coffee.

But a new research study about spending time in nature is one that I will accept no matter what the next study finds.

It comes from the University of Exeter and was published in the journal Scientific Reports. It uses data from 20,000 people, so this is no little study in a lab with 20 people.

This survey asked participants how much time they spent in “open spaces in and around towns and cities, including parks, canals and nature areas; the coast and beaches; and the countryside including farmland, woodland, hills, and rivers” in the past week. They also asked about their health and wellbeing.

This study found that people who had spent two hours or more in nature the previous week displayed “consistently higher levels of both health and well-being than those who reported no exposure.”

Two hours.

The participants who had spent little or no time in parks, beaches or woods in the past seven days, close to half reported low levels of life satisfaction and one in four said they were in poor health.

What about spending more than two hours out in nature? Oddly, there were diminishing returns.

Some interpretations have considered that the health benefits might be a byproduct of physical activity, exposure to sunlight and not contact with nature.

I was surprised, as were the researchers, that it did not matter whether the two hours in nature were taken in one session or in a series of shorter visits. It also didn’t seem to matter whether people went to an urban park, woodlands or the beach.

I have written here about nature deficit disorder  and forest bathing and the benefits of just being in nature in all its forms.

Two hours a week in nature doesn’t sound like a difficult thing to achieve in order to be healthier in mind and body. But isn’t an attainable target for everyone.

Articles online point out that it would be difficult for people with disabilities. In the most urban of areas, there may not even be a nearby woods, a patch of green space or park. And even if some nature is available, some people don’t seem to be able to find the time – though I find that a flimsy excuse if you only need to accomplish a total of two hours per week.  That’s only a bit more than 15 minutes a day. Coffee or lunch break?

The idea of spending time in nature for your health is not at all new, and I find examples of some interesting nature prescriptions regularly. In the Shetland Islands (UK), they are prescribed to visit seabird colonies, build woodland dens or simply appreciate the shapes of clouds.

Eco-therapy in New Zealand produced improvements after six months in two-thirds of patients given green prescriptions.  By gardening or working on conservation projects they were happier, lost weight and even seemed to be helped with mild to moderate depression.

Still, the takeaway from that new study is that if you can just get two hours in some kind of natural place per week, you’re going to benefit.

Green Childhood, Happier Adulthood

forest trees woods

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.

I have written here before about related topics such as forest bathing and the healing effects of the forest.

Being in my current little garden in the backyard, walking through the nearby smallish woods or a local park with a tiny creek and pond are still ways that I slow down time and immerse in nature.

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.

park bridge

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.

Other studies seem to indicate that a lack of green space increases the risk of mood disorders and schizophrenia and can even affect cognitive development.

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.

Spring Will Come

There is snow on the ground in Paradelle and the Polar Vortex visited us this past week. The ground is rock-hard. Nothing is budding. But I saw my first robin today.

robin

There are a lot of things that are supposed to indicate that the spring season is near. That silly groundhog in Pennsylvania who was pulled out of his home, saw no shadow (Duh, it was cloudy) and so it is supposed to be an early spring. NOAA says Phil the Groundhog has a 40% accuracy rate over 133 years – about as good as a coin toss.

It is a sure sign of spring when I once again watch the film Groundhog Day, and whatever the weather might be, I get into the Zen of that film.

Animals pay no attention to calendars, but those that hibernate or spend more time  inside than outside (like most of us) during winter do sense a warming climate. There are also internal clocks that will signal that it is time for them to emerge.

It made a kind of sense to people at one time that if they observed an animal (bears in France, badgers in Germany, groundhogs in America) emerging but then heading back inside, it must “know” something about the weather ahead.

You can also be a sky watcher like the ancients, who paid more careful attention to things up there. The movements of the Sun and Moon were very important and today is a “cross-quarter” day in the solar calendar. Today falls exactly between a solstice and an equinox.

Though it might not feel like it, consider that winter is halfway over and spring is on the celestial horizon – whether it looks and feels like it outside. I have definitely noticed that there was a longer day(light) the past week.

Many nature and garden folks look to the plants in their neighborhood for signs of spring. But I can’t say that I have found them to be much more accurate than groundhogs. I saw some bulbs poking above ground back in December, but they stopped their progress. I have a patch of crocuses that get full sun all day in front of my home that always bloom a week or more before the others.


Take the snowdrops I have outside. When they bloom, it might be snowy and they add some white (and green) to the landscape. But Galanthus nivalis will bloom when they are ready no matter what the weather happens to be. They are early bloomers.  Mine are not poking out, but we have a warming week ahead, so they might break through.

Cultures and religions all have some type of seasonal celebrations. The Celtic holiday of Imbolc is an ancient one that honored Brigid (or Brigit), goddess of fire, poetry, healing, and childbirth. February first is Saint Brigid’s feast day.

The ancient Imbolc (from the Old Irish imbolg, meaning “in the belly”) is thought to have come from his time being when ewes became pregnant. Those would be the spring lambs. As February started, Saint Brigid was thought to bring the healing power of the sun back to the world.

Christians took the pagan holiday and repurposed February 2 as Candlemas Day (Candelora in Italy).  Though it is to mark the presentation of Jesus at the temple 40 days after her birth, the ceremony is to bring candles (and Brigid’s crosses) to church to be blessed.  So it offers the elements of fire and a birth.

 

May Brigid bless the house wherein you dwell
Bless every fireside every wall and door
Bless every heart that beats beneath its roof
Bless every hand that toils to bring it joy
Bless every foot that walks its portals through
May Brigid bless the house that shelters you.

 

What made that robin return to this cold northern place now? Birds that nest in the Northern Hemisphere tend to migrate northward in the spring to take advantage of emerging insect populations, budding plants and an abundance of nesting locations.

Though the vast majority of robins do move south in the winter, some remain and move around in northern locations. Robins migrate more in response to food than to temperature and fruit is the robin’s winter food source. I haven’t seen any robins in my area since autumn, so I assume they went south.

American Robins eat large numbers of both invertebrates and fruit. In spring and summer, they prefer earthworms, insects and some snails. they also eat a wide variety of fruits, including chokecherries, hawthorn, dogwood, sumac fruits and juniper berries. One study suggested that robins may try to round out their diet by selectively eating fruits that have bugs in them.

Static Electricity and the Positive Effects of Negative Ions

plasma ball
Plasma ball

As a young boy, I was fascinated by static electricity. Electricity that I could produce! I wondered why some scientist hadn’t figured out how to harness this power to make electrical devices go. Those pops and zaps and sparks when we rub our feet on the carpet or take clothing off or out of the dryer seemed to come from nowhere.

I don’t recall ever having a science lesson in school about static electricity, though I have tenuous memories of rubbing balloons to produce it that may have been a class demonstration.

This morning there was a zap when I kissed my wife good morning. Ah, a spark is still there! I don’t want science to kill romance, but it led me to do some research into what was really happening.

Static electricity is one of the oldest scientific phenomena people observed and described. Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus made the first account; in his sixth century B.C. writings, he noted that if amber was rubbed hard enough, small dust particles will start sticking to it. Three hundred years later, Theophrastus followed up on Thales’ experiments by rubbing various kinds of stone and also observed the “power of attraction.” But neither of these natural philosophers found a satisfactory explanation for what they saw.                 Source 

Of course, it would be another two thousand years before the English word “electricity” was coined (from Latin “electricus,” meaning “like amber”). In that time, static electricity was more of a magic trick used to make things magically attract – like a paper to a charged hand.

Static electricity come from some electrons that are on the surface of any material. When certain materials rub against each other, electrons are pulled from the weaker material to the stronger binding force. Shuffle your feet along a carpet and then touch the metal doorknob and Zap, a small lightning bolt.

In winter or any time when the humidity is low, we notice it more because dry air is an electrical insulator. (Moist air acts as a conductor. )

How much power is in that spark? Typically, the amount is low. Well, the voltage can actually be very high – 100 times that of the outlet on the wall. But voltage is just a measure of the charge difference between objects. The thing you have to worry about is current. That is the measure of how many electrons are flowing and in your static electricity zaps it is just a few electrons. But those few electrons can have an impact.

On one dry winter day, I returned from a walk with my iPod Shuffle earbuds still in my ears listening to a podcast, and pulled off by zip-up sweatshirt and then touched the iPod. Pop! Not only did I feel a charge that ran up the wires to my ears, but the data stored on the device was damaged.

antistatic wristband

My experience didn’t damage the device itself, but static electricity can deliver a fatal charge to sensitive electronics. When people work on some electronics (such as inside a computer), they often wear an antistatic wristband. The wristband is grounded to some safe metal object nearby that wouldn’t be damaged by a static zap.  You could also ground yourself by touch a metal object or holding one (think of Ben Franklin’s key at the end of a kite string). Metal is a great conductor and the electrons are very happy to jump there.

A more serious though less likely threat is when you discharge electricity near flammable gases. My father showed me when I was quite young that when he was working on his car’s engine or around gasoline (including near a gas station pump), he would ground himself before touching the pumps or engine or car battery. I still do it when I’m working around my lawn mower and snowblower, though the risk is probably quite minimal.

People have humidifiers in their homes in winter for the positive effect it has on your skin and nasal passages, but it also reduces charge buildups. You might add fabric softener sheets to your dryer load to not only soften the clothing but to lessen static charges that make clothing cling. They actually tend to help balance out the electrons.

Woolen winter clothing and rubber-soled shoes will give you more of a static charge than cotton clothing and leather-soled shoes.

Does static electricity have any practical uses, as I had wondered in my childhood?  We have probably all seen a electrostatic generator make someone’s hair stand up or touched a ball that then produced lightning bolts from our fingers. But we can’t use it to power our smartphone – high voltage, low current. Still, it does have practical applications.

Electrostatic generators such as the Van de Graaff generator, and variations as the Pelletron, are used in physics research.

Many photocopiers use electric attraction to adhere charged toner particles onto paper. Some air fresheners (such as Fabreze) add more than a nice artificial fragrance because they are also discharging static electricity on dust particles which dissembles the bad smell.

Charged plates are used in some home heating and cooling systems and in industrial applications to capture dust, smoke and other minute particles. As particles move through the system, they pick up negative charges from a metal grid and are attracted to plates that are positively charged where they can be disposed of manually.

Static electricity is used in nanotechnology to pick up single atoms by laser beams. Nanoballoons can be switched between an inflated and a collapsed state using static electricity, and one day they might be used to deliver medication to specific tissues within the body.

negative ion band via Amazon

On a more personal level, you may also see some more New Age than scientific applications, such as wearing a negative ion band on your wrist. These wristbands are promoted as being useful for sports and any time or activity where you need a power boost or increased energy. In this stressed world, that probably means all day, every day.

The claim – which may be definitively unproven but has some science behind it – is that the negative ions can “balance” you and can help sleep, sinuses, hay fever, asthma, the immune system, relaxation, stability, energy levels, concentration, joint and muscle aches, arthritis, circulation and more. Sounds rather miraculous.

Negative ions are odorless, tasteless, and invisible molecules and we inhale them in abundance in certain places (those waterfalls, beaches, mountain streams).  When I’m watching the ocean waves on a beach or standing by falling water, I do feel “better.” Of course, some of that feeling comes from the natural beauty of the setting, but research also seems to indicate that some of that positivity in me comes from the higher number of negative ions there. Yes, this negative is positive in another sense. The opposite effects occur in a sealed office building: more positive ions, less aesthetics, more stress.

On the website webmd.com, I read that negative ions that get into our bloodstream are believed to produce biochemical reactions that increase levels of the mood chemical serotonin, helping to alleviate depression, relieve stress, and boost our daytime energy.

I wrote an entire post some years ago about the positive effects of negative ions, but I didn’t make the connection to static electricity.

We know that the dispersion of water from waterfalls, waves, or even lightning and water evaporation from plants, create hydrogen ions by splitting water molecules. The negative electrons join up with other free positive electrons in the air neutralizing their electrical charge.

An air ionizer (or negative ion generator) is a device that uses a high voltage charge to ionize air molecules and generate negative ions. Air ionizers are often used in air purifiers so that particles are attracted to the electrode in an effect similar to static electricity. These devices can cost hundreds of dollars for “professional” ionizers and less for household room devices.

One trendy application I see in offices lately are Himalayan salt lamps.
These are made from Himalayan pink salt which has minerals and is supposedly free from toxins. Lit and heated by a small lightbulb inside the hollowed out salt, it releases negative ions.

In a new Age way, these are said to create harmony and balance mind, body, and soul , and so make a good addition to a place used for meditation, yoga, or sleeping. I suppose the idea of having them in offices is to balance the positive ions that dominate those sterile spaces. Maybe they add some earth and fire elements to the feng shui of the space.

I say “New Age” when explaining these lamps because I could find no scientific evidence that they have any positive effects on people near them. But I don’t dismiss any possible placebo effect.

Can any type of device that produces negative ions have a positive effect on people and perhaps even act like a mild antidepressant? It seems too early to know for sure. Does filtering out dust mites and dander improve health? Sounds logical. Does putting negative ions into the air improve your mood? There is some evidence that it does.

Of course, the negative ions when I’m standing next to the Great Falls of the Passaic River blow away the ones coming off a salt lamp, so I will stick to natural negative ion producers for the time being.

The Great Falls of the Passaic River in Paterson, New Jersey by Wally Gobet on Flickr

 

The Season To Come

We don’t even have to pass through the equinox’s tilt into autumn before people start searching and finding a post I wrote here about signs in nature that might predict the winter to come. We want to know about things before they happen.

But weather is really difficult to predict too far in advance. All of us have watched or read a weather report at night for what tomorrow will be, and then found the actual day to be quite different. Maybe that is why some people seem to trust old weather lore that looks at nature for predictions.

People have been observing changes with insects, animals, birds, plants, the Moon and the stars and trying to connect that to the weather world around them. The problem with most predictions about weather, politics, the end of the world or anything is that we rarely go back months or years later to check on the predictions.

You can look back at the older posts and follow the instructions and do your own predicting. Just be sure to write it down and then check back when spring arrives. Did the predictions come true?

Did the black bands on a woolly bear caterpillar prove to be accurate?

What about those squirrels – gathering food early, bushy tails?

I did not notice any ant hills that were particularly high in July. So, winter should not be snowy. And yet, the first week in August was unusually warm, and that should mean that the coming winter will be snowy and long. Should we believe the ants?

The leaves have barely started to fall here. When leaves fall early, fall and Winter will be mild, but if they fall late,winter will be severe. Start falling leaves!

You can at least pay attention to what is happening in October:
– Much rain in October, much wind in December.
– A warm October means a cold February.
– Full Moon in October without frost, then no frost until November’s Full Moon.

And check the skins of corn (husks), apples and onions. The thicker they are, the tougher the winter. Do you notice a pattern here? When things in nature toughen up, they are getting ready for a tough winter.

Pay attention.

A Story of Trees

I heard an interview with writer Richard Powers. I haven’t read his books and from that interview about his newest book, The Overstory, I thought the book was non-fiction. It’s not.

His books are often described as: compelling, cerebral, dramatic, emotionally involving stories. His 2006 novel The Echo Maker is about neurology. It won a National Book Award.

The new novel is The Overstory is about our endangered biome and it revolves around trees. The overstory is that part of a forest that is above the canopy. The canopy is the “ceiling” of the forest. There is also is the understory that sits below the canopy but above the ground, and the shrub layer below that and, finally, the forest floor where we walk.

Of course, overstory and understory also suggest the story of writers.

This is Powers’ twelfth novel. It’s a novel of activism and resistance . It’s a love song to the natural world.

This is a long book and I am not finished with it, but I am enjoying it. The first part of the novel consists of 8 separate short stories (ranging from 9 to 33 pages) telling us about what seem to be unconnected characters.

There is an Air Force soldier in the Vietnam War is shot while flying, falls, but is saved by falling into a banyan tree. An artist inherits many photographs of one doomed American chestnut. A college student is brought back to life by nature. A scientist discovers trees are communicating with one another.

I’m not a fan of this kind of novel structure and I know that the four of them and some others will eventually come together. Networks of roots. Concentric tree rings.

The main character, so far, is a young botanist named Patty Westerford who is the one that discovers that “trees are social creatures” In the interview I heard that Patty is based on some real scientists and a book called The Hidden Life of Trees.

I think it is the ideas presented in that book that most intrigued me to read Powers’ book. Tree families are like human families – or maybe we are like trees. Tree parents live together with their children. They communicate with them. They support them as they grow. They share their food with them. They protect them from diseases, and the climate extremes and changes.