Archive for August, 2013

The tonic of wildness

The statue is of Henry David Thoreau, a much loved American writer, naturalist and folk philosopher. Behind him is a replica of the hut where he lived alone for long periods of time. thoreau-replica

And these are “then and now” photos of Walden Pond and the surrounding forest where the hut was located.


“I went to the woods”, he wrote, ”because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived”. He had only himself for company at Walden, but this did not trouble him in the least. “I never found the companion that was as companionable as solitude”, was his assessment.

He wrote lyrically about many aspects of nature including the way time spent in natural places can clear the head, stir the spirit and refresh the body. He referred to this as the “tonic of wildness”.

Thoreau would have been impressed but not surprised that there in now scientific backing for his view. Researchers in The Netherlands, for example, have taken to highlighting the healthy impact of nature by referring to it as “Vitamin G” (G for green space). In two studies covering most of the population of the Netherlands, these researchers found that the closer people lived to green areas the less likely they were to have illnesses and the more likely to report being in good health. Similar research from the United Kingdom and Denmark suggests that the strength of this link is greatest if the green space is no further than 300 metres from a person’s place of residence.  It is entirely possible, as well, that having convenient access to parks, gardens and other green spaces will help us live longer by lowering our risk of causes of premature death as heart disease, stroke and even cancer.

The message is clear. Connecting with nature should be as much part of a healthy lifestyle as eating sensibly, getting enough exercise, reducing stress, having close personal relationships and avoiding environmental hazards. Edward O. Wilson (the biophilia man) is so convinced of this that he says we require daily contact with nature if we are to enjoy  healthy and productive lives.


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My last few posts have been about the way nature helps us make connections – with ourselves and with others, in particular. Another connection fostered by nature is with the “cosmos”. This connection can be felt as a sense of the seamless unity of the natural world and of ourselves as part of that same “oneness”.

Connecting with the cosmos is a form of transcendence; our consciousness shifts from the here-and-now to a place beyond the limits of our senses. Such experiences are often associated with the beautiful and grand places of “wild” nature.

But there are situations and activities in urban nature where we can feel a deep sense of intimacy with the cosmos. Working in the garden can do it for us, as Michael McCoy, a landscape designer and writer, discovered while landscaping his own property. This is part of his account:

There came a point when my body was in autopilot, and my mind just sufficiently occupied to retain a single focus. It was at these times, and when I least expected it, that I stepped into some new relationship with my surrounds. I was suddenly a part of them…

For many, connecting with the cosmos has a spiritual dimension, serving as a window on the sacred and divine. Bede Griffiths, writer and Benedictine monk, recalls how this window opened for him:

Now I was suddenly made aware of another world of beauty and mystery such as I never imagined to exist, except in poetry. I experienced an overwhelming emotion in the presence of nature, especially at evening. It began to wear a kind of sacramental character for me. I approached it with a sense of almost religious awe, and in the hush that comes before sunset; I felt again the presence of an unfathomable mystery. The song of the birds, the shape of the trees, the colours of the sunset, were so many signs of this presence, which seemed to be drawing me to itself.

I heard a similar testimony many years ago from Irene Gleeson whose recent death prompted an extraordinary flood of tributes for her humanitarian work on behalf of thousands of Ugandan children. She has been acclaimed and honoured as a woman of great selflessness, faith, courage and resourcefulness.

Irene as thousands of loving Ugandans would know her

Irene as thousands of loving Ugandans would know her

Irene, whom I knew as Irene Twemlow, was a member of a trekking party I took to Nepal in the late 1970s. As

Irene as I remember her on the trek

Irene as I remember her on the trek

one of her college lecturers, I knew something of her difficult early life and resulting low self-esteem. She saw the trek as a way of forging a more positive view of herself and her circumstances. One day near the end of the trek, which had taken in some of the most scenically awe-inspiring places on the planet, Irene said something to me along these lines, “I came on the trek to draw and write, but I keep thinking about God”.

A reference in Irene’s obituary to her Himalayan trekking suggests that the experience was a significant step on her spiritual journey and a landmark in her life of faith, love and service. Vale Irene.

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Have you heard of “the dog in the room phenomenon”? It’s very like “the beer glass goggles effect” – your companions look friendlier, funnier and altogether more attractive viewed through the bottom of the beer glass you are draining for the third or fourth time.

10th Magnitude Office

Randall Lockwood describes a piece of research that illustrates the phenomenon very nicely. Volunteers were shown pictures of everyday scenes, a woman tucking a child into bed, for example. There were two versions of each scene, one with, and one without, a dog somewhere in the picture. The volunteers who viewed the scenes with the dog rated the picture more positively and described the humans in the scenes as more likeable, friendly, happy, confident and less stressed.

In a similar study, students were shown photos of offices belonging to professors. The students judged the occupant of the room to be friendlier and more approachable if a dog was in the photo.

When dogs or friendly and attractive animals of any description are in the environment, everything tends to look better, including people. Our brain responds to the animals by lowering stress level and increasing the output of the bonding or “love” hormone oxytocin.  This makes us friendlier, more open and empathic – nicer to be with, in other words. Maybe you have wondered why people walking their dogs have more conversations with strangers. Well, now you have an answer – the presence of the dog makes the stranger as well as the owner more sociable.

I am not sure that plants open the oxytocin valve in quite the same way. But plants can make us more attractive and easier to get on with in other ways – by reducing stress and mental fatigue, for example. There is certainly evidence that meeting in green spaces like parks and community gardens helps people form stronger communities.

A restaurant setting with soft lights and sweet music may be your first choice of a place to do some relationship building, but a walk in a park could work just as well and be a lot cheaper.

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