This piece first appeared in the Sustainable Woodstock Blog.
There is a cure for one of the most virulent menaces of modern society, a scourge that’s highly visible and openly accepted on almost every American street. It’s present in nearly all homes and places of business. Every day, American adults spend an average of about 11 hours in front of computers, smart phones, tablets and televisions. For children, it adds up to 5-7 hours on average, again, every day. Screen time continues to trend up, and not coincidentally, so does obesity. Too much boob tube and iPhone impairs vision, cognitive acuity, and sleep, stunts development of social skills, and can exacerbate attention problems and anxiety.
Author Florence Williams says there is at least a partial remedy for the ill effects of too much sedentary time indoors, an antidote that’s easy and fun. Even a little time spent with the flora and fauna of nature, she says, can calm the mind, lower blood pressure, improve creativity and lead to, well, happiness! Thankfully, there’s plenty of opportunity to test and validate Williams’ findings here in Woodstock.
Williams spent two years compiling 260 pages detailing experiences, experiments, and statistics in The Nature Fix, her book about the beneficial impact of small and large doses of nature on stress and other physical and mental ailments. The research stems from two hypotheses: that humans are inherently at home in nature because that’s where we evolved, and that time in nature fortifies our brains with needed rest.
Williams’ quest to confirm the curative powers of nature took her to forest therapy trails in Japan and Korea, up slickrock fins in Utah, across fitness trails in Finland, and over rambling hills in Scotland. She ran whitewater in Idaho’s River of No Return Wilderness and picnicked beneath the massive, man-made Supertrees in Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay. Along the way, Williams interviewed neuroscientists, forest guides, psychologists and social scientists. To document the impact of her adventures, she monitored hormone levels, heart rate, blood pressure and other physical manifestations of well-being. She tested effects on her creative and cognitive capacities. And, she paraded around in various environments wearing an electroencephalogram cap to track brainwaves.
The bottom line is that Williams discovered that being in nature produces both instant and on-going effects. She learned that out in the green and quiet wilds, the human body experiences an immediate, positive reaction. Within seven minutes, the face relaxes and the heart rate lowers. After twenty minutes, blood pressure drops and circulating cortisol (a stress response hormone) declines. At fifty minutes, cognitive performance improves. Realizing these benefits consistently requires what seems like a modest investment. Researchers that Williams met in Finland found that a minimum of five hours a month in nature is needed to maintain restorative effects. That seems like a reasonable chunk of time to carve out of the hundreds of monthly hours many now devote to screen time.
Woodstock and environs, fortunately, offer a plethora of natural spaces where residents can be among quiet, aromatic trees, sweetly warbling birds, and gentle breezes to test their own reactions, and hopefully calm their brains.
InThe Nature Fix, Williams cites noise as a near constant source of stress in almost all environments, urban, suburban and rural. The world continues to grow louder. Human-generated noise has increased two-fold every thirty years, Williams reports, and roads have so fully penetrated the lower 48 that traffic can be heard in 83% of our land. The relentless roar of airplanes in cities causes measurable declines in reading comprehension among school children. Although much of Vermont is relatively quiet, here in Woodstock, racket from trucks, cars, and motorcycles on Route 4 can be grating. For a stress-relieving break from engine whine, try the blissful quiet of the Amity Pond Natural Area State Park in nearby Pomfret. Its short trails run through ferned forests, past small ponds, and over open fields. Enjoy an almost solitary ramble or simply sit in one of the silent meadows and absorb the view of distant ridgelines.
The Vondell Reservoir in Woodstock is another place of subtle beauty and near-absolute quiet. Walk a mile up to it on the unmaintained, forested Grassy Lane, which begins opposite the Cox Reservoir and the Woodstock Aqueduct Company garage on Cox District Road. On some mornings, a fine mist hangs like a shroud over the lake’s fingers. On others, the glassy stillness of its surface creates a flawless reflection of the surrounding trees and hills.
While man-made noise often irritates, certain sounds from the natural world soothe. Wind, water, and birds are the “trifecta of salubrious listening” writes Williams. For the gentle swoosh of wind and water, visit the back lawn of the Woodstock History Center, on Elm Street. Spend a lunchtime idling at the picnic tables set right by the Ottauquechee River. And in the warmer months, enjoy the perfume of summer blooms wafting across the expanse of verdant grass.
In The Nature Fix, author Williams says that humans have a special kinship with birdsong because we have more speech-related genes in common with birds than we do with other primates. One of her experts recommends listening to the birds for at least five minutes a day; we associate their chirps and tweets with comfort and safety. There are a number of birding hotspots in and near Woodstock. The Nature Conservancy’s Eshqua Bog, off Garvin Hill Road in Hartland, is one of them. The website eBird lists more than 50 species sighted there in recent months. A few of the more melodic include the Scarlet Tanager, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. A visit to the Eshqua Bog is particularly special during the two or three weeks in June when hundreds of wild orchids bloom there.
The Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park is Woodstock’s gem, and the quintessential place to try the nature-immersion, sensory experience called “forest bathing” that Williams touts in The Nature Fix. The National Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides website lists trained facilitators, but also offers advice for self-directed, solitary forest bathing. Very important, it says, is that the experience should have no goals. Forest bathing is not a workout, there should be no effort to “achieve” anything. Transcendent immersion experiences reported by others are irrelevant and there should be no attempt to duplicate them. Pick a place in the National Park that is forested, preferably near a stream, and that doesn’t require much physical exertion to move in. At the outset, pause in one place for at least 15 minutes and become acutely aware of all of your senses. Pick up a stone and feel it, listen carefully to all the sounds of the forest, breathe deeply through your mouth to taste the pines and the maples and the earthiness of the soil. Look about, for things that you haven’t noticed before. Walk around slowly for another 15 minutes and perceive even the most subtle movements: leaves flitting in the breeze, small animals rustling by, birds winging from branch to branch. Have a conversation, out loud, with the trees, sticks, stones, flowers, and other objects near you, and let them in turn inspire new thoughts in you. Choose a comfy spot and just sit for another 15 or 20 minutes. Watch an ant crawl across a fallen leaf or a bee flit among wildflowers. Leave with a feeling of giving back. Sing a song or write a haiku or simply thank the forest for being.
While forest bathing should be a gentle experience, The Nature Fix also acknowledges the value of combining time in the leafy and wild outdoors with exercise. It’s well documented, says Williams, that brisk physical activity boosts memory, slows aging, mitigates anxiety, improves learning, and lightens mild depression. Pairing exercise with restorative time in nature amplifies those benefits. And, Williams encourages experimentation with ways to incorporate outdoor exercise with other pursuits. The Mountain Road Trail to the Pogue in the National Park, for example, could be an ideal venue for a walking meeting. Why not discuss marketing strategies or product development in an atmosphere known to relax the brain and open it to new ideas?
Or, instead of plopping onto chairs and couches, hold your next book group meeting while hiking the Summit Trail at Mount Peg. At the top, drink in the vista of pastures and orchards and ridgelines across the valley. It’s a view that Williams might characterize as awe-inspiring; the kind that she says stimulates curiosity and a more outward, helpful, collaborative focus.
Your brain, and your body, will love you for it.