After writing a well-received book on breasts, author Florence Williams turned to the importance of nature to a person’s basic well-being.
She doesn’t find the subjects of “Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History” and “The Nature Fix” that different.
“Actually they are not,” said the journalist on a recent trip to Salt Lake City to speak to the Utah Nature Conservancy Board. “Both are environmental health books. The first was about how the environment is hurting our health. The second was about how the environment can help the Earth.”
Williams said that while there are moments of mirth and light because of the topic of writing about breasts, the book had a serious message.
She looked at increasing rates of breast cancer, the onset of early puberty in girls, the way breasts have changed in modern life and the environmental history of a body part.
In ”The Nature Fix,” she examined new scientific studies that are increasingly showing that being outside in nature can increase a person’s lifespan as well as improve cardiovascular health.
“Science is finally starting to confirm that being in nature makes us feel restored, replenished and a little bit calmer,” said Williams, who is a contributing editor at Outside Magazine and has written for The New York Times, National Geographic and Mother Jones, among other publications. “We are looking at how the science affects the nervous system. As we recover from stress in nature, we become happier and healthier.”
Williams grew up with a father who was a wilderness canoeist. Her parents took her on Western vacations that included canoeing rivers such as the San Juan, Green, Yampa and Colorado. Her husband was a river guide.
Now based in Washington, D.C., the mother of a 14- and 16-year-old, she tries to get her kids on river trips. Both attend a traditional summer camp where they are not allowed to bring their phones.
“They love not having their phones,” she said. “Having their phones made them so anxious.”
Williams writes in the first person so she can experience such things as Japanese forest bathing, healing forests in South Korea and senior centers that try to get their patients outdoors.
She said even the simple act of adding a plant or two to office and home can help with mental well-being.
“Potted plants make us behave more generously,” she said. “We started a ficus campaign to bring potted plants to our politicians.”
Dave Livermore, longtime state director for the Utah Nature Conservancy, said that nature increasingly brings physiological benefits, which improve human health.
“A walk in the woods, or forest bathing as now practiced by the Japanese, lowers cortisol levels, mitigates anxiety ad helps us focus,” wrote Livermore in a recent newsletter. “Time spent outdoors not only exposes us to great beauty, it is also good for us.”
Williams, whose book begins in Utah’s Arches National Park, likes to emphasize what she calls the science of awe.
“There are a number of studies that suggest that the experience of awe brings us together and makes us part of something larger than ourselves,” she said. “That makes us less an individualist. Awe likes to be shared…If we experience awe, we become part of something larger than ourselves.”
Sometimes events such as the recent solar eclipse gather large numbers of people together to experience the awe of nature. For others, it can be more simple.
“Seventy percent of the time people experience awe, it is in the natural world,” said Williams. “Most of us don’t experience awe in our daily lives.”
That’s why perhaps a simple act such as sleeping under a vast night sky can cause people to experience awe, largely because it is an event that is far outside the normal experience.
Williams is also convinced that nature plays a big role in democracy.
“There is a relationship between green space and democracy,” she said. Public green spaces are fundamental to our democracy. People from all walks of life must learn how to live in a city. People deserve the benefits of beauty.”
Livermore said connecting people with nature can be a big challenge as society becomes more urban.
“We are glued to the phone,” he said. ”We need to get out in nature.”
Williams said she is gravely concerned that kids are not connected to nature.
“We are at a cultural crossroads where kids are so tethered to their devices and inside all the time,” she said. “If they are not connected now, their kids won’t be connected. This generation is severing all ties with the natural world at a peril to their emotional health and the planet.”
That’s why her research helped her learn that in many countries, nature is being viewed as a medicine.
“In Sweden, people who suffer from depression participate in horticulture therapy programs,” she said. “In Finland, experts are recommending a minimum dose of 5 hours a month to prevent depression. … In northern Europe, 10 percent of kids go to forest kindergartens. Childrens brains can thrive there.”
So add “The Nature Fix” to a series of books dating back to Thoreau on the value of simply getting outdoors.
The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative
By Florence Williams
W. W. Norton & Co.
$26.95; in paperback Feb. 20