I read in two different, entirely unrelated nonfiction books last week about the importance of exposure to nature, especially trees. One book was about inner chatter, that voice in your head that can be good (it’s how you learn and remember things and organize your thoughts) or that can drive you nuts when it goes into overdrive (welcome to my life). One good way to calm it down so you can focus on other things is to look at nature. The book discussed research on the topic. There was a study of people living in public housing. People were randomly assigned to apartments, so they made for a good study group, and they found that people who got apartments that overlooked some kind of green space had better outcomes than people whose apartments overlooked things like parking lots or courtyards without any kind of greenery. Then they conducted a study in which people were given some kind of task assignment, then sent out to take a walk on one of two specific routes. The people assigned to walk through a park did a better job on the task when they returned than the people assigned to walk on a city route without greenery.
It seems that the brain only has so much voluntary focus in it, and dealing with something like a city requires voluntary focus. But the brain doesn’t have to work to focus on nature. It’s naturally drawn to notice things like trees and plants, so when you’re in nature, you have more focus left over. There’s also an issue of awe. Nature has a way of putting life in perspective so that you feel less overwhelmed by your daily stresses.
Then there’s the calming effect. The other book I read got into the idea of forest bathing, of immersing yourself in the forest as a way of getting perspective. It lowers the blood pressure and has a spiritual benefit.
I suppose none of this is all that surprising. I’ve always had a thing for trees and green spaces, perhaps because I spent much of my childhood on the plains of west Texas and Oklahoma. I remember feeling like I’d exhaled when we visited relatives in northern Louisiana where they were surrounded by pine trees or when we went camping in the woods in east Texas. A childhood friend from Oklahoma visited our old neighborhood late last year and mentioned the grove of trees I loved, and I remembered that my favorite place to play was a small (very small) grove of trees. When we moved to Germany, where we lived on the edge of a great forest, it felt like coming home. Some of my fondest memories are of taking long walks in the woods on the public walking paths.
Unfortunately, I currently live back on the plains. The forests we have are small and scrubby. I can see trees from my office window, but they’re just crepe myrtles, which are essentially overgrown bushes. Right now, I can’t get out to what trees we do have because we have dangerous levels of heat. You don’t want to go walking outdoors. I can’t even see the trees nearby because I’m keeping my blinds closed in an attempt to keep my house somewhat cool.
But according to one of those books, looking at pictures or videos of nature has a similar effect on the brain. I’ve found a number of YouTube channels of people walking in the woods. They’re shot first-person style, so it gives you the feeling of walking in the woods, rather than of watching someone else walk (the good ones have some kind of stabilization, so the camera doesn’t shake with each step). I’ve found that watching a few minutes of a virtual walk in the woods before I start work in the morning helps with my focus. Then I found some of these videos shot in an area that’s serving as a model for the fictional location in a book I’m developing, so I’m killing two birds with one stone. I’m getting a dose of nature while immersing myself in the world of my book.
And then I got the really bright idea to set up my mini jogging trampoline (I don’t have a treadmill) in front of my TV and walk in place while watching the video of a walk through my book setting inspiration, so I’m really multitasking, getting exercise, research, and nature exposure. I’m finding that ideas pop into my head as I walk and watch the video.
The only problem is that I feel sad when I turn off the video and find myself back in my hot, dry, barren world. I’m less happy about being where I am after spending time in a place I like much better. When I got out of school, I had plans to move to a place that was green and full of trees and hills, but I got a job here and ended up staying. I’m not sure which is worse for my emotional well-being, no exposure to nature (and trees) or exposure that makes me sad about where I live. I’m actually looking into relocating because the cost of living here is skyrocketing to the point I can’t afford to buy any house in my area and I want to get out of my current house, and if I have to leave the area, I might as well go to a place that’s cooler and greener.