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Walk in Beauty

by Richard Louv | 7 min read

Beauty is a process. The process of nature is relationship. To walk in beauty is to be in relationship with the life around us. And to heal and grow.

Jennifer Pharr Davis describes how she discovered the transformative power of the natural world. “After college, I had no clear path in life, so I decided to take a 5-month hike in the woods,” she says, in a new IMAX film, Into America’s Wild. Though she was filled with self-doubt, and had never even camped before, she continued to hone her hiking skills. She persisted. In 2011 Davis became the overall record holder for walking the entire 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail. She did this in 46 days, averaging 47 miles every day. 

credit: Jennifer Pharr Davis

"My idea of beauty was totally redefined on the trail."

“For 5 months, I didn’t have a mirror or magazines or commercials telling me what I should look like. I saw myself through interactions with other hikers and if I was kind, if I could make someone else smile.” She also learned that access to nature is unequal, depending on one’s income, race or geography. Along with a growing number of outdoor enthusiasts, health care professionals and educators, she believes everyone deserves the chance to get a fair dose of what I call Vitamin N. (That’s Vitamin Nature, naturally.) 

The Benefits of Nature Connection

Early inspiration for the now-growing body of scientific support for the health and educational benefits of nature came from Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson's biophilia hypothesis, which suggests that human beings are genetically programmed to have an affiliation with the rest of nature—that nature connection is fundamental to our humanity.

In 2005, I made the case in my book Last Child in the Woods that humans and our society suffer from what I called nature-deficit disorder. That’s not official medical diagnosis (though perhaps it should be), but a way to describe the price we pay for our increasing alienation from nature. Awareness of that price, and the healing quality of time spent in nature, is growing. 

While writing that book, I could find only about sixty studies rigorous enough to cite. Since then, the research base has grown considerably. Today, the nonprofit Children & Nature Network offers a research library of over one thousand peer-reviewed studies, and most point in the same direction: 

“Time spent in nature is essential to human health and wellbeing"

In recent years, an international new nature movement has emerged. Its goal: to reconnect families and communities to the natural world. Social justice is at its heart.

Benefits of Nature Connection, as Suggested by Research

Improved Physical Health

  • Time in nature helps us become active and stay that way
  • Greener neighborhoods boost immune functioning
  • Time outdoors protects eyesight, reduces the risk of myopia, obesity and diabetes
  • Newborns in greener environments tend to be healthier and have a higher birth weight
  • More time in nature can prevent Vitamin D deficiency, which is associated with many diseases
  • Greening a neighborhood may also help decrease rates of crime and violence

Improved Mental Health & Wellbeing

  • Time in nature tends to reduce stress, anxiety and depression; it promotes self-esteem, increases resiliency, and reduces the risk for mental illness
  • Outdoor experiences can translate into significant reductions in stress-related diastolic blood pressure, salivary cortisol (a physiological marker of stress), and heart rate
  • Nature near home is linked to improved children’s ability to cope with adversity, more positive and fewer negative social behaviors, including bullying

Educational Benefits

  • Nature connection can reduce symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder, and improve cognitive functioning and executive function
  • Kids in schools in close proximity with natural areas do better academically; school gardens support better knowledge of nutrition and science
  • Increased greenness around a school is associated with decreased student absenteeism
  • Nature-rich schools can help raise standardized test scores and improve graduation rates

Such benefits are not restricted to green schools and thousand-mile hikes. Naturally designed or decorated homes can bring us greater peace and well-being. Workplaces created with nature around or throughout the building are more productive. Employees are less likely to use sick time, turnover is lower, and work satisfaction and health are improved. 

To be clear, time spent in nature isn’t a panacea for everything that ails us, but it does offer some special properties. In 2013, in a presentation at an event focused on children and nature, G. Richard Olds, MD, dean of the University of California, Riverside, Medical School, made this point: Few medications or prescriptions work both as prevention and as therapy. In Washington, DC, Robert Zarr, MD, now writes “park prescriptions.” Zarr has even created an extensive database of Washington, DC’s urban parks so that pediatricians know where to direct families. Through his nonprofit Park Rx America, he has enlisted 820 medical professionals to do the same.

So, what’s the correct dose of Vitamin N? One 2019 study, published in Scientific Reports, found that a minimum of two hours a week in parks, woodlands, or beaches promotes physical and mental health and well-being, and helps people put their life experience in perspective.

Attempting to define a specific dose may be putting too fine a point on the topic, according to some observers. Not only does science have difficulty defining nature (which is one of the reasons for the relative newness of this field), but natural environments and conditions are infinitely complex. On the day, month or year of the study, what was the weather like, or the quality of the trail, or the safety of the park? 

Ultimately, the most useful dose of Vitamin N is this: Some is better than none, and more is better than some.

Equal Access to Vitamin N

The pandemic has increased public awareness not just of the need for nearby nature for solace and health, but of the inequitable distribution of parks and wild spaces. 

As scientific support for this thesis grows, so does awareness that access to natural areas is far too dependent on where people live and their economic status—even though the benefits of natural environments appear to be particularly evident among children and communities under the most stress. Yet, the neighborhoods with the most poverty are often those with the fewest parks and the least green space. Nature access is, in fact, a matter of life and death.

Not everyone can afford to take time off to hike the Appalachian Trail, as Davis did. That means policy makers, community leaders and everyday citizens must create new programs to connect people to nature who otherwise wouldn’t have access, and save the camps and other programs currently threatened with closure due to the Covid economy. 

Just as importantly, they must create more nature where people live, work and play, including the most densely populated neighborhoods. Righting inequities will require confrontation of the barriers faced by people who may not feel welcome or safe in a park because of their race, disabilities or culture.

Leaders like Jose Gonzales are working to do just that. In an April 2020 article for High Country News, González, founder of Latino Outdoors, expressed concern that a decision to limit and close off park and outdoor access would “take a disproportionate toll on the communities that need it the most.” Access to nature is only part of the equity issue. Too many parks, from the local to the natural, are, as Gonzalez puts it, perceived as “privileged spaces.”

“We need each other, and we all need nature."

Even before social distancing, health officials were worried about what some called an epidemic of human loneliness, pointing out that human isolation now ranks with obesity and smoking as a leading cause of early death. 

Electronics, disintegration of the extended family and urban design are among the often-cited causes. But, as I suggested in Our Wild Calling, individual human loneliness is rooted in a deeper, undiagnosed species loneliness—our increasing isolation from other lifeforms.

It follows that, during the pandemic shutdowns, we found solace and companionship in our pets and in the nearby natural world, in a suburban yard or beyond the window in a city neighborhood. In our moments of reconnection, we sensed the great conversation that continues all around us. We detected life communicating with itself. We felt the healing of that connection, and the beauty. And we did not feel so alone. It’s time to walk in beauty together.

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