Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken,
over-civilized people are beginning to
find out that going to the mountains
is going home; that wildness is a necessity.
A walk in the woods can heal the human heart.
The human heart can heal our biosphere.
This is science, not a sweetheart Valentine. But it’s a science that gets at the deepest heartache on our planet today.
Current human societies have become the loneliest, most alienated, isolated, depressed, addicted and anxious in history. That’s a remarkable achievement, considering the record human crowdedness on our planet and a degree of digital connectivity and information flow unimaginable to our ancestors.
Despite these advantages, psychologists report that millions of young and old alike feel depressed and isolated—that they don’t belong, aren’t needed, have no reason to exist.
And that’s just among humans. Thousands of other species likewise are losing their sense of belonging—so diminished in numbers that they can’t find a mate, a pack or a community of other interdependent species within which to survive.
Altogether, 66 percent of our world’s wildlife will have vanished by 2020, according to the World Wildlife Fund’s 2016 “Living Planet Report.” Since 1970, populations of vertebrate animals (mammals, birds, fish, etc.) have already plummeted by more than 58 percent.
Such a stunning exile of wildlife and plants—from plankton to whales, soil microbes to entire ancient forests—has led E.O. Wilson, a trailblazing American “sociobiologist,” to call our coming period in history the Eremozoic Era, “the Age of Loneliness.”
Humans are growing isolated on our island in space, Wilson points out, bereft of the biodiverse communities that kept us company—and kept us alive—through the eons. Since we are the very cause of this new loneliness, we are, encouragingly, the solution.
To that end, Wilson has urged a reawakening of “biophilia,” humankind’s innate love of the living world. His call has now been taken up by health researchers, as studies from around the globe indicate that natural settings are good medicine for the human heart and mind.
For instance, studies conducted by mental health researcher Paul Piff revealed that the ancient experience of awe, in the face of nature’s grandeur, stirs more altruism and kindness, a more expansive understanding of one’s purpose than do experiences of personal pride.
Japanese studies have also found that natural settings relieve stress, as subjects assigned to walk within forest settings had lower heart rates, less anxiety, better moods and more killer-cell immune activity than those who walked within urban settings.
Likewise, a Finnish study concluded that “even short-term visits to nature areas have positive effects on perceived stress relief compared to built-up environment.”
At Stanford University, Gregory Bratman’s research found that study participants who walked in biodiverse landscapes reported happier moods, less anxiety, better memory retention and less obsession with personal problems than those walking within built environments.
“We should be encouraging people in busy and stressed environments to get outside regularly, even for short bits of time,” concluded researcher Jules Pretty from University of Essex, whose study on “green exercise” measured benefits to blood pressure, self-esteem and mood.
These studies have profound ecological consequence. As the biosphere declines and human turmoil heats up globally, it’s clear that mental health at every level will be vital to avoiding the fate of extinction—that of other species and ourselves.
Part of nature’s curative effect on sanity lies in a release, outside “the four walls,” from the grip of fatalism. It is this fatalism—a low-grade despair and passive “why try?”—that has seized up so much human potential to protect our only home in the universe.
Stuck perennially indoors, we humans tend to remote-view our own planet from afar—mainly via barrages of bad-news bytes indicating, with zero sentiment, with no love and no call to action, that it’s all going down and there’s no way to stop it. The heart remains unengaged.
The journal BioPsychoSocial Medicine projected the results of this heart-bypass in 2012. “With global environmental concerns, rapid urban expansion, and mental health disorders at crisis levels, diminished nature contact may not be without consequence to the health of the individual and the planet itself.”
A happier translation might be: “People, get out there.” Engage. Take the kids hiking, plant trees and wildlife habitat, advocate for our imperiled public lands. Join a river cleanup or conservation group.
There’s never been a more urgent time on the planet to fall in love. Again. For life.
Liza Field is a conservationist, tree planter and ethics teacher in Southwest Virginia.