By Marguerite Jill Dye
Thank heavens we live in Vermont, where our connection to nature is ever tangible. However, not all of our countrymen and women benefit from the great out-of-doors. Did you know that the average American spends 93 percent of his or her time indoors—87 percent in buildings and 6 percent in vehicles, and at least eight hours a day with electronic screens, then watching TV to relax? Across the country, for the past 40 years, nature-based recreation has decreased by 35 percent. According to Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows,” Americans have become more ill-tempered, aggressive, depressed, distracted, narcissistic, fatter, and less “cognitively nimble.” Little wonder.
In last week’s Mountain Meditation, I presented Clemens Arvay’s hypothesis and book on “The Biophilia Effect,” about the human love for and bond with nature. We explored how terpenes, chemical compounds released by trees, benefit human beings’ health and wellbeing. Terpenes are inhaled and absorbed through forest air from the bioactive particles released from pine needles, leaves, tree trunks, the thick bark of some trees, bushes, shrubs, ferns, mushrooms, and the carpet of leaves.
Japan is taking the scientifically-proven benefits of “forest bathing” very seriously to counteract stress and health crises. Soaking in the therapeutic effects of terpenes through our lungs and skin is encouraged by establishing forest therapy grounds and clubs so people will spend time in nature. Some clubs are forming in the U.S. as well. The entire State of Vermont could be declared a forest bathing sanctuary!
Over 99 percent of humanity’s existence has taken place in natural settings. Yet 54 percent of the world’s population now lives in urban environments, and by 2045, more than 6 billion will live in cities. Our daily lives in the past few years have become inundated with technology, smartphones, social media, and apps, in a constant state of distraction. Many people are more connected with the Worldwide Web than to nature or one another.
In “The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age,” Richard Louv wrote that “The more high tech we become, the more nature we need,” and evidence that connecting with nature boosts our creativity, mental acuity, health, sense of well-being, economies, communities, and strengthens human bonds. In fact, the more that nature is woven into our communities, the healthier our society will become. “Studying the impact of the natural world on the brain is actually a scandalously new idea. … The Japanese work is essential, a Rosetta Stone. … We have to validate the ideas scientifically, through stress physiology, or we’re still stuck at Walden Pond,” he writes.
Each system in biology requires an exchange of information to stay healthy. The biological, biochemical plant and tree communication system is similar to how the human body’s organs communicate internally. As beneficial as terpenes are for people, their primary role is in the science of plant sociology, the social life of plant communities.
Mycorrhiza is a symbiotic network of plants and fungi that connects tree roots to one another and allows them to communicate messages through chemical exchanges. Trees send terpenes in liquid molecular form to provide nutrition and other compounds to area trees and plants in need. For example, if young trees are lacking certain nutrients, the mother tree can send them. If a tree is attacked by insects, it can send a chemical alert to other area plants and trees to stimulate protective substances that toughen the leaves and make them less appetizing. If a tree is exposed to fire, its warning triggers the emission of a less flammable substance.
We are only now beginning to gain an awareness of the complexity of the forest and to become conscious of our interconnection with nature. Although individuals almost always identify themselves as biophilic nature lovers, our species allows a biophobic psychology of collectives to dominate, attacking and exploiting nature for economic, not ecological, gain.
But according to Arvay, we are eco-psychosomatic beings, formed by and a part of nature. Each attack on the ecosystems is an attack on ourselves. Separation undermines our survival. This is why the critical and promising new scientific field of eco-psychosomatics recognizes the psychological, physical, and ecological connection and unity of the human organism with the natural world.
Marguerite Jill Dye is an artist and writer who divides her time between the Green Mountains of Vermont and Florida’s Gulf Coast.