Welcome to The Jungle
Clare Kelley is video chatting from the floor of her apartment in Washington D.C. Soft fall light fills her living room with a warm glow and a large green plant peeks into the right of the frame. On the other side, a wall-mounted fern, maybe a staghorn, appears to balance on her head like a delicate fascinator. The plants are only two of almost 80 that fill her apartment, blurring the line between where the indoors ends, and the world of the outdoors begins.
Kelley was first drawn towards the urban outdoors after she suffered an environmental illness caused by mold. The very walls that were supposed to keep her safe had betrayed her, and she wanted anything but to be inside. Through this experience, her relationship with the outdoors deepened and she began questioning the perceived distance between what is ‘outside’ and what is ‘nature.’ Society said that outside was what was right beyond her door. It was concrete sidewalks and asphalt roadways, streetlights and traffic cones. Nature was amorphous, seemingly unreachable in such an urban space. It wasn’t accessible; it was something one must search for.
“We’ve convinced ourselves that beauty and the outdoors is a luxury,” she reflects today, and so ‘the outdoors’ and ‘nature’ were intrinsically different from ‘urban’ and ‘closeby.’ Once she’d realized that nature was everywhere, and infinitely accessible, the question became, “how do we start to realize that these spaces are available for everyone?”
The pursuit of an answer led Kelley towards becoming a Certified Forest Therapy Guide. The certification process includes an eight-day training during which the participants are immersed in nature, and Kelley was nervous that she’d return home only to discover a newfound hatred for the urban D.C. life. While she says that she “was in shock for a bit,” beyond the readjustment period was a realization that she truly does love her city, and a confirmation that she wants to help others in loving it — especially it’s green spaces.
As time plugged in has skyrocketed, time outdoors has plummeted. Today, we spend more time fiddling with or staring at technology than we do with our feet in the grass, an average of more than 10 hours each day according to a 2016 report by Nielsen. Experiencing nature has been replaced with watching it play out on television programs with grandiose titles like Planet Earth, Life, and Wild Africa. While such programs purport to bring the magic of the mystical outdoors into spaces it has been exorcised from, there will always be something sterile about a screen. Time outside and in nature has been found to have positive impacts on our physical and mental health and decreased time has been linked to increases in depression and anxiety.
A 1991 study conducted by researchers at Texas A&M University and the University of Delaware, and published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, found that exposure to “unthreatening natural environments” can have a “stress reducing or restorative influence.” Exposure to urban environments, on the other hand, “will hamper recuperation,” following stressful situations (Ulrich et al.). The findings are powerful evidence of the benefits even short periods of time in nature can provide. Despite this, the 2017 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report by the Outdoor Foundation found that only 48.8% of American’s participated in any outdoor activity in 2016.
At some point in time, and surely long before the first iPhone, telephone, or even train, a line was drawn between what is ‘nature’ and what is not, what is ‘outdoors’ and what is simply outside. As cities have grown, the tendency to encase urbanized environs in a hermetically sealed bubble has emerged alongside it. Wilderness is something separate and far away, and even parks are a commodity.
The ability to access what is classified as a ‘nature’ has become a privilege primarily available to those who can afford country homes, cars, train tickets, or even to live by a park that isn’t coated in asphalt. Author Richard Louv coined the term Nature-Deficit Disorder in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. While Nature-Deficit Disorder is not a DSM-5 diagnosable disorder, it has gained traction as a catchall term for the adverse effects of being disconnected from green space. More than ten years after the publication of Last Child in the Woods, giving the problem a name hasn't diminished its pervasiveness. If anything, it's grown in prevalence.
The urban, and even suburban, human relationship with green space has come to revolve around finding feeding times for nature cravings. We slip trysts with trees, mountains, prairies, and streams between Netflix marathons. In New York City, ‘walking the dog’ sometimes seems to have become synonymous with ‘taking a conference call,’ as bodies with headphones in are pulled along by impatient pups. But is it even a walk if you can’t hear the snow crunch beneath your feet? And is it time unplugged if phantom vibrations haunt you even when you do leave your phone at home?
However, initiatives around the United States are fighting to pop the bubble between the urban and the outdoors by welcoming what we love about the wilds into developed areas. A 2012 resolution from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress affirms that every child has a right to connect with nature. Recognition that time outdoors is both imperative for conservation and a human right is, Louv says, “progress,” but it can’t just be about getting people out into what we traditionally conceive of as nature. It also has to be about finding ways to make nature more accessible by bringing it into our cities and our neighborhoods, our schools, offices, and homes.
The walks Clare Kelley offers are designed to be self-moderated therapeutic outings, an experience known in the United States as ‘forest bathing’ that is based on the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, a form of medicinal therapy that was developed in the 1980s and has been documented to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and improve participants psychological well being. Located in green spaces that are accessible for urban dwellers, such as Rock Creek Park, Kelley prices the walks on a sliding scale so that no one is excluded based on their socioeconomic status. “For me,” she says, “it’s just not honorable to make the outdoors another place of exclusivity when it’s the most inclusive place there is.”
On the walks, Kelley leads participants in what, she identifies as the most important part of the time spent outside: noticing. By creating liminal space where time is slower, Kelley invites those on her walks to tune into the world around them. Sometimes that even means accepting the background noise of the city as part of nature.
Rather than labeling the sound of a man yelling as in intrusion, Kelley works to accept the landscape as it is. That doesn’t mean ignoring when a cosmetic disturbance, like a man yelling, could become a risk factor, like when someone approached her in a park with a crowbar. Rather, “it’s a toggle between accepting people for who they are,” while still “creating boundaries around yourself.” That is, she adds, “our whole relationship with nature. Allowing the wildness to come in, but not total entropy.” Through this process of tuning in, noticing, and acceptance, “nature connection becomes culture repair.”
City dwellers interested in such experiences can find Forest Therapy Guides in their area through the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides & Programs ‘Worldwide Forest Therapy Guide Locator Map’, which provides information on guides in places including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, Boston, and even as far afield internationally as Tasmania. May city parks also offer self-guided walks and tours that can be turned into forest bathing experiences through the application of the same judgment-free thoughtfulness that Kelley advocates for.
On Manhattan’s East River, another type of forest bathing is taking place onboard a floating food forest called Swale. The idea for Swale, which is the brainchild of artist Mary Mattingly, was partially birthed out of a gap in legislation. While growing food for public consumption on public lands, like in a park, is illegal in New York City, it isn’t illegal on the waterways that surround Manhattan. This is probably because legislators didn’t expect anyone to build an edible garden atop a barge.
Lonny Grafman, Author of To Catch the Rain and Swale’s Sustainability Advisor and Project Manager, is a leading expert in rainwater harvesting and assists in steering Swale. He hopes that it will serve as a blueprint for bigger projects to come — both in acreage and impact. Open seasonally, Swale offers numerous free opportunities including ‘open hours,’ cooking classes, workshops, and educational programming. All of the experiences are tactile and focus on nurturing a physical connection between visitors and the nearly 100 varieties of plants on board.
Impactful opportunities for reconnecting with nature that are accessible and affordable for urban-dwellers can feel difficult to track down. Nevertheless, they are increasing in supply. After seeing how short-term opportunities can leave kids unable to process their experiences, Outside Perspectives Executive Director Nicola Wood, a Licensed Social Worker and seasoned outdoor program leader, committed herself to working with existing youth-focused programs that can provide support and community before, during, and after their expeditions. Denver-based organization SOS Outreach provides thousands of at-risk youth with outdoor opportunities year-round that include skiing, rock climbing, and hiking.
And not all experiences need to be structured, or limited to the young. If you’re in New Orleans, head to Ochsner Island, a small island in the middle of the Audubon Park lagoon, where hundreds of birds nest each year. Portland Parks & Recreation in Portland, Oregon offers guided walks, camps, and classes focused on the diverse ecosystems present in the city. Chicago’s Nature Oasis program provides a similar array of opportunities that are searchable through the My Chi Parks app. The increased emphasis cities are putting on providing access to green space shows a shift towards what Louv calls a “nature-rich city,” erasing the line between urban and ‘outdoors.’
Even so, a 2017 study in the UK found that the majority of interactions urban community members were having with nature were being experienced by only half of the population — so the number of ‘interactions’ didn’t line up with the number of people actually taking part. Even fewer of the people who did report interacting with nature were doing so purposefully, with many reporting that their ‘interactions’ were incidental (Cox et al. 2017). There was a lot of looking at trees through office windows, but sitting under those trees was far less common.
Windows aren’t cutting it. “If we are going to have meaningful experiences with nature,” Louv says, “we are going to have to rethink nature within cities,” at a larger scale than is currently happening. For the time being, it’s up to the people to take charge. Louv’s newest book, Vitamin N, provides parents (or anyone looking to reconnect with nature) with 500 nature-based activities to try out. Even small actions do add up if they are thoughtful, purposeful, and repeated.
On chilly fall days in Brooklyn, NY, visitors walked into a cold white room at the Victori + Mo art gallery, relinquished their phones, picked up a flashlight, and wandered into a dark forest. Guided by the narrow beams of light, they explored the tactile space. (The Ray Lee Project Vol. 1) NDD Immersion Room, an installation by artist Rachel Lee Hovnanian named after Nature-Deficit Disorder, was designed to transport and challenge. It succeeds at both. While some visitors settle down beside the crackling (simulated) campfire, others itch for their phones.
“There is a constant power relationship between the visitors, and the surrender of technology,” Hovnanian says, “In silence, the seated viewer becomes part of the semi-artificial wild surrounding the campfire. Some visitors feel helpless without technology, some are excited by it, and some find it meditative.” Through this, the visitor becomes as much of a piece of the work as the campfire — “Without their response to it,” Hovnanian says, “there is no reflection.”
And the purpose is reflection. Reflection on self, reflection on nature, reflection on technology, and reflection on the relationship between the three. It is a project in disconnect and reconnection. You are not in nature, but it feels as if you may be. You are stripped of your technology, but you’re surrounded by it. You’re immersed in an experience, but the world, like your phone, waits just outside.
Hovnanian’s piece plays into the three senses that Kelley says can be developed through a stronger connection with nature. Proprioception, our sense of our physical place in the world, interoception, our sense of our internal operations, and intuition, the invisible guide our connection to technology and disconnect from nature seem to have muffled. Rediscovering these ways of knowing and listening to ourselves is a direct benefit of being outdoors.
“We need to imagine a future,” Louv says, “in which our lives are as immersed in nature every day as much as they are in technology, and this includes a new kind of city that incorporates nature into every building and on every block – which serves to restore residents psychologically, physically, even spiritually.” We need more green indoors, like Clare Kelley’s plant-filled apartment, and we need more time outside. We need to trade plastic for trees, cabs for bikes and need to do a better job at making nature accessible for all because it is everywhere.
It’s a futuristic vision for sure, but it’s also one that is immensely simple. It’s only logical that if a tree can grow in Brooklyn, a heron can nest in the middle of New Orleans, an edible garden can float on Manhattan’s East River, and an artist can transform a white-walled gallery into a nearly outdoor experience, then nature-enriched lives can be nurtured right alongside them.
Did You Know?
Swale produces about 400 pounds of food per season. (source)
The average eight-year-old can better identify cartoon characters than native species, such as species of birds and oak trees, in their own city. (source)
University of Illinois study found children with ADHD concentrated more after a 20-minute walk in a natural area (compared to a similar walk in an urban setting). (source)
Wanna Dig Deeper?
Outside Magazine: Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning by Florence Williams
Book: A Little Handbook of Shinrin-yoku by M. Amos Clifford
NPR Podcast: Forest Bathing: A Retreat To Nature Can Boost Immunity And Mood by Allison Aubrey
Book: Our National Parks by John Muir
Background, Context & Reference
Nielsen: The Total Audience Report: Q1 2016
Science Direct: Using Nature and Outdoor Activity to Improve Children's Health
Outdoor Foundation: Outdoor Participation Report
Swale: A Floating Food Forest
City of Chicago: Nature in the City - Environmental Programs
More From This Issue
LSD, Creativity, and the Modern Psychedelic Renaissance by Kristi Pahr
Another Set of Shoes: Life Below the Poverty Line by Nikki Yeager
Art Lovers, Halt! by Alexandra Israel