A journalist explores the relationship between nature and human well-being.
In this upbeat, brightly conversational account, Outside contributing editor Williams (Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, 2012) travels widely to track down the best science behind “our deep, cranial connection to natural landscapes.” Nature restores us, making us “healthier, more creative, more empathetic and more apt to engage with the world and with each other,” she writes, echoing the thinking of writers over the centuries, most recently biologist E.O. Wilson, whose concept of biophilia posits a bond between humans and nature, and Richard Louv, who wrote the important Last Child in the Woods (2008). Williams draws on interviews with psychologists, neuroscientists, and others, as well as experiences on wilderness field trips, in search of credible evidence of nature’s benefits. Her stories of scientific findings are fascinating: how leisurely forest walks have led to decreases in cortisol levels in one study and, in another, to increases in immune-boosting killer T cells in women with breast cancer after two weeks in a forest. In the stress-ridden, rapidly urbanizing Asian nations, the author encountered, with skepticism, “healing forests,” whose smells are said to alleviate disease; the author notes, “the power of belief is hard to overestimate.” In outdoor and nature programs in Finland, Scotland, and elsewhere, she finds much encouraging anecdotal evidence of nature’s benefits. Former military members suffering from PTSD describe the therapeutic effects of a wilderness trip along the Salmon River; adolescents with learning disabilities appear to benefit from outdoor activities. Many scientists are convinced of such benefits, but their studies, however suggestive, have been small, and they leave unresolved the importance of other factors (exercise, social contact, etc.). “These are difficult things to quantify by science,” says one researcher of “the power and mystery of the great outdoors.” Nonetheless, there is no doubt that nature is good for us, concludes Williams.
A thoughtful, refreshing book with a simple but powerful message: “Go outside, often, sometimes in wild places. Bring friends or not. Breathe.”