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The outdoors hath charms to soothe the savage beast

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Memorial Day weekend often heralds the first “summer” outing. Whether it’s a backyard barbecue, wilderness camping trip or just some time in the garden, it’s relaxing to be outdoors. Of course we need a break from the daily grind, but there’s evidence that trees, grass and waterways soothe us more than a day off spent indoors.

Animals deprived of nature habitat become violent. They begin to exhibit behaviors that are uncharacteristic to their species; social bonds break down and illness increases. This is true for all animals, even unusual ones.

OK, guess this animal: It’s in the phylum Chordata, meaning it has a backbone, which rules out bugs and crawlies, not a big clue. Its class is Mammalia; females of this species produce milk to nurse their young. It’s in the order Primate, which narrows it down a lot. Its family is Hominidae,its genus is Homo, and Sapien is the species.

Trick question (sorry); it’s us. It’s true that humans are set apart from other species in very significant ways, but we’re still animals. As such, we’re hard-wired to be immersed in the natural world. Dr. Frances Kuo from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana says humans living in landscapes that lack trees or other natural features undergo patterns of social, psychological and physical breakdown that are strikingly similar to those observed in other animals that have been deprived of their natural habitat.

Among other findings, Dr. Kuo’s research demonstrates that elderly adults live longer if their homes are near a park or other green space, regardless of their social or economic status, and that college students do better on cognitive tests when their dorm windows view natural settings.

Her research also shows that children with ADHD have fewer symptoms after outdoor activities in lush environments.

Worldwide, people are drawn to nature, even if it’s only a picture. In particular, we find the savannah, where we first became human 200,000 years ago, very appealing. We gravitate toward similar landscapes such as parks, and we model our yards in the same way. Through our DNA, as well as other genetic material called epigenes, we’re inextricably linked to the natural world.

This hard-wiring has been demonstrated by real-time brain imaging. The types of patterns one encounters in nature, whether in pine cones, nautilus shells, diatoms, snowflakes, tree branches, or sand dunes, are called fractal patterns. Bird song and the sound of waves breaking are similar patterns. Fractal patterns, it turns out, profoundly affect our brain waves in positive ways.

A February 2014 article in theguardian.com outlines how hospital patients in rooms with tree views have shorter hospital stays and less need for pain medication compared to patients without such natural vistas. It goes on to say that after just an hour in a natural setting, memory performance and attention span improves 20 percent.

Researchers at the University of Rochester report that exposure to the natural world leads people to nurture close relationships, value community more, and to be more generous.

As an arborist, I’ve long cited research showing that planting trees reduces crime substantially. Trees also increase property values, and incidentally, get people to spend more money. Whether it’s plants at the mall or trees in the downtown shopping districts, people spend their greenbacks more in green spaces.

Not only do we respond in to nature, we haven’t lost our ability to engage with it. A recent study proved that humans can track pretty well by scent. Those with sight impairments have been using echolocation for some years now, but another recent finding is that we can echolocate nearly as well as bats.

When asked if humans need nature, Dr. Kuo replied “As a scientist I can’t tell you. I’m not ready to say that, but as a mother who knows the scientific literature, I would say, yes.” Whether we need it or just want it, we’re at our best in nature, so take advantage of its many benefits.

Paul Hetzler is a horticultural and natural resource educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

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