For me, it all starts with my senses. There is a definite spark of happiness I feel when I look out my window and see the blue, green, brown, yellow and red living contrasts that can only be produced by nature. I remember family vacations as a child and the wildflowers that grew on the roadsides. The memories I carry as an adult formed when I was young are priceless. Our backyard’s green fescue and white dogwood blooms, the steel-gray trunks. The birds singing on a beautiful spring morning.
These experiences in nature happened often enough that it has imprinted on me a sense of peace and tranquility that without the surroundings of nature as a child might not hold the same meaning today. I can recollect these times and know they had a profound influence on who I am and what I hold dear. I am also able to pull strength from these memories and use the same practice of returning to nature to find peace and calm when needed.
Research supports, and we intuitively understand, that plants that have co-evolved on this continent, the native plants, will attract more insects, birds and other wildlife than non-native plant species from Asia and Europe (Douglas Tallamy, 2009). Native landscapes provide ecosystem services: Ecological services (pollination, photosynthesis, biodiversity, etc.); Economic (tourism, crops, etc.); Regulating (water cycle, flood control, carbon sequestration); and Cultural (recreation, education, aesthetics, mental health).
Habitat loss from the expansion of the suburbs and degradation from invasive non-native species has led to a decrease of places for insects, birds, amphibians and mammals to live and reproduce. Overuse and reliance on pesticides and herbicides and outdated landscape maintenance practices continue to degrade the places we have left. We as a society can no longer afford to separate nature from our everyday living spaces. We must bring it into our lives, not only because of the ecosystem services nature produces but also the intrinsic beauty and health benefits that living among nature provides us.
Sometimes I feel a sense of helplessness about the ecological destruction we see every day in our communities. I started a native plant nursery with the understanding that if I can’t stop the uncontrolled growth, I can at least provide more native habitat to help mitigate the loss. I knew I would be up against contemporary concepts of landscaping and horticulture. I knew I would have a whole lot of convincing and educating to do if I wanted to get people to listen. I knew I would need scientific research and proof to support what I believed to be true.
What I wasn’t prepared for was all the support I have received from like-minded individuals, also saddened and feeling the disconnection from nature as a whole. So many of us are tired of losing the wild places and we are now understanding we can bring those wild places into our lives just outside our own backdoors.
I also started my native plant nursery to be able to share these nature experiences with others, especially children, and to hopefully provide a means for others to find happiness in the extraordinary complex web of life that is this beautiful planet we live on. I believe the saying “in order to save something, you must love it, and to love it, you must know it.”
The natural world creates an endless and constantly evolving opportunity to expand our knowledge and learn new things. If we can inspire both adults and children to stay curious about the natural world, we just might be able to fix some of this planet’s most existential problems. Whether it’s the diversity and interactions of plants, insects, birds, amphibians, etc., a drive to learn more about and care for living things will inspire future generations indefinitely.
But the loss of the places and nature in our lives goes beyond the ecological effects on our planet. More and more we as a species are losing our connection to nature and the profound psychological healing nature provides. The reciprocity of humans and nature has been explored by several hypotheses and theories. The Biophilia Hypothesis explanation is the idea that humans seek out the innate tendency to connect with nature and other forms of life. Initially, the term biophilia was coined by Erich Fromm, an American psychoanalyst, as “a passionate love of life and all that is alive” in his writing “The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness”(1973). Later, Edward O. Wilson in his 1984 writing, “Biophilia,” proposed biophilia is “The tendency of humans to focus on and to affiliate with nature and other life-forms as a genetic basis.” Humans are innately attracted to nature and living things because we have co-evolved with nature. We have, through evolution over thousands and thousands of years, relied on nature for our own survival. Only within the past 200-300 years—a sliver of our existence—have humans diverged from this relationship. And diverge we have. The average American adult spends less than five hours per week outside (Natureofamericans.org). Gregory Bratman Ph.D., an associate professor at University of Washington, and colleagues shared evidence that contact with nature is “associated with increased happiness, subjective well-being, positive affect, positive social interactions, and a sense of meaning and purpose in one’s life, as well as decrease in mental distress”. (Science Advances, Vol.5, No.7, 2019.)
Nature encourages a feeling of belonging and reminds us we are just a small part of the whole. Research has found that higher quality greenspaces with more biodiversity have a greater impact on overall wellbeing than spaces with lower biodiversity. Humans have an innate need for nature because we have co-evolved with it. And nature needs us to care for it now more than ever. The reciprocal relationship we share with our environment is inescapable. However, for those who choose to listen and get involved in protecting the small space they occupy on Earth, the mental, emotional and physical benefits of a life spent in nature are undoubtedly valuable beyond measure.