INTO THE WOODS

THE CURE FOR NATURE DEFICIT DISORDER

By Shilagh Mirgain | Photographed by Hillary Schave

A large magnolia tree blooming pink and white petals lived in the front yard of my childhood home in Holland. For hours I would sit against its sturdy trunk planning all sorts of adventures.

To my excitement, my father hung a swing from its large branch and my tree and I played together for what felt like countless hours. When I was upset, confused or saddened, the tree was a place of refuge and provided a sense of comfort and peace. It filled me with a feeling that there was something important I came here to do. When I was 12, we moved away to a condo in Chicago and I became busy with school and academic achievement. Living in this city landscape I stopped looking at trees. I forgot that a magnolia had once been my friend.

I wasn’t alone in becoming disconnected from the natural world. Never before have humans lived so separate from nature. It’s considered so much of an epidemic that psychologists have a term for it: Nature Deficit Disorder. And it’s costing us. Adults and children alike are spending more time behind screens in urban settings and away from the natural world-and the nature deficit is a contributing factor to increased levels of emotional, behavioral and physical problems. Obesity is on the rise; there is a high prevalence of ADHD in children; mental health issues are increasing and physical health problems are rising.

Nature features significantly less into popular culture today than it did in the first half of the 20th century. Pelin Kesebir from the Center for Healthy Minds in Madison, together with her sister Selin Kesebir, conducted research on the subject, finding cause for concern. “Across millions of fiction books, thousands of songs, and hundreds of thousands of movie and documentary storylines, our analyses revealed a clear and consistent trend that for every three nature-related words in the 1950s there is only slightly more than one 50 years later. This suggests we are not living as closely tied to nature as we used to.

“It is cause for concern as I can hardly overstate the positive impact of nature on our wellbeing,” Kesebir says.

Study after study documents the psychological, physical, and societal health benefits of connecting with nature. Spending time in nature enhances coping with stress, improves quality of sleep, increases a sense of vitality and helps develop a more positive outlook on life. Just taking a short walk in a park compared to a city street decreases stress hormones, improves thinking and even memory, relieves mental fatigue, improves focus and helps boost mood.  And there has even been research that suggests individuals who live within a half-mile of a park or wooded area experience less anxiety and depression than those who live farther away.

“A disconnect from nature thus means unrealized gains, if not outright losses in our overall wellbeing,” Kesebir emphasizes. “Furthermore, affinity and appreciation for nature strongly predicts proenvironmental attitudes and behaviors. There is another reason why we regard our findings as troublesome. Cultural products such as songs and films not only reflect the prevailing culture—they also shape it. The flagging cultural attention to nature means a muting of the message that nature is worth paying attention to. It also means a loss of opportunities to awaken curiosity, appreciation, awe and respect for nature. Those are exactly what we need at a time like this, when nature seems to need our attention and care more than ever.”

Kesebir suggests prioritizing time spent in nature. Taking vacations that incorporate being outdoors, getting to a local park on a weekend, taking a short walk during your lunch hour or even bringing plants into your office and home are all beneficial.  And on those days when you don’t have time for a nature break, simply look up nature scenes on your computer. Taking this type of short virtual nature break can also have a positive impact on your wellbeing.

Locally, women are striving to ensure we have more of the wild. Betsy Delzer, mindful practices specialist at the Middleton Cross Plains Area School District, understands the value of time spent in nature. Her love of the natural world spurred her to create Mindful Forest Therapy workshops for teachers and staff exploring the concept of Shinrin-Yoku, a Japanese term that literally translates to “forest bathing.” This spring, 40 participants, including two senior level administrators and district superintendent George Mavroulis, spent three hours at Pheasant Branch Conservancy diving into personal narrative and memories of the woods/nature in reflection exercises and mindfully walking through the woods. “It’s a chance to slow down and soak up the sights, sounds and smells of the environment in a way that can only be experienced when you are moving slowly and out of your normal routine,” Delzer says.

She cites the evidence-based benefits to Shinrin-Yoku such as lowered stress, calmer states of being and mind, increased wellbeing and regulation of heart rate correlated closely with the scientific findings around meditation and contemplative practices. Delzer reflects, “I thought there could be a way to merge the two; I asked, ‘Can we think outside the literal box of the walls of a school and tools we already employ to help our students, head outdoors and use our mindful awareness of our senses to engage in alternate strategies for calming and centering?’ Turns out we can!” This compelling evidence, combined with the initiative to carve more space for mindful practices while responding to the needs of staff and students, has inspired Delzer’s desire to bring more of education outdoors, off-line and into nature.

Nature was an important part of growing up for Delzer. “Getting outside feels like coming home,” she reminisces. “As a small child I had a particular fondness for tiny beautiful blossoms, leaves, and buds. Growing older I spent time in the woods, creating ‘castles’ while scaling trees and eventually studying methods of coexisting in the woods without drawing attention to my presence, a practice I learned from friends, summer camps and reading about the greats like Tom Brown Jr.  Now, as an educator and parent, I turn to the greatest teachers of all: our highly curious and open-hearted children who see so much more than, for example, the root of a tree—they see the ‘claws holding hands with the earth,’ they marvel at the crinkling sounds under our feet, and find crevasses and nooks that must be fairy and gnome homes.”

A love of nature gets created from exposure to nature, especially as a child. This was part of the catalyst for Tina Murray, a recently retired experiential teacher at Shabazz High School for over 21 years in Madison. She created Project Green Teen, a semester-long program focusing on cold-water stream ecology, leadership and healthy life choices.

The program is in its 13th year and takes students for a week during second semester into Southwestern Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. Each day involves one-third hands on experience, one-third service component and one-third moving beyond personal comfort zones doing things like canoeing, fly fishing, hiking and foraging.

In terms of student learning, research has proved that one week of experiential education equals six weeks of classroom studies, students learn more in less time and in real-world settings. There are five such programs in the nation—four of them are college level. Environmental colleges are offering Project Green Teen students scholarships to attend their schools.

Throughout the weeklong experiences in nature, students develop 21st century soft skills of problem-solving, communication and teamwork. They cultivate confidence, learn to be strong, safe and secure in themselves, and experience greater self-efficacy. “There are nightly campfire reflections during the trip designed to help students realize their daily accomplishments, present new constructs for them to integrate into who they are being and to practice appreciating the experiences,” says Murray.

At the campfire she says students share things like, “I had no idea I could do as much as I did this week” and “I now realize I am capable of doing so much more than I do back home.” Murray says the students are absolutely transformed and see new possibilities for their lives—career paths, passions, strategies to reduce stress and new ways of being that are more successful. They focus on their strengths instead of their flaws. Students’ time in nature allows them to deeply access their sense of capability as a human being and builds competence and self-confidence. They come away grounded and much more able to interact with others in a positive way.

Students look up at the stars and reflect on their experiences, noting that the same beautiful stars are over their heads “back home” and it is powerful for them to realize that place and past history do not dictate personal capabilities or success. When students return home, they work harder, are stronger risk takers, are more confident and feel more is possible for their futures. Many go on to college, the Peace Corps and Serve America after graduation.

Through Project Green Teen, Murray wanted to share the same inspiration and creativity she experienced in nature in childhood. She grew up in the country and was the oldest of three siblings, feeling free to go anywhere and do anything. She built things from grass, from twigs; had to figure out how to make things work and spent hours being creative in the natural world.

As an adult, Murray regularly gets out in nature. “I always feel better when I see a tree or am by a stream, all the stress falls away. There’s just that moment where you breathe better because you are in nature. You see amazing things, and it’s one of the reasons I fish alone and walk for miles on streams. You can look at a picture or you can put yourself in the picture and notice the birds, the possum, the mink, the flowing water and feel connected to life. Nature teaches you that you can be the solution to your own problems. You can create your own opportunities as everything you need in your life is close at hand,” she says.

Project Green Teen allows students to learn they are capable of creating solutions in their lives and don’t have to wait for others to direct them.  When youth are allowed to be in nature and play freely they become engineers, designers, mathematicians, astronauts, they build rafts and forts and learn about systems, science and teamwork. They learn that competence is built through trial and error and confidence is built by finding workable solutions. They learn that they are stronger than what they believed themselves to be because they are able to have experiences that are meaningful in their lives.

Currently, Murray wants to encourage women to value time in nature and develop greater confidence through developing nature skills. She currently offers a very popular women’s fly fishing clinic annually through Wisconsin Women’s Fly Fishing and hosted by Southern Wisconsin Trout Unlimited. She is also developing an outdoor women’s adventure company that plans to host trips getting women into the great outdoors in various capacities. Extending on fly fishing and expanding into other areas, her shenanigansflyfishing.com will have women in nature and up to something amazing.

Nature offers us something beyond what human companionship can provide. A few years ago, I traveled back to Holland and made a point of visiting my tree. As I rounded the bend and saw my magnolia waving its branches in recognition in the soft gentle breeze, I was reminded of the gift of lingering in the natural world. There is a remembering that happens; something in us is restored; something is made whole again. We connect back to the cycles and rhythms of our life, open up to the great mystery of the earth and encounter our interdependence with all living things. And from this vantage point, we remember why we are here; to tread softly through the world, to open our hearts wide and deep and to let our light shine brightly.


Betsy Delzer works with schools from Middleton and Milwaukee to the Twin Cities and has branched out as far as Seattle. Find out more about her work outside Middleton at omyeahyogamovement.com. If you want to begin your own exploration, look at this site for teachers and parents, featuring Delzer and her middle school daughter. omyeahyoga.com.

To get out on the stream with Tina Murray, register for the 2018 Women’s Fly Fishing Clinics. Visit swtu.org/learn/womens-fly-fishing-clinic.

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