WWB Wise Guru: Florence Williams is an American journalist and nonfiction author whose work focuses on the environment, health and science. She is a contributing editor at Outside magazine and a freelance writer for National Geographic, the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books, Slate, Mother Jones, High Country News, O-Oprah, W., Bicycling and numerous other publications.
Her first book, Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in science and technology and the 2013 Audie in general nonfiction. The New York Times named it a notable book of 2012.
She was a Scripps Fellow at the Center of Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado. She is a fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature and a visiting scholar at George Washington University. She serves on the board of nonprofit environmental magazine, High Country News.
WWB Featured Book: ‘The Nature Fix, Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative’ explores the science behind our connection to nature and proposes that for optimal well-being, regular doses of nature are not only recommended but required.
Lauroly Opening- I am so honored and pleased Florence Williams could join me for a Q&A. Her book is a favorite of mine, and so glad she wrote it. Perhaps it’s a favorite because it speaks to me on a very personal level. Nature has always been my fix, without a doubt. Having said this, I never classified myself as ‘Nature Girl’. I didn’t camp as a kid and I didn’t hike until my 20’s. But being outside and playing in nature was always a big part of my life experience. I can thank my Dad for that. I have this in common with the author! I only saw him on weekends growing up, and every weekend, weather permitted, we were either horseback riding in the woods, walking in the woods, or rowing a boat on a lake next to the woods. Those early experiences and the need to be outdoors has never left me. I like the term Florence used in the book, “drinking the tonic of nature.”I wrote a piece for this very blog on Nature Therapy in 2015 and briefly discussed ‘Forest Bathing’ in Japan which she covers quite extensively in the book. Later in my life, traveling for business, I would always make a point to find a Public Garden no matter where I was, so I could reconnect with nature and myself. Reading ‘The Nature Fix’ confirmed what I have had always felt intuitively about nature…I’m a part of it and it’s a part of me.
Besides my personal connection to the topic of your book, I found it to be the perfect non-fiction book. It is well researched, highly informative and very entertaining as well. I love how she takes us through the research via her own personal travel. Her travel takes us to Japan, Korea, Singapore, Finland, Sweden, Scotland, and we learn a lot about their cultures and wellness philosophies. Florence packed so much into this book, I found myself really challenged about where to start. I remind myself that I do these Q&A’s to recommend books and motivate people to go and read the books. I hope to touch on some of the many important findings in this book…
Lauroly Q- Welcome Florence Williams! So if everyone hasn’t heard yet, nature is good for civilization! What you set out to do is to find the science to support why nature is so important to our humanity and our everyday well-being. To do that we need to understand our senses and how much of how we function is synced with nature. It seems to me that when we are out in nature we are fully alive, because many of our senses are engaged in our experience. This explains to me personally why I am generally happier when I am outside. There is an enlightening chapter where you focus on a man in Sweden who experienced a personal tragedy and later came to understand how important nature therapy is to patients with depression. Yet like everything else with humans, the dose of nature varies from human to human. What do we know so far about nature as therapy? Tell us more…
Lauroly Q– Glad you started with Japan. We can’t discuss your book without talking about ‘ Shinren Yoku (Forest Bathing)’. What is it about the Japanese culture, that has them embracing Forest Bathing so fervently that it has become part of their national healthcare policy? When you asked Miyazaki why nature is so important to their culture, he had this to say, “In our culture, nature is part of our minds and bodies and philosophy. In our tradition, all things are relative to something else.” Loved his answer. But it is amazing how the Japanese ended up being so far removed from the very thing that defined them isn’t it?
Florence Williams: Japan industrialized very quickly. The cities grew fast and there was intense economic competition for good jobs, good schooling and feeding the corporate culture. People are stressed out there, and they work and study incredibly long hours, effectively removing them from a lot of time in the countryside. But it would be mistake to say that modern life has disconnected them from nature. The Japanese still internalize a close connection to plants, for example, in their practices of bonsai and flower arranging, in their tiny gardens and through their lens of wabi sabi, which celebrates the seasons and simple nature. I think in many ways the Japanese definition of nature is more generous that the western one, which looks at spaces like parks and wilderness areas, rather than integrating elements of the natural world into everyday life and homes. That said, the Japanese do seem to relish getting outside when they can. As a result of Miyazaki’s data, the country has designated 48 “forest therapy” trails where overworked, urban citizens are now urged to go unwind, and it looks like more trails are being created.
Lauroly Q- One of the things I was wondering about while reading about your research in Finland, is related to Vitamin D (sun) and the deprivation they experience in winter. Have any researchers looked at how tree therapy might counteract the negative effects of not having enough sun? This is a good time to tell us about why Cypress Trees seem to have such a positive effect on our senses. As you put it, in the book “we enjoy a neural bath of happy hormones”! Below is a quick video you created to illustrate the beneficial effects of nature…
Florence Williams: Trees are certainly magical and wonderful, and hit a lot of our happy buttons, from providing rich visuals, especially fractal patterns (known to promote alpha brainwaves) to creating habitat for birds that in turn relax us with their birdsong. The smell piece is fascinating, as tree aerosols from cypress trees in Japan were found to lower blood pressure and increase Killer T immune cells in humans. That said, even in Finland and even in winter, being outside provides more brightness and full-spectrum light than being inside, and so the light aspect is still important. Full spectrum light is linked to wellbeing, and vitamin D is linked to all sorts of good things, from shaping our retinas to strengthening our bones. The lumens outside is generally 10 times greater than the lumens inside, except of course at night. Even the darkness, though, can help reset our circadian rhythms so we sleep better.
Lauroly Q- As a psychology major I found a lot of the research on education, and brain disorders like ADHD fascinating with respect to nature. Besides the specific special needs of children on the spectrum, your book explores the idea that children in general really need nature and play. I loved the section on Friedrich Frobel and his research. He focused on cultivating curiosity and freedom in childhood. Tell us how ‘kindergarten’ was originally conceptualized, and how nature was at the center of child education…
Florence Williams: Friedrich Froebel, who was born in Germany in 1782, was an educator heavily influenced by Rousseau, who said, “Everything is good as it comes from the hands of the Author of Nature.” Rousseau and Froebel both made a case for allowing young children to explore and learn based on their own curiosity. Froebel believed that an education filled with nature and art could instill a lifelong readiness to learn and also develop empathy and a love for living things. He really invented kindergarten, and it was nature-based from the beginning. Unfortunately, many cultures now consider kindergarten the new first-grade, and are taking children inside to sit at desks and learn their academics. We are not devoting enough time to considering what has been lost in this new model.
Lauroly Closing: I hope we don’t lose that model. Cultures change, but we don’t have to lose the wisdom that has already been acquired, especially when it comes to child development. Thank you Florence for joining me at World Wise Beauty, to discuss your important and wonderful book. I am going to make it my personal duty to share this book with everyone! I know they will love it and your research will resonate for them. I believe we are realizing nature is not a luxury but an absolute essential to our personal wellness, our humanity and our culture. See you out there Florence!
Florence Williams Closing: Thanks so much for your interest, Lauroly. It was so much fun reporting and writing this book, and it’s certainly made me spend more time outside. I will hope it will influence others as well.