Milky Way

The Milky Way crosses the sky above the East Verde River.

Still dripping from my dip, I’m thinking as I sit.

The East Verde River tickles my toes.

The wind caresses the cottonwoods.

The swifts dart through the gorge, gorging on insects.

In the willows, a yellow warbler warbles.

I’m feeling very healthy. Calm. Not at all impulsive.

Ah. You look confused.

Let me back up.

An hour ago I was futzing around on my favorite website, Science Daily, when I came across a spritely study saying people who spend just two hours a week in nature report better health and well-being. Wealth, race, education — all that don’t matter. Once they pass that two-hours-a-week threshold, things improve. The findings hold for people who visit forests, county parks and beaches.

The study involved 20,000 people in England, the University of Exeter Medical School researchers reported in Scientific Reports, a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Now, this sounded intriguing — especially since I’ve been idly considering the merits of leaving my paradise on the banks of the East Verde to seek a job in some urban space like Phoenix.

But the research sounded pretty vague, so I kept poking around.

Then this doozy of a study showed up in the online peer-reviewed journal PLOS One, conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins, the University of Montana and elsewhere.

Just the summary of previous research on the link between nature and human mental and physical health made me want to go sit in the creek. Turns out, previous studies have shown that regular exposure to nature will reduce symptoms of hyperactivity in children, improve the health of cancer patients, prompt an increase in anti-cancer proteins in the body, reduce high blood pressure, reduce heart rate variability, reduce depression and increase production of vitamin D, nitric oxide and beta-endorphins. Nature also improves regulation of circadian rhythms, which affect everything from blood pressure to sleep patterns.

The researcher accepted the overwhelming link between nature exposure and health, but sought to understand how that works. Previous studies have suggested several possible mechanisms.

First, nature exposure seems to reduce stress. Second, nature may help us concentrate and think clearly, presumably by reducing the distressing jangling of modern life. Nature exposure also seems to also increase social cohesion as well as physical activity, both linked to improved health.

The Johns Hopkins and University of Montana researchers had a complementary theory. They wondered whether time in nature reduces our tendency toward impulsive decision-making — like when you fill up on Twinkies instead of waiting until you get home to make a nice chicken salad. This theory was built on previous research linking poor health with impulsivity.

Moreover, they theorized that nature slows us down and makes the world feel larger, instead of feeling as claustrophobic as a back alley.

The researchers surveyed a couple thousand people to measure both health and time spent in nature. The researchers determined whether the people surveyed lived close to nature.

Sure enough, the more time people spent in nature or living close by natural spaces, the more their health and mental well-being improved and the less impulsive their decision-making. Exposure to nature also has a significant impact on our special sense — a feeling that the world’s spacious and friendly.

The study had an immediate effect on me. I impulsively pulled on my water shoes and took my faithful Loki down to the creek to gather anecdotal evidence.

Sure enough: The world feels huge, and friendly.

I don’t feel at all like eating Twinkies — although a bottle of wine would be nice.

But I’m not sure I’ve gotten a big enough dose.

So check back with me in, oh, let’s say two hours.

The black hawk’s keening downstream, so I must to be ready in case he flies past.

So maybe you should just come on down. Bring the wine.

We can dip and drip and sip.

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