Can connecting with nature help improve our mental health and personal resilience in the age of COVID-19? Melanie Choukas-Bradley believes it can.
Choukas-Bradley is a trusted source on the subject of nature and its benefits to human health. An award-winning nature book author and Certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide, she leads forest bathing walks and tree tours for the Audubon Naturalist Society, United States Botanic Garden, Smithsonian, Rock Creek Conservancy, Nature Conservancy, Casey Trees, Aspen Institute and other organizations. I got the chance to interview her after she launched her book The Joy of Forest Bathing: Reconnect With Wild Places & Rejuvenate Your Life a couple of years ago. Her passion for nature is awe-inspiring. She led a massive effort to catalog every tree in Washington DC and wrote a field guide in 1981, City of Trees, now on its third edition.
So when she told me about her latest book, Resilience: Connecting with Nature in a Time of Crisis, intended to help all of us leverage nature as a way to combat stress and anxiety in the era of COVID-19, I couldn’t wait to read it, and it’s contents did not disappoint.
This book provides insight and practical ways connecting with nature can help us to become more mindful, more connected to each other and more environmentally aware. I’m thrilled to share with you glimpses into the book’s background and some of the stories inside. I hope you will purchase a copy for yourself and your closest 1,000 friends. It gives a wonderfully positive and empowering message at a time when stress and anxiety levels are high and likely to stay that way for a while.
Leigh Stringer: Tell us about the Audubon Naturalist Society.
Melanie Choukas-Bradley: The Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS) is the oldest conservation organization in the Washington DC area. Founded in 1897 for the protection and study of birds, today the society offers many nature education programs, field trips and classes for adults, children and families, operates a nature preschool and is involved in environmental advocacy, working in concert with other conservation groups. Membership conveys many benefits — discounts in the naturalist shop, discounts for program registration, a quarterly publication, and I think, most important, a sense of community with other nature lovers and conservation-minded people! I have been leading nature trips and teaching classes for ANS for many years.
LS: The publisher’s story behind your book is pretty impressive. Can give give a little context as to why you wrote it in ten days? I understand your book is one of several coming out on the topic of resilience.
MCB: All ten authors of the books in the “Resilience” series felt a sense of urgency to write books quickly enough so that books that were contracted in late March could be published by early May. Changemakers Books, an imprint of the John Hunt Publishing Company, usually takes 18 months to publish a book from the time it’s contracted. In this case, in order to respond to the urgent needs of the global pandemic, ten books were brought forth within forty days.
LS: I love the John Muir quote from your book, “Going out is really going in.” Can you elaborate?
MCB: The full quote is: “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out ’til sundown, for going out I found was really going in.” I think Muir’s words speak to the inner and outer harmony he felt when he was with nature. I know I feel in touch with my own heart, mind and soul when I’m walking in a beautiful beloved place — and I feel no urgency to go back indoors!
Leigh Stringer: The story you write about Ann Frank and the horse-chestnut tree really captivated me. I only learned recently of this tree’s connection to Washington DC!
Melanie Choukas-Bradley: Anne Frank wrote in her diary about the horse-chestnut she could see through the window from her hiding place in Amsterdam. Anne died in a concentration camp at the age of 15 and the tree she loved and wrote about lived into the 21st century, finally succumbing to a windstorm. Trees were propagated from the original tree and one of them was planted on the US Capitol grounds in 2014. I always take people to see the Anne Frank tree during my tours of the historic trees of the Capitol grounds.
LS: Can you explain the concept of phenology and why it’s so important for human health?
MCB: Phenology is the science of seasonal and cyclical timing in nature: when plants bloom, birds migrate, etc. There’s been a renewed interest in phenology in response to climate change concerns and many citizen scientists around the world are recording their observations about the timing of natural phenomena.
LS: In your book you mention that Theodore Roosevelt connected a love of nature to a love of books. What exactly does he mean?
MCB: In his autobiography, Roosevelt wrote that some people love the out-of-doors but have no interest in books and some love books but “the great book of nature is a sealed volume…” My friend the historian Clay Jenkinson calls Roosevelt “the readingest and writingest” of all American presidents. He wrote over thirty books himself and was a voracious reader. I think our 26th president deeply valued books and nature equally and he wrote, “It is an incalculable added pleasure to any one’s sum of happiness if he or she grows to know, even slightly and imperfectly, how to read and enjoy the wonder-book of nature.”
LS: What is your take on the impact of our quarantine on the environment long term? To paraphrase you a bit, “When we walk out of the storm, will we be the same person who walked in?”
MCB: The short-term positive benefits of lighter traffic resulting in cleaner air and frolicking animals won’t last. I’m concerned that environmental protections may actually weaken due to many factors related to the pandemic. However, it is my hope that individuals who have slowed down, breathed cleaner air, and had some opportunities for reflection and nature-connection during the pandemic will become more attuned to the natural world and the serious environmental threats we face. I interviewed several people for the book who told me that the pandemic brought climate change into clearer focus for them, inspiring them to do more as individuals to help mitigate our serious problems. If individual transformations can become collective ones there may be a silver lining for the environment.
For more books by Melanie Choukas-Bradley, and to learn more about how connecting with nature is good for mental health and resilience, check out her website.
Leigh Stringer is a workplace strategy expert and researcher. She is a managing principal at EYP, an architecture and engineering firm, and the author of The Healthy Workplace: How to Improve the Well-Being of Your Employees—and Boost Your Company’s Bottom Line. She lives in Washington DC.