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December 30, 2022

PaRx People: A Conversation with Florence Williams

Florence Williams is a journalist, author, and podcaster. She is a contributing editor at Outside Magazine and a freelance writer for the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, The New York Review of Books and numerous other publications.

Florence’s 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. Her 2017 book, The Nature Fix, was an Audible bestseller and was named a top summer read by J.P. Morgan. Her latest book, Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey, is called “show-stopping” and “courageous” by Publisher’s Weekly.

Her public speaking includes keynotes at Google, the Smithsonian, the Seattle Zoo, the Aspen Ideas Festival and many other corporate, academic and nonprofit venues. A fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature and a visiting scholar at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Florence’s work focuses on the environment, health and science.  

She has received many awards, including two National Magazine Award nominations, six magazine awards from the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and the John Hersey Prize at Yale. Florence serves on the board of two of her favourite non-profits, the Trust for Public Land and the Ted Scripps Fellowship in Environmental Journalism.

PaRx Director Dr. Melissa Lem sat down with Florence to learn about how her early experiences outdoors influenced her storytelling, the science behind her bestselling book The Nature Fix, her views on parenting and nature, her healing outdoor journey from heartbreak, and more.

Header photo credit Casie Zalud.

Can you tell me about your early experiences in nature, and how they have may have contributed to the stories you choose to tell today?

I grew up in New York City. People might not associate that with a lot of high-quality nature, but I lived a few blocks from Central Park and loved going in there as a kid. My parents were divorced, and my dad lived in Washington, DC. When I was really little, we took more sort of day trips. We would go to the Shenandoah or other rivers in Virginia and Maryland, and I remember swinging from trees into the river to swim, and jumping across rocks in the river. Being a New York City kid I wasn't really used to that. And I just thought that was the greatest thing ever. It was like using nature as a sort of jungle gym. I also remember exploring a cave with him, and this huge black dog jumped on us. My dad had told me stories about bears, and so I was convinced it was a bear, and I was terrified. But it turned out to be just a dog. You know, we never really had any mishaps or bad experiences. My dad was an experienced wilderness person.

Starting when I was seven or eight, every summer we would load up into his van with canoes on the top, and would go canoeing in wilderness areas all over the country. Often they were multi-day wilderness trips. So I really had early exposure to a lot of adventure and fun outside, in some incredibly beautiful places. I would sit in the bow of my father's canoe. It was sometimes just us, and sometimes with another family. I didn't have siblings my age, so I would be the bow person, and he’d be the stern person. It felt safe, and it felt fun.

Florence canoeing on the Potomac River in Washington, DC. Photo credit Ben Rosser.

We went up in your old neck of the woods, into the Quetico area in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area between Minnesota and Ontario, and then one year we flew in to the Dumoine River up in Quebec in a little plane with our canoes. We would often go to Wyoming, Montana, Utah, rivers like the Yampa, the Green the Gallatin and the Madison and Jefferson. I was really lucky to have so much nature time with my dad as a kid.

Thanks to him I became a real river runner, and a kayaker. In college—I went to college in Connecticut, but I would spend my summers in Colorado—I worked for a kayaking store, and it very much became a part of my life, spending time and doing sports outside in nature. My first job out of college was in Colorado, so I moved there, and started spending time in the mountains.

Then when I was in my mid-forties, my family, my then husband and my kids and I, all moved from Colorado to Washington, DC—and I felt a sense of loss, like my psychology, my emotional state and mood had changed. And that definitely helped inspire the book The Nature Fix because I wanted to know why I felt so bad away from nature, now that I wasn't so connected with it. That led me to these studies of environmental psychology, and how our brains and our bodies really change in these different landscapes.

I loved cities too, and I still love cities, but when I moved to Washington, DC I really felt the loss of that kind of daily nature connection that I’d had, because I lived right at the foot of the Rockies, or in the Rockies, for 24 years in my adulthood. And so that's when I really noticed the change.

As an adult, I also had the stresses that we all face of balancing work into family and deadlines, and I don't think I really realized how important that nature connection was to my mental health until it was gone.

And of course, if you read the book, I do, after talking to all these psychologists and researchers, kind of figure out how to get a lot of the benefits from urban nature. I think that's a really important message in the book, is that you don't have to be in the mountains, you don't have to be in the wilderness in order to benefit from nature. But I had to learn how to do that, and I convey a lot of those tips in the book.

Florence speaking at the Original Thinkers Festival in Telluride, Colorado. Photo supplied.

How has nature influenced your health and well-being throughout your life?

Well, I have always found it a great source of creativity. I often find I get my best ideas outside. Building in walks in nature as part of my daily routine, I do editing in my head sometimes without even trying. I mean, I’m just kind of spacing out—and I think that’s one of the great benefits of being outside, is that your mind wanders. That's necessary for creative thought, so that's always been very important to me. As life became more stressful, I also just noticed that I was a nicer person after my walk outside. It helped regulate my mood.

And I have also become more, I think, tuned in to how it helps reset my circadian rhythms, how I sleep better. If I get out for a morning walk, and often I get out for an evening walk as well, because I have a dog, it's profoundly helpful for both creativity and sleep.

I also lead Nature Fix retreats. We went to Telluride last summer, and we did one at a ranch in Colorado. They're great for people who are maybe going through transitions, who might find it helpful to be with a group. It's sort of like nature-as-healing retreats that we're doing. They're typically three days, and they involve nature immersion—I’m also a certified Forest Therapy guide now—some journalling, and group discussion.

The Nature Fix presents the many benefits of nature, incorporating interviews with experts and scientific research in such an accessible and compelling way. What surprised you the most?

One thing that really surprised me was the science behind the power of awe. I talk a bit about this in both of my last books, Heartbreak and The Nature Fix. When we're in the presence of something that really kind of stops us in our tracks because it's so beautiful, there's a lot of science showing that actually makes us more pro-social, makes us more likely to feel connected, not only to the natural world but to people. That was surprising to me, that we can feel more a part of our communities. We can get along better with people in our families. We become less ego driven, and more apt to act in ways that benefit our communities.

The way I say it sometimes is that wilderness is actually good for civilization. It makes us get along with each other better.

I think it's obvious that we think about our relation to the cosmos, but feeling small like that takes some ego out of the equation. It makes us less likely to obsess about our own thoughts, our own problems, our own goals. We can take a step back and get some perspective, and be like, my problems are not the only things in the world. Let's take an interest in some other people for a while.

Florence giving an outdoor talk in Telluride, Colorado. Photo supplied.

You travelled the world to research this book, from Finland to Japan. Where was your favourite place to spend time in nature?

Gosh, I mean, I loved seeing the Healing Forests in South Korea. I was there in the fall, with beautiful colours, and beautiful food. It was a cultural experience for me as well as a nature experience. I like the way those two things were sort of intertwined. I like the way that nature is more integrated in daily life in some ways in Asian cultures. I think in Western cultures we have this real ability to kind of think that we're separate from nature, and of course that's a false dichotomy.

But everywhere, in industrialized cultures, we're all becoming more disconnected from nature. That's certainly happening in Asia, too. You know, these kids go to school all day long, and then they go to school to learn English in the evenings, and they're really not spending very much time outside at all. I think it's a real problem everywhere. In fact, the whole forest bathing idea was popularized in Japan after rapid industrialization had led to a huge amount of depression, especially among office workers. So there was this very deliberate effort to sort of get back to spending time outside and feeling centred in nature. Researchers in Japan were among the first to really measure the physiological effects of being in the woods, and it has been really ground-breaking. If you think about the bonsais and the gardens, there are these traditions where you bring nature into your house. Sometimes we're not as tuned into that here in North America.

I also spent time with women veterans in the wilderness on a trip in Utah on the Salmon River. That was astonishingly beautiful. I had never been on that river before, and I love rivers.

Can you describe some of the research and experiments you participated in for The Nature Fix, and if this is something you could see happening on a broader scale in North America?

For one experiment I wore a portable EEG (electroencephalogram – brain recording) cap in different environments, for example, at urban intersections and city parks. Analyzing the EEG data was very hard because there's a lot of noise, but it seemed like I was able to reach a deeper state of relaxation while being awake in the wilderness areas. That really came through in the data in the city parks. In the city streets I had indications of anxiety or hyper-alertness, not indicative of a very relaxed state. I was able to borrow this equipment from researchers who were actively studying it, so they could compare my data to what they already had. I don't think we're at the point yet where we can easily measure our own brain waves. The equipment is still very expensive, and it's tricky to interpret it.

We can also measure things like blood pressure, and I have done that on myself, and with groups of people. We'll take a resting blood pressure read before a walk in the woods, and then we'll take one afterwards when we're still sitting out there by a creek, and we see a significant drop in blood pressure in the participants.

Florence leading a nature hike. Photo supplied.

If you go to healing forests, or the forest therapy trails in South Korea and Japan, hikers can do that. They can go into a ranger station and stick their arm in a blood pressure machine before and after their walk, and they can see it for themselves, which is kind of neat. I'm not aware of that going on here yet.

People are kind of bad at predicting how they will feel after a nature experience. For example, studies have shown that people will predict they’ll feel fine either way if they walk across campus through the trees, or through underground tunnels. It turns out that the people who walk above ground are so much happier. So I don't think we’re always good at paying attention to those internal states.

It can be harder for people in cities to get their nature fix. How can we redesign our urban landscapes to reduce those barriers?

That’s a really important question because, of course, most of us do live in cities. And if nature does make us happier and healthier, and better people, it really should be accessible to everyone. Park planning is one way. Right now nature is very inequitably distributed, and so it becomes really important to build more parks in neighbourhoods that don't have them, to make existing parks bigger and better quality, and safer, so that people will use them.

We know during the pandemic that people who lived in wealthy neighbourhoods were able to access nature much more easily than people who didn't. The size of parks per capita is twice as large in wealthy neighbourhoods, so who has access becomes a social justice issue.

We also need to really think about our school yards, because pretty much all kids go to school. If we think about greening school yards, and having some urban farming projects in there too, that can be incredibly beneficial for kids. We know from studies that if kids are looking out of windows in their classrooms onto green spaces, they feel less stress, they recover from stress more quickly, and their test scores go up.

In terms of large-scale, urban design, things like opening up access to creeks and rivers, and making waterfront parks, and retiring some highways and streets, and turning them back over to open space where there are trees are important. We know that planting trees is really important not just for people’s moods, but also for improving the urban heat island effect. We know with changing climate that heat is going to be a significant factor in terms of people's health and wellbeing, and trees can really improve that. We can accomplish a lot of goals through improving nature in cities, and human happiness is one of them—but they're all connected.

Nature doesn't have a very powerful lobby, really, and we don't tend to quantify how much it's worth to us, either. We think of it as a passive thing that's kind of sitting there, and don't think about its ecosystem services. There was that really interesting study in Toronto equating the benefits of having more trees on your street to a $10,000 increase in income. I think there are small ways we're starting to realize that when we feel happier, we also feel healthier—and that has direct consequences for people's pocketbooks, and for government expenditures on health care.

Florence taking a writing break outdoors. Photo credit Casie Zalud.

How can we reduce our mental barriers to getting more nature when we live in urban areas?

I think a lot of families are still a little bit uncomfortable with the idea of their kids playing in nature. We now have at least two generations of people who are kind of disconnected from nature, and haven't spent that much time outside. I'm a big fan of families getting together to play outside in nature so that kids have peers with them, which is safer and also fun. Groups like the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts can play a really critical role in this—I'd like to see less cookie sales and more camping trips.

I also think that schools could do a much better job of providing environmental education, and start in preschool and kindergarten by getting kids outside way more often. I've been so inspired by the green and forest schools that I've seen, and would love to see that expanded and scaled.

If we make nature easier and more accessible—if it's outside of our schools, if it's outside of our workplaces, if it's integrated into our neighbourhoods—then we're gonna' just get it whether we're trying to or not. And that's really the goal.

We’re both mothers. Has being a parent changed your relationship to nature in any way? How have you seen your kids’ relationships to nature evolve with time?

It’s been a really important priority for my family to spend time outside. I certainly noticed when my kids were little and we would go outside that they would instantly stop fighting, and start doing this really creative play together. It would just lift the mood of everybody. And then we got a dog, and that did the same thing. Pets in some ways do connect us to species other than ourselves, and can also be wonderfully helpful for families in terms of stress levels.

My kids really are comfortable outside—they like being outside. They also like being inside, you know, they like their computers and cell phones, and I think that's normal and I think that's okay. Teenagers are very peer-focused, but they will know, as they grow up, that nature is a place where they can go to feel better if they're feeling stressed out or upset. And I think that's a great gift that we can give the next generation.

Having kids changed my own interactions with nature because I became less recreation focused. It wasn't so much about my bike ride, or my heart rate, or whatever—it became more just a place to enjoy each other, and bond, and be together. And I think I probably did start to value nature more for its kind of bonding, and play, and exploration benefits.

Florence hiking in Utah. Photo supplied.

This year you released a book called Heartbreak. How can nature, and the awe it inspires, help us heal from heartbreak?

When I went through divorce, nature became a very important part of my healing from that. It was a place where I could feel less stressed, and it was also a place where I could feel less lonely, because when you feel connected to nature it's hard to feel lonely. People don't really think of nature as an antidote to loneliness, but any kind of connection is going to be helpful in a situation like that. And so it was partly that de-stressing aspect, but it was also the, oh yeah, I am part of this larger world, and I'm part of this cosmos, and we're all in it together. And that was very healing for me.

In an effort to recover from my divorce, I actually undertook a four-week river trip in Utah, in the wilderness. I did two weeks with friends and family, and two of them solo, because I felt like I needed to learn how to be alone, and how to be brave, and how to access that. It was also just a lot of time to reflect and experience. I would say that being alone in the wilderness was actually the less helpful of the trips, because I did miss people, and I did feel kind of lonely—so it crystallized for me that I can still be self-reliant and take care of myself, but I also really value human relationships.

If we care about our health and well-being, our together time is also a huge piece of that.

And so I really came to appreciate that through writing the Heartbreak book.

What role do you think health professionals have to play in connecting people to nature?

I think they can have a huge role in this, because they understand that often these chronic diseases we face, like depression, anxiety and diabetes, are very hard to treat through medication. And so I think that there's an openness to finding ways to help their patients, and it turns out that being outside can help on all those fronts. And healthcare workers are very well respected; certainly patients are still going to look to their doctors for health recommendations. I love it that many doctors are becoming more open-minded to this idea of incorporating nature as part of a healthy lifestyle.

I wish it were taught more in medical school, because so many doctors themselves don't have enough access to nature. We know that healthcare workers are also very stressed out, and we know from studies that where there are gardens available in hospitals and health care centres, that doctors and nurses are also greatly benefitting from this.

I think there's a whole exciting future out there of healthcare embracing nature as a healing modality.

Read more about Florence’s life, work and writing on her website here.

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