Something is happening in our gardens. Little by little, a very unsettling silence is falling upon them. During my childhood, our garden was a blur of color as a multitude of brightly patterned insects busied themselves amongst the flowers. The number of bee species on the lavender bushes was a sight to behold and butterflies were aplenty. Iridescent ground beetles could be found in abundance, scurrying along the ground. Birds bobbed and weaved from tree, to bush, to lawn and back again, catching what they could to feed their waiting chicks.
All the vegetables we grew in the garden had bugs of one sort or another on them. Cauliflower had to be soaked in salt water to rid them of aphids, soft fruits freed of slugs and apples checked for codling moth larvae. Many a dinner time was punctuated with shrieks of disgust at the discovery of an errant caterpillar hiding in the folds of a lettuce leaf!
The number of (once common) insects has now reduced to a deeply worrying level. Over the past 25 years, global insect biomass has reduced by over 75%. Yay! I hear some people cry. However, the harsh reality of this situation is very different.
Consider the facts. Insects have been around for approximately 400 million years. They co-evolved with plants, pollinating their flowers and adapting some highly specialized characteristics in the process. To this day, insects provide pollination services for wild flowers, our gardens, and agriculture. It is estimated that 80% of wild plants need insects for pollination. Insects play a huge role in the functioning of ecosystems. They help to feed us and are the tiny engines that keep the world as we know it turning. We all enjoy a juicy tomato, don’t we? Bumblebees with their ‘buzz pollination’ are responsible for them. How about the deliciously heady fragrance of honeysuckle in the evening? Thank the moths for pollinating those flowers!
Not only are insects vital for our lives, and the lives of the plants that depend on them, they are also vital to countless other species. They provide food for approximately 60% of bird species as well as mammals, amphibians and reptiles. Remember that unsettling silence that is falling upon us? Songbirds are becoming a rarity.
Last spring was a particularly challenging one in the UK, with temperatures being the lowest on record for 60 years. April had the lowest average minimum temperature since 1922. Following this period, the emergence of moths was delayed by over a month resulting in a mismatch between wild bird chicks hatching and their food source being available. During this time, a friend of mine in Wales was monitoring a nesting box of Great tits. Six little eggs were laid, six little chicks hatched, but despite the efforts of their parents, one by one they succumbed to starvation. This is happening all over the UK, and indeed, much further afield. Many bird species in the UK are in steep decline, 29% being on the ‘Red list’ of conservation concern. The cuckoo, whose call was once synonymous with the start of summer, is once such bird. A bird I haven’t heard since I was a child.
What can we do to address this problem? One option is to allow our gardens to find a natural balance. Allow plants to be attacked by caterpillars and the birds and their young will feast upon these caterpillars. Allow snails and slugs to munch their way through some of our soft fruit and vegetables; birds, amphibians and mammals will chow down on them. Nature will find a way if we allow it to. ‘Sacrifice’ plants can be grown; a parsnip left to go to seed, a cabbage left un-netted, a patch of nettles or some weeds left to go wild. All can support insect and bird life.
To further help our feathered friends, their food intake can be supplemented with wild bird food and fresh water and fat balls in the winter. All vessels should be kept clean and changed regularly to avoid the spreading of diseases such as Avian flu. Put up nesting boxes around your garden, varying the size and shape of the entrance holes to attract different species; believe me, the sight of a tiny face poking out of a nesting box hole is worth the effort. Remember that an ‘untidy’ garden is a good thing too. Not only does it offer food and shelter, but also nesting material. I once witnessed an audacious blackbird plucking fur from our rabbit’s bottom; he remaining oblivious to his provision of the softest of nest liners.
Let our gardens be unkempt. Let the bugs thrive. If we don’t help them all now, not only may we go hungry, but the generations to come will never know the joy of bird song or the rainbow of colorful insects that we have had the privilege of knowing in our childhoods.
Hallmann. C, Sorg. M, Jongejans. E, Siepel. H, Hofland. N, Schwan. H, Stenmans. W, Müller. A, Sumser. H, Hörren, Goulson. T and de Kroon. H (2017) More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLOS ONE. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0185809
Wagner.D, Grames. E, Forister. M, Berenbaum. R and Stopak. D (2021) Insect decline in the Anthropocene: Death by a thousand cuts. PNAS. 118 (2) https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2023989118
What is better than enjoying the great outdoors and subsequently relishing nature’s bounty? It gives us the opportunity to feed our souls as well as filling our bellies. People have foraged for food for thousands of years out of necessity. Nowadays, we can benefit from seasonal gluts of fruits and nuts; eating them fresh, using them to concoct a variety of delicious preserves or by freezing them for later use. In the UK, the collection of fruits, flowers, foliage, and fungi is permitted, although digging up roots would need permission. So as not to have your stash of fruits confiscated by an indignant landowner, careful research should be conducted before foraging in your local area to verify if the land is truly public, or privately owned. The old English term to ‘scrump’ for apples (effectively stealing them from an orchard owned by someone else) should clearly be avoided here if one wishes to maintain harmonious relationships with one’s neighbors; however delicious that forbidden fruit is!
I hold very fond childhood memories of walking, early in the morning with an elderly Aunt and her Red Setter dog; the grass dotted with perfectly formed, beautiful, white mushrooms. My Aunt was well-versed in mushroom harvesting and species recognition; vital as some species can lead to sickness or worse. One might say, you’ll only ever get it wrong once! To air on the side of caution therefore, foraging for mushrooms with an expert, until you are confident with identification, would be advised. It may also lead to connecting with other people who hold the same appreciation for the hunter-gatherer days of old and enjoying what each season has to offer.
Foraging for food can inspire you to choose healthy options, eating in season and reducing your intake of refined sugars and unhealthy sweet treats. Why buy a pre-made pie, laden with sugar when you can make your own with fruits you have picked yourself? Foraged foods have not been mass-produced in vast mono-culture fields and polytunnels, they have not been sprayed with chemicals, are not wrapped in plastic and have not been transported halfway around the world. Foraging is the ultimate in eating locally-sourced food. Fruit salads, chutneys and ‘Hedgerow’ jelly take on a whole new appeal when you know exactly where and when the fruits were sourced. Savour that warm, wholesome feeling you get when you have the chance to gift natural produce to friends and family and let them share in the love!
Each season provides us with a variety of delicacies. Wild garlic can be found from late March, stinging nettles; a fantastic source of vitamins and minerals, should be picked in early spring, prior to flowering. Elderflowers, for cordial and wine, can be harvested from May to July as can wild strawberries or bilberries (a small, blueberry-like fruit) if you are lucky enough to find them. Blackberries, elderberries and, less commonly, quince can be sourced in the fall, the latter making wonderful jellies and a flavorful paste, known in Spain as Membrillo. Plums and their smaller, tarter relatives, damsons, can be found from July to September and make the most delicious, full-bodied jellies. Some may say, our most versatile fruit, the apple, can be harvested from the summer through to the fall, depending on the variety. Finally, a variety of delicious nuts including hazelnuts and walnuts are ready to be picked between September and November followed by the Christmas favorite, the sweet chestnut, the last to ripen, in December. The availability and emergence of the fruits, leaves, nuts, and seeds that are found in your local area will vary greatly. Here in the UK where four seasons can be encountered in a single afternoon, the timing of their availability can be changeable from county to county and year to year.
Recently, my foraging exploits have resulted in the production of sloe gin, although last fall I also branched out into blackberry (the berries making a sumptuous, boozy desert once removed from the gin at the end of the steeping period). Sipping on this syrupy tipple, I recall the warm evening sunshine, and the buzz of the insects which accompanied me while picking the berries. I am grateful for the harvest which warms me, my friends and family on wintery nights and am almost able to forgive the blackthorn bushes that scraped and cut me as I plucked the plump little sloes from their branches.
Nature is generous; providing delicacies to be consumed fresh, to be pickled, preserved or soaked in alcohol; allowing us to stock our pantries and eat and drink well for the year to come. We must, however, always remember to leave plenty for the wildlife who do not have the good fortune to stockpile as we do and who pollinate and distribute seeds to maintain this rich bounty.
All of us occasionally suffer from “brain fog.” It is when we are unable to focus on a task, become frustrated and are easily irritated. Have you ever noticed how taking a breath of fresh air suddenly makes you feel refreshed and rejuvenated? It is as if you have been injected with energy. The expression “use it or lose it” is commonly used in the UK. As with all parts of the body, processes can slow down if the brain is not exercised; keeping it active is of huge importance. That 10-minute break from your computer screen, watching wild birds on a feeder, or squirrels running about a park while you stretch your legs are examples of how we can interact mentally and emotionally with nature and recharge part of our brain.
As a child, I had the good fortune of being raised in a village in the countryside. When not in school, it was the norm to go out into the surrounding fields to explore, climb trees and enjoy the fresh air. Many of my friends recall similar childhoods. We didn’t play video games, there were fewer channels on TV, and indoor entertainment usually consisted of reading or craft activities. Lessons at school were punctuated with playtime on the field, running at full speed. We felt refreshed and ready to concentrate on learning afterward, the cobwebs having been thoroughly swept away.
Science now shows the restorative capacity of the natural world to be true; nature does indeed refresh us and also has a positive effect on our brains. When studying or at work, there is a need to focus for extended periods of time. However, the capacity to apply direct attention (focus on a specific thing or cognitive process) declines over time; we start to daydream, clarity of thought is lost, and the ability to concentrate reduces. The sights and sounds from the natural environment generally arouse our curiosity in a gentle manner. No direct attention is necessary; the mind has a chance to replenish. An urban environment can be jarring and dangerous; close attention must be paid to our surroundings in order to avoid accidents; being hit by vehicles or knocking over pedestrians. In such an environment, our brains are not able to relax and recuperate.
Studies on university students in the UK have demonstrated that taking 15-minute breaks in a natural environment resulted in an enhanced capacity to complete tasks and retain information. When given four mental-agility tests to complete, their capacity for directed attention showed significant recovery after the outdoor break. The study also showed that short breaks involving exercise in a natural setting had a more positive effect on recovery from directed attention fatigue than a sedentary break indoors. Although both actual and virtual exposure to nature influences cognitive ability, memory and attention, physically being in a natural environment produces a greater positive effect.
Similar research on the elderly comparing the effects of restorative breaks taken within their care home to those taken in its garden where they interacted with nature, showed that after time spent in the natural setting, the test participants’ ability to concentrate on tasks had increased significantly. Similarly, studies conducted involving memory tests (remembering a list of numbers or symbols) also showed that interacting with the natural world improved the participants’ short-term memory. With an aging global population, conditions such as Dementia and Alzheimer’s are growing concerns. Recent Australian research into the effects of exercise on cognitive decline has also shown that an optimal amount can improve spatial learning. This research is now being used to try and reverse the effects of Dementia; tying exercise into improving neural connectivity in the hippocampus (the area of the brain responsible for memory, learning, and emotions). This potential improvement in our neural networks paired with increased concentration and memory brought about by being surrounded by nature could lead to a winning combination for our long-term mental health.
For those of us whose lives revolve around working in an office, possibly with little chance to escape to a green space during lunch break, the view from the window is an important asset in work performance as well as job satisfaction. A green outdoor environment has been shown to increase workers’ mind function and ability to organize their work and combat mental fatigue. If physical access to that green space is not possible, the view from the window provides a ‘micro-break’ where the brain can relax.
Thus, natural environments provide important ‘psychological ecosystem services’ benefiting cognitive flexibility, the working memory, and attention control. We should try to capitalize on the potential benefits of outdoor breaks, incorporate attractive outdoor spaces on campuses, workspace and care homes, and facilitate movement through these to enhance our concentration and overall feelings of well-being.
EJ Taylor is an environmental biologist, entomologist and teacher with over 20 years’ experience in working internationally. EJ currently works as an Intervention English Language Specialist in a College of Further and Higher Education in Agriculture and Animal Management in Lincolnshire, the UK. EJ holds a fascination for the natural world and the relationships between species. Of particular interest are the effects of the natural environment on human well-being, mental health and cognition. When not surrounded by nature, EJ can be found creating artwork, cooking, pottering in the vegetable garden or traveling (sometimes on a classic British motorcycle).
Within the first few weeks of taking in a permaculture course or lecture, something powerful can happen. I saw it in the eyes of other participants having the same revelations as me. A sense of despair and helplessness about the state of the world started to melt away as our proverbial tool belts began to fill.
“Permies” as they are affectionately called, are bootstrapper-types who focus on positive solutions to the world’s biggest problems. It turns out that the answers can be much simpler than we may have thought.
Permaculture started as an agricultural design philosophy based on mimicking nature. It was originally a portmanteau of “permanent” and “agriculture,” but has grown over the years to encompass broader meanings and applications, and is now thought of as a form of permanent culture.
Food forests, clean energy, rainwater harvesting, and living a simpler life may not sound like the revolution you imagined, but changing how we interact with land, other creatures, and each other can transform how we spend our precious moments on this incredible planet.
Even if you don’t have a large piece of land, you can start small in your own backyard or deck by planting edible and perennial plants to give you a taste of homegrown, organic food. Even one plant in one pot is a meaningful start.
If you do, you might start to see the world as full of potential. By installing an edible landscape that continues to produce more food each year—thereby reducing food costs and trips to the grocery store—you become part of a desperately needed transformation.
So, what can you do at your home?
The answer is far longer than the space of one article will allow for, but this will get you growing in the right direction.
Learn Your Space
Permaculture starts with observing and interacting with your own outdoor space. Your goal is to align with nature, and to do that, you must first observe it. How and where does the sun move at different times of the year? Where are your hot spots and cool corners? Where does water from melting snow or rain tend to collect? What is already growing? Can you identify the plants, insects, and other creatures that share your space?
This is a good time to start with basic plant identification to ensure you aren’t pulling up valuable edibles. Take some pictures so you can look back on how far you’ve grown. When I started my garden, the ecosystem consisted of cigarette butts, dog waste, and ants. Now I am gratified by how far my small yard has come.
Start With the Soil
If your soil isn’t fertile, have some delivered from a local landscape center or add compost to give it nutrients and water-holding capacity. Everything begins with your soil—and sun.
But how will you know what “good” soil even looks like?
Dig into your ground and take a look. Is it dark and full of tiny insects and fungi? That’s a good sign. If it seems like sand or silt with little else, you’ll want to create an environment for beneficial microbes and tiny worms called nematodes. You can do that by adding organic matter such as compost, worm castings, and mulch.
Grow Some Dirt
If you don’t have a compost system, now is the time to start one. Regardless of your living situation, there is a composter that will work for you. If you live in an apartment, you can start a small vermicompost that uses tiny worms to accelerate the process. Although you can only compost one to two liters of food scraps per week, it will light a spark when you see these tiny wiggly helpers turn your waste into a valuable soil amendment. If you have a larger garden, there are many options, from a tumbler that’s off the ground for tidiness to a three-bin system for high volume.
Enrich Your Ecosystem
Select a few of your favorite edible perennials. These plants come back every year. To live in harmony with your ecosystem means it’s important to know what already grows there. Edible perennials and plants that are indigenous to the area are ideal.
There’s so much to learn from nature, so accept early on that you won’t ever know everything and that’s OK. Also accept that you’ll make mistakes. Just come from a place of honoring the land and caring for the living beings you share it with, and you’ll surely be on the right track.
Start by planting higher-maintenance plants in the areas closest to where you often walk and work your way outwards to low-maintenance plants such as garlic.
Plant more than you think you’ll need and share the extras with neighbors and friends.
Plan for the Seasons Ahead
Want to extend your growing season? Get a small greenhouse for those cooler, darker days in the spring and fall. Put it in a place where it’ll get plenty of sunlight during early spring, when the sun hugs closer to the horizon in northern climates. Be careful, though, as even unheated greenhouses can get extremely hot. Keep a close eye and make sure it has airflow.
A greenhouse can give you a feeling of having more control over your situation, which is also good for calming stress.
Seek to ‘Stack Functions’
In permaculture, we talk about “stacking functions,” which means we try to work as little as possible and ensure our systems do more than one thing. This is how nature works and it’s what makes permaculture so enriching.
To do this, consider the cycles of your ecosystem. Are you planting trees in an area where the falling leaves will provide easy mulch for the next year, or do you have to rake them up and move them elsewhere? Permaculture aims to minimize inputs—including labor—and generate useful outputs that feed the system. Maybe you’ll want to select a coppice tree that keeps growing so you can cut it back and use the wood for compost.
You can also plant assorted flowers that’ll bloom throughout the season. This means you’ll have an abundance of pollinators and birds; endless entertainment; flowers to give to friends; and food, such as edible nasturtiums. Flowers also attract people and can spur interactions with neighbors, which creates opportunities to build community connections.
Engage in Outdoor Activity and Resiliency
People want and need to be outdoors more. And our outdoors can better support the people in our community. In my hometown, some friends and I have used permaculture principles to plant edible food forests on small plots of city property. These public gardens require minimal upkeep and offer residents a place to get free fresh produce.
We all have this inspiring opportunity to make our own hometowns into something better, more thoughtful, and more resilient. It’s been more clear than ever that a change is needed.
So if your gut is telling you to grow food, trust it. Those are your survival instincts. The crazy thing is, you may also actually enjoy the simpler life.
Keli Westgate is a permaculture designer and owner of Oasis Gardens Consulting. She loves to help people learn to grow organic, local, seasonal foods that will help insulate them and their families in rapidly changing times. You can find her at keliwestgate.com.
English gardens can be traced back to Roman times, around A.D. 43–410. Roman villas and palaces in Britain are the original examples; the most famous is Fishbourne Roman Palace, built in the first century A.D. and destroyed in A.D. 270.
The earliest elements of English gardens can be found at Fishbourne and other sites built around the same time. Fishbourne demonstrates the use of large rectangular lawns and the symmetrical planting of low hedges edged by gravel walkways.
There are few records from the years following the first century, and it wasn’t until the Middle Ages when gardens came back into fashion. Early monasteries had herb and kitchen gardens, and green spaces would usually center around a well or fountain. There were few, if any, other decorations; sometimes, a few benches might line a garden to allow for reflection or meditation.
1066–1485 Medieval Period
Early castles sometimes made room for small courtyard gardens with paths and raised flower beds, or herb gardens for medicinal and cooking needs. As castles became less common and manor houses grew in popularity during the medieval period, gardens were transformed into simple grass spaces enclosed by hedges or fencing.
A major change in English gardens occurred during the “Reformation,” when villages were constructed with common land between them to allow for grazing by deer and cattle. More formal gardens, lined with hedges and various flower beds, could be seen as visitors neared a landowner’s manor house.
By the 16th century, traditional formal gardens in England were influenced by Italian design. This design trend brought concepts, such as the mirroring of house alignment, that were used to create visual symmetry of lines and harmony of space, which had been missing from previous eras. Also missing since Roman times, statues and other artificial elements, such as fountains, were reintroduced to the design language. At the same time, the Tudors started using knot gardens, contributing their ideas to English garden design. Knots were patterns of lawn hedges, usually of boxwood, intended to be viewed from raised walks. The spaces between hedges were often filled with flowers, shrubs, or herbs.
During the latter part of the 16th century, French influence overtook formal garden inspirations. The French style is characterized by a broad avenue sweeping away from the house, framed by rectangular parterres made up of low, rigidly formal hedges. A parterre is a level space in a garden or yard occupied by ornamental arrangements of flower beds.
Around the 17th century, gardens saw another major change; where formality and control of the space had been the norm for several centuries, a more “natural” look began to be incorporated into garden designs. Lines were no longer straight, paths curved along the natural landscape, and parterres were replaced with grass. Trees were planted in more natural clusters, rather than in straight lines, and rounded lakes replaced the rectangular ponds of the earlier style. The garden became a space that joined the outside world, instead of a carefully manicured buffer zone.
In the final age of the early English garden, the Victorian period from the mid-1800s until the 20th century, gardens became masses of bedded plants. Complex designs and explosions of color were infused into the garden during this period of time, while the green spaces movement and the idea of public gardens introduced culture to the broader citizenry. Gardens were no longer limited to those who could afford them, they became accessible to all. Some of the best Victorian gardens are public spaces such as the “People’s Park” in Halifax, West Yorkshire, England.
Differences Between English, French Gardens
Why are we comparing English and French gardens? Mainly because it’s difficult to understand one without understanding the other. These two distinct and widely differing styles have influenced each other for hundreds of years. Both originated from the Roman villas that were built after Rome’s conquest of Britain in A.D. 43.
English gardens were meant to blend with the natural landscape, growing a little on the wild side and including romantic elements in the mix. Romantic elements, introduced in the 18th century, included ponds or small lakes with bridges or docks on the water, crafted ruins, and sculptures.
French gardens are also called formal gardens, and they’re exactly that—formal. They follow strict geometric lines. Plants are arranged to maintain geometric and symmetric layouts. In larger gardens, lanes or paths are built outward from the center, so visitors can stroll through each section.
English Gardens Today
Modern gardens are based on the cottage garden, in which the idea is to utilize as much outside space as possible to plant flowers while arranging climbing plants and trellises to add color to exterior walls—basically to fill the outdoor space with color and life. Arts and Crafts gardens, as they came to be known, combine structured layouts and architecture with more informal, natural-looking plantings. Designs include long borders with exuberant, colorful plantings and climbing plants.
English Gardens in America
Early American garden design was directly influenced by the Victorian-era English garden. It was also called the “modern style,” encompassing a more natural flow within the garden, imitating nature—unlike the French style, which consisted of geometric patterns with straight lines, attempting to supersede nature. A short quote from geographer Jedidiah Morse, published in 1789, describes how George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate in Fairfax County, Virginia, had a garden modeled after the English garden style:
On either wing is a thick grove of different, ﬂowering forest trees. Parallel with them, on the land side, are two spacious gardens, into which one is led by two serpentine gravel-walks, planted with weeping willows and shady shrubs. … A lofty portico, 96 feet in length, supported by eight pillars, has a pleasing effect when viewed from the water; and the tout ensemble the whole assemblage, of the green-house, school-house, offices and servants halls, when seen from the land side, bears a resemblance to a rural village—especially as the lands in that side are laid out somewhat in the form of English gardens, in meadows and grass grounds, ornamented with little copses, circular clumps and single trees.
—Jedidiah Morse, “The American Geography”
The history of the English garden is long and, from Roman to Italian and French influences, its development didn’t occur in isolation. English gardens have style and characteristics all their own that have inspired awe and wonder in the arts, even for well-known writers such as William Shakespeare. In “Richard II,” Shakespeare used the garden as a metaphor for politics:
Go, bind thou up yon dangling apricocks,
Which, like unruly children, make their sire
Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight:
Give some supportance to the bending twigs.
There was also Robert Louis Stevenson, perhaps best known for his “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” who wrote a poem, “The Gardener,” about gardens and those who tend them.
He digs the flowers, green, red, and blue,
Nor wishes to be spoken to.
He digs the flowers and cuts the hay,
And never seems to want to play.
Silly gardener! summer goes,
And winter comes with pinching toes,
When in the garden bare and brown
You must lay your barrow down.
English gardens can be many things; they’ve gone from monastic, meditative, and herbal fixtures to sprawling examples of grandeur and nobility. In the present day, they’ve become natural and serene, colorful, dense, and intimate. The most important thing about English gardens, however, is that they’ve endured—and in enduring, they’ve given people the ability to interact with the beauty of nature that is all around them.
Gardens encourage us to interact with nature; by planting flowers, herbs, or trees, we can cultivate our personal outdoor spaces to suit our tastes and invigorate our senses.
Earthships look like homes from another planet. They rise from the ground with an inviting organic warmth. They exemplify sustainable architecture that grounds people in their environment by using recycled materials, directional building, and water in creative and harmonious ways. All of this, made out of waste, such as old tires, found abundantly on all continents on Earth. Earthships are called ships because like a spaceship, they strive to meet all human needs in one space.
Earthships can be complex, but the core design is simple.
Facing south, earthships are designed to align to the cycles of nature. This begins with an angled bank of windows at the front of the home and a thermal mass “heat bank” along the back wall. This bank, made of earth-rammed tires and other insulating materials, stores heat from the sun. Because the sun stays closer to the horizon in the fall and winter, this heat bank captures more sunlight at those times of year. As temperatures fall in the evening, that heat is emitted as warmth into the home. Earthships are passive solar homes, though photovoltaic modules can be added to generate electricity.
Lining the front windows are thriving edible plants that provide oxygen and sustenance. Positioned to receive all daylight, the plants stay healthy and productive. They’re irrigated with treated greywater from the facets and shower, which also flushes the toilets. Water is harvested from rainwater on the roof and held in cisterns. On demand, the water is gravity-fed into a system that filters and pumps it into the home. A symbiosis exists between all organisms living in the home.
Even arid areas can support earthships, as their birthplace is Taos, New Mexico. This is where Mike Reynolds established the Earthship Biotecture Academy. Reynolds’s academy teaches people the philosophy and construction of earthships. If you would like to learn more, you can find the full version of this article online at RadiantLifeMag.com.
Andrea Parker has a master of education in humane education with over 13 years of teaching experience. She met friends in the Santa Cruz Mountains who built their own version of an earthship for under $10,000. Visiting their home inspired her vision of what she wants to create in this world.
After a breathtaking ride over the snowy peaks of the Andes Mountains, the turboprop plane descended from thin air to the thick, humid atmosphere of the jungle. Below us, a muddy river coiled through vibrant verdant forest—until the thick tangle of trees gave way to the dull brown patchwork quilt of agriculture. Ahead lay the airport runway of the city of Coca, near where another river merged and created an even wider winding flow.
Beneath me was the Amazon basin, but still a long way from Brazil. It takes a lot of water to feed the world’s largest river by volume. Ecuador is home to a mere 2 percent of the big river’s source waters, but the three nights I spent at an eco-lodge along the Napo River would be unforgettable. But first I had another two hours of travel on a long and low river launch before I could check in.
A Private Reserve
Sacha Lodge sits at the heart of a private 5,000-acre ecological reserve along the diminutive Pilchicocha Lagoon. Nestled into the surrounding rainforest, a short hike from the banks of the Napo River, the thatched-roof central building and family cabins are modestly woven into the landscape. All brought to you by Coca-Cola, you could say. Well, sort of. A Swiss citizen, Arnold “Benny” Ammeter used to work in distribution for the soda company and found himself deep in the remote markets of Ecuador. He became enamored of the beauty of this region and eventually returned to open an eco-lodge.
After a short time, he didn’t feel the resort was remote enough, so he searched for and found land even deeper into the wild, down the Napo River. With the assistance of local workers, he built Sacha Lodge, and over the years he purchased more acreage. Thanks to a commitment to hire locally, Sacha Lodge is the largest tourism-based employer in this entire region of Ecuador. The guides are primarily local as well, many of them able to draw upon not just typical naturalist knowledge but cultural learning, such as the medicinal uses of plants along the trails.
Into the Wild
“Wake up call is at 5:30,” we were told during the new arrival briefing.
“Because that’s when the animals get up.” We rest at midday, once again, just like the animals.
Boardwalks connect all the rooms and lodge buildings, which rise up on stilts above the mix of terra firma and marsh waters the color of sarsaparilla. Trails, muddy paths, or simple plank walks lead out into the forest. Umbrellas, ponchos, and, thankfully, knee-high rubber boots are provided by the lodge so guests don’t need to pack special gear.
They don’t call this a rainforest for nothing. Depending on the season, rain can affect the day’s activities. Downpours can be sudden and torrential, or the gray can come in almost as fine as a mist and last the entire day. But if you don’t mind getting a little damp—and you will—the hikes go on regardless. Under the forest canopy, the rain can be less intense.
Otters swim in the lagoon. Eight species of monkeys make their homes in the trees, from the world’s tiniest, the pygmy marmoset, to the Pavarotti-aspiring howler monkeys, whose call is so deep and resonant it can be heard a mile away. The abundance of avian life draws birders from far and wide, and during a typical stay, one is likely to see more than 200 species. The lodge guides have recorded nearly 600.
We gathered again in the evening for a night hike. We all carried lodge flashlights, but the guide could spot animals deep in the bush off the trail even in the dark. They know where to look. A special frog on a certain tree; a snake that frequently appears near another.
Dinner at the fine-dining restaurant offers a scenic overlook of the lake. At night, the stars reflect in the water, clear enough to see the constellations—many of which may be unfamiliar to northerners. The Big Dipper and the Southern Cross face each other on opposite ends of the balance of the heavens.
During the day, some guests swam a bit or napped in hammocks. I watched a local man on the dock drop a line in the water and asked him what he was fishing for. “Piranhas,” he replied. What? Where we swim?
Caimans—small crocodiles about a meter long from snout to tail—also call the little black lake home, and on barbeque night when dinner was moved from the lodge dining room to the grill in the dockside pavilion, one apparently had made reservations, snapping up pieces of chicken and pork dropped over the rail by servers.
Beyond the Lodge
Back out on the Napo River, the launch took a group of us to other sweet spots: A butterfly farm featuring exotic local varieties in a shelter where you can step in and join them. Also along the river is a clay lick, a favored spot for parakeets and macaws. They come at unpredictable times, but they came that day. A flurry and blur of iridescent blue, green, and bits of scarlet as countless birds swooped in and clung to the mud cliff, eating the clay, which is believed to counterbalance the acidity in their other foods.
And then there are the sights above the lodge. A short hike away into the rainforest, there’s a series of towers. Steps lead to the top, where it breaks through the canopy, and a steel catwalk 150 feet in the air stretches out across the treetops, offering closer views of the avian residents. There’s really no need to make much effort to find more birds: Even just outside the rooms, there are oropendolas, crow-like brown birds with golden tails, building their pouch-shaped nests dangling from a large kapok tree in the center of the compound. Their call, not unlike the cool tinkle of water drops in a pool, adds an exotic twist to the white noise of insects and frogs, a soundtrack worthy of an Amazon experience.
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler, craft beer enthusiast, and home cooking fan. He is the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and his new collection of short stories,“Stealing Away.” He is based in Madison, Wis., and his website isTheMadTraveler.com
We have all heard the classic saying, “you are what you eat”—but the energy in what you eat begins with the farmer. The produce and animals you consume are extensions of a farmer’s worldview. How natural and healthy the food you consume is, directly correlates with the practicing principles of your local farms.
“You know what the best kind of organic certification would be?” said Joel Salatin, farmer, lecturer, and author. “Make an unannounced visit to a farm and take a good, long look at the farmer’s bookshelf. Because what you’re feeding your emotions and thoughts is what this is really all about.”
Thumbing through the bookshelf at Molovin Farm in Arizona, you can find books such as “The One-Straw Revolution,” by Masanobu Fukuoka; “Folks, This Ain’t Normal” and “Family Friendly Farming,” by Joel Salatin; and the spiritual book “Zhuan Falun,” by Li Hongzhi. All of these books directly inform farmer Diana Molovinsky’s principles on how to organically align with nature through personal, farming, and family practices, and on how to foster appreciation for the divine thumbprint that exists throughout life.
“If you work with nature, it will give you what you need,” said Molovinsky. “Everything was given to us, as human beings, in perfect alignment—if we let it be.”
Molovinsky is a mother of five, and co-owns Molovin Farm together with her husband Oren. In September of 2011, they bought 3.5 acres of land in Arizona. What began as a barren land of dust and tumbleweeds has been slowly cultivated into a desert oasis. Now, a decade later, the family has grown an all-natural and sustainable farm specializing in peaches, seasonal fruit, and natural, free-range eggs.
It takes approximately seven years for a new farm to establish and be able to sustain itself naturally without too much human intervention. The goal at Molovin Farm is to create a natural farming production where the plants, wildlife, and animals all work together in harmony.
The farm’s 150 chickens are some of its hardest workers. Not only do the chickens nutrify the soil with their own fertilization, they also spread compost and eat bugs, scorpions, and poisonous spiders. The Nigerian Dwarf goats are the walking, talking, and fertilizing weed wackers on the farm.
Nature is self-regulating; creating an ecosystem encourages biodiversity among insects and animals, which is nature’s best pest control. At Molovin Farm, they rely on the natural process of elimination within their created ecosystem rather than resorting to pesticides or herbicides that kill both good and bad bugs.
“I have to have faith that these farmers who have been doing this for thousands of years without pesticides, knew what they were doing,” Molovinsky said. “When we don’t panic and we remain diligent, nature will find a way. It seems like a very intricate process, but sometimes when you step away, it really just takes care of itself.”
Nature plays the balancing act throughout the course of organically establishing a thriving ecosystem. When the number of bugs or insects increases, an influx of bird species is bound to follow. Where gophers and rodents seem to be out of control, owls and hawks will make their homes nearby.
Principles in Practice
Whether you’re a produce or animal farmer, you’re a soil farmer first. The health of vegetation, livestock, and our human bodies stems from the soil and water that grow our food. The question of how to make the soil healthier is a topic that every natural farmer faces.
Masanobu Fukuoka was an inspirational Japanese farmer, philosopher, and educator who has inspired Molovinsky’s method of farming. He strategized a technique of farming, referred to as “do-nothing farming,” that allows nature to flourish with little human intervention. It is not that you literally do nothing; rather, it is simply farming by subtraction.
When people supplant and add unnecessary things to the environment, they distance themselves from the true state of nature. By eliminating tasks and thinking creatively, one can lean closer to nature, with fewer actions. He believed that most humans are not able to truly and completely understand nature, and he therefore advocated for a no-till, no-pesticide cultivation of crops.
No-till farming is an agricultural technique where crops are planted without disturbing the soil or tilling it. It requires less energy input and yields higher production of crops. At Molovin Farm they use a no-till, no-dig gardening method called lasagna gardening.
Lasagna gardening involves building up layers of organic materials—carbon (mulch, leaves, or cardboard), compost, and amendments (chicken compost)—that break down over time, resulting in nutrient-rich soil. The compost used at Molovin Farm is a local organic compost consisting of worm castings and broken-down vegetation.
To build an ecosystem from a barren desert landscape, Molovinsky started by planting rows of peach trees and other fruit-bearing trees. Trees are known to benefit agriculture by providing shelter, moisture, and biodiversity. With rows of a couple hundred trees, Molovin Farm has become a bird sanctuary, attracting many species of birds, including egrets. The alley of trees also provides shade and shelter for the chickens during the summer months.
Trees do well with minimal effort. There’s no need to rake fallen leaves, thin the fruit, or prune the trees. This approach to tree care is inspired by Masanobu’s method of farming by subtraction. There are a lot of nutrients in leaves, twigs, and small branches. When they fall, they feed back into the soil by nourishing roots and underground mycorrhizae.
Mycorrhizae are symbiotic relationships between fungi and plants. Fungi attach to a plant’s roots either by surrounding the roots externally or by growing inside them. Microscopic fungal threads interconnect underground, absorbing nutrients and passing them on to a plant’s roots.
Fruition of Family Farming
Operating a family farm requires teamwork and dedication from all members of the family. Children who grow up on a farm learn lessons in responsibility, teamwork, and problem-solving. The children have farm chores that need to be completed before they can enjoy their free time. This attitude of self-discipline carries over into all aspects of their personal lives, from school to careers and relationships.
Children enjoy reaping the rewards of a bountiful harvest when all their hard work pays off. By witnessing the fruits of their labor, children can directly see the correlation between work and gain, which helps to instill confidence in their abilities.
One major lesson from farm life is that of impermanence. The farm is an ever-evolving ecosystem in which the only constant is change. Children have to learn to adapt, solve problems, and process their emotions. On Molovin Farm, the children have seen the births and raising of goats, the raising of chicks, and also some deaths of their beloved farm animals.
Experiencing death and the natural cycle of life helps children become more emotionally balanced and prepared for whatever life has in store for them. “My concern was: Are they going to be desensitized to death if they see it too much, and become little monsters that don’t value life?” Molovinsky said. “But it has been exactly the opposite. When they see a sick chick, they realize that there is a chance it could survive—and what a great feeling if they can help that life survive.”
Through caring for animals, children learn to put others’ lives before their own. No matter how tired or upset a child may feel, their livestock need food and water, and it becomes a responsibility. These realizations also cultivate compassion and appreciation toward nature and animals.
“We value all life; we don’t take life, but we also don’t intervene too much,” said Molovinsky. “If we are going to live as naturally as we can, death is inevitable.” The children at Molovin Farm have learned that if one of their livestock dies, then perhaps nothing more could have been done—the rest is in God’s hands.
Because her family practices the Buddhist/Daoist tradition of Falun Dafa, Molovinsky’s understanding is that all plants and animals have predestined relationships in this life, and she has developed greater appreciation, respect, and compassion for nature. Out of all the trees and livestock in the world, those at Molovin Farm are the ones that were fated to be raised there. “If there is a tree not getting enough water,” Molovinsky said, “we better figure it out, because that is our tree, and it could have gone to a better home—so if it chose our home, then we better take care of it.”
Through the practice, Molovinsky said she was better able to understand the balance of nature as well as God’s hand in it. “All of this is here for us,” Molovinsky said. “The question is whether we squander it and take advantage of it—or do we nurture it and care for it because we appreciate that it was given to us as is?”
Shake the Hand That Feeds You
It is incredibly common that people, children and adults alike, know almost nothing about the sources of their food. If you ask your child where their food comes from, a typical answer is that it comes from the grocery store.
When Molovinsky’s youngest child was in preschool, the class took a field trip to a grocery store. When they arrived at the eggs, the teacher asked the students if they knew where eggs came from. Molovinsky’s daughter bit her tongue while she looked in shock at the other children’s puzzled faces. As a young child, she didn’t realize that chicken rearing was not something everyone did.
Even among adults, if you ask someone where that head of lettuce in their fridge was grown, they’ll have to look at the label before saying something like “Oh, it’s from Mexico,” or “a product of California, I guess.”
“It should be that you know where some of your produce comes from—know some of your farmers,” said Molovinsky. “So hopefully we can make ourselves more accessible too.”
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has become a popular way for people to buy local, seasonal food directly from farmers. Getting involved with a CSA program is a great way to support your local farmers and get connected with the origins of your food.
Molovin Farm started its CSA program in the summer of 2020. “People were worried about their food source, and wanted to get a little more connected to their farmers because of COVID,” said Molovinsky. “When people discovered farmers nearby, they were all friends with their farmer.”
It’s natural for people to want to have a connection with their food. There is an innate excitement in seeing where food comes from and being able to harvest it. Because many people are growing more concerned with their food quality, dealing directly with a trusted, local farmer is the best option for ensuring your food security.
There are CSA programs available throughout the nation. Research which ones are close to your neighborhood—and don’t forget to shake the hand that feeds you!
In every sound of the violin there is the breathing of its trees.
—Antonio Stradivari, luthier
The story of the world’s greatest violins begins in the musical woods nearly 400 years ago. Standing high atop the Italian Alps, at an altitude of over 5,575 feet, the magical spruce trees grow very slowly. Having endured the bitter cold, these trees only grow for a few months per year, resulting in denser, more consistent wood.
In the musical forest, the altitude and climate have been orchestrated to produce timber that resonates with an unusually clear and consistent tone. Renaissance luthiers (artisan instrument makers), such as Antonio Stradivari, handpicked the trees that would later become the finest instruments known to man.
Inspired Original’s short film “Violino” reveals the intimate construction of a violin and how a masterpiece is created when cosmic timing, nature, and man are in harmony.
“If we want to go towards the future, we must know where we came from.”
—Davide Negroni, luthier
Antonio Stradivari is heralded as the greatest luthier known throughout history. He constructed nearly 1,100 stringed instruments between the late 1600s and the mid-1700s in Cremona, Lombardy (present-day Italy). The golden period for Stradivari violins was from 1700 to 1725, when Stradivari produced his finest masterpieces. About 650 of those instruments have survived.
Many current violin models are constructed from Stradivari blueprints, but while the majority of violins manufactured today come from factories, there are still luthiers dedicated to keeping the tradition of Stradivari alive and preserving the art for generations to come.
It takes roughly 250 hours of calm focus to build a violin by hand. “You have to live with yourself and your emotions all day long,” says luthier Davide Negroni in “Violino,” “it’s a world where a lot of patience is required.”
Stradivari is said to have been a man who was never satisfied, yet the first time he heard his instrument, he smiled. A violin can be an exquisite work of art, but it remains as such until it is played—only then can it truly fulfill its purpose, enabling the musical tree from which it came to sing.
In most cases, it can take more than 10,000 hours of practice for a person to master any skill. For the magical spruce trees, it takes from 150 to 200 years of growth before their wood can be harvested for the creation of violins. The tale of a Stradivari violin begins and ends with patience. A violin’s entire journey, from construction to performance, is characterized by the cumulative efforts of sacrifice, perseverance, craftsmanship, and dedication.
Inspired Original is a platform that aims to build a strong community supporting traditional arts, culture, and education. Their mission is to enrich lives by fostering an understanding of the universal values inherent to traditional arts. “Violino” is currently available for streaming online (InspiredOriginal.org).
Susan and Chris Goodwin, who live in Charlotte, North Carolina, started trying to conceive when they were both 26. Though Susan stopped taking birth control six months before they married, they tried for a year without success. The Goodwins’ obstetrician referred them to a specialist but even the reproductive endocrinologists, after running dozens of tests, couldn’t find anything wrong. It was perplexing: The Goodwins were young and healthy. Even so, they endured three years of infertility.
A new study in the journal Environmental Pollution has bad news for couples like the Goodwins who want to start a family. Scientists detected glyphosate and its adjuvant, AMPA, in the urine of over 90 percent of the pregnant women they sampled. The more glyphosate found in the pregnant women, the more problems were observed in the babies’ genitals—problems associated with later infertility.
Glyphosate is the main ingredient in the herbicide Roundup. A synthetic chemical patented originally as a metal chelator and antibiotic, this weed-killer can be found in over 750 products.
“The problem with glyphosate is that it’s everywhere,” says Mary Alionis, who has been an organic farmer for 30 years and is the owner of Whistling Duck Farm, a 22-acre organic farm in Grants Pass, Oregon. “Even if you don’t use it on your lawn or your garden, you’ve likely been exposed to it. You can’t get away from it. It’s on food, it’s on the roadways, it’s in the parks.”
James Neuenschwander, M.D., a family physician based in White Lake, Michigan, agrees. “I can choose not to use it, and I don’t,” Neuenschwander says, “but that doesn’t mean I can live free of glyphosate, I’m being exposed because my neighbor uses it or the farmer half a mile away is spraying his fields with it. It gets aerosolized and into the water. More importantly, even if I eat nothing but organic foods, it doesn’t guarantee that there’s no glyphosate in it from cross-contamination from commercial fields. I’ve been glyphosate-free for years, but I still have more glyphosate in my system than 60 percent of Americans. Something is definitely wrong with that.”
And as our worldwide use of glyphosate has increased, so have our problems with fertility. Indeed, infertility issues are on the rise in the United States and worldwide. Couples wanting to become parents are facing a host of difficulties.
“We see a fair number of people with fertility issues, especially men with sperm that are not fully functioning,” says Cammy Benton, M.D., an integrative family physician based in Huntersville, North Carolina. “They feel desperate. And they’re also broke. They’re financially strapped because of all the money they’ve spent on trying to get pregnant.”
According to peer-reviewed research published in the journal Human Reproduction Update, sperm counts have declined a staggering 52 percent since 1973. Teenage boys and young adults are being plagued by decreasing levels of testosterone, which can affect sex drive, muscle and bone mass, as well as sperm production. At the same time, according to the Urology Care Foundation, testicular cancer, the most common form of cancer in young people ages 15 to 34, is on the rise globally. According to one 2015 scientific review, “A spectacular rise in testicular germ cell cancer has occurred in all parts of the world.”
As if that’s not enough, sexual desire among men is also down. A recent survey, done in Japan and published in Japan Today, found that nearly 45 percent of men ages 20 to 34 who had gone without sex for a year or more admitted they didn’t want or weren’t particularly interested in sex.
What does all this have to do with glyphosate?
Although we think of testosterone as a male hormone, too much or too little testosterone can also affect a woman’s fertility. One study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that testosterone affects the development of the follicles—the structures that hold and release eggs during ovulation. Ovulation issues are one main cause of infertility in women, along with miscarriage and early-onset menopause.
Theories abound about the reasons for the decreasing birth rates and increasing infertility issues. Some pundits have blamed videogame addiction. Why have sex when you can live in a virtual world? Others say it’s due to economic instability. It’s hard to justify having a family when you are living with your parents and working a low-paying job.
But Benton and other medical doctors and researchers argue that the underlying cause of infertility for both men and women is environmental.
“We know that endocrine disruptors affect hormone function and the health of the sperm, in animals as well as in people,” Benton says. “The fact that environmental toxins are affecting fertility is no secret.”
Which brings us back to the study on glyphosate in pregnant women. This study, led by Corina Lesseur, M.D./Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine, adds to a growing body of scientific evidence pointing to glyphosate and its adjuvants as the most pervasive environmental cause of the recent decline in human fertility.
Female children of women exposed to glyphosate during pregnancy have abnormal genitalia, as measured by the distance between the anus and the nearest point of the genitals. A longer “anogenital distance” is more characteristic of males.
In other studies as well, in both mammals and humans, scientists have found an association between maternal exposure to glyphosate and disrupted hormones in their offspring.
“Female offspring with this abnormality are over-exposed to testosterone in utero,” says Brian Hooker, Ph.D., Frances P. Owen distinguished professor of biology at Simpson University in Redding, California. “And we know glyphosate is an endocrine disruptor. In fact, it’s known to suppress the enzyme that converts testosterone to estrogen.”
This genital defect is also a predictor of a condition in women called polycystic ovary syndrome. PCOS is one of the main root causes of female infertility, associated with irregular menstrual cycles and sometimes a total lack of menstrual periods, as well as with excess growth of facial and body hair.
In a recent study, women with the longest anogenital distance had nearly 19 times the risk of being diagnosed with PCOS compared to those with the shortest.
In addition to fertility issues, women with PCOS are also at an increased risk of autism, both for themselves and their offspring. In a 2019 study, women with PCOS were nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with autism, and also significantly more likely to have a child with autism.
Another study found a positive correlation between fetal testosterone and autism in school-aged children. Yet another study looked at toddlers and found that children between 18 and 24 months of age who had traits associated with autism (less eye contact, a reduced vocabulary, narrower interests, and less empathy) also had higher levels of exposure to testosterone during gestation.
Perhaps surprisingly, glyphosate seems to cause lower than normal testosterone in males as well. A 2010 study on exposure of prepubertal male rats to glyphosate found that glyphosate reduced testosterone production in the testes and reduced the level in the blood.
After three years of trying, Susan Goodwin finally held a baby in her arms. A little boy with light brown hair and bright blue eyes. In the interim, she stopped eating all packaged and processed foods. This, she says, helped her have more energy and balance her hormones.
Serenity Quesnelle, diagnosed with PCOS when she was 16 years old, hasn’t been as lucky. Quesnelle, who’s 27 and lives in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, has been trying to conceive for nearly four years.
“I’ve seen multiple doctors and have just been left with the answer of ‘unexplained infertility,’” she says sadly, adding that she and her husband are doing everything they can to figure out the root cause. Quesnelle isn’t sure but she thinks the infertility stems from a poor diet growing up, along with taking dozens of rounds of antibiotics and other prescription medications. She believes glyphosate, too, is partly to blame.
“I’m frustrated,” she says. “So many things that we know aren’t safe are still allowed to be sold, and even pushed on us.”
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is a science journalist based in Oregon. She’s appeared live on prime-time TV in France and worked on a child survival campaign in Niger, West Africa. A Fulbright grantee and sought-after speaker, she authored “Your Baby, Your Way,” and co-authored “The Vaccine-Friendly Plan.” Learn more at www.JenniferMargulis.net
While more than 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders, the stresses of life amid the COVID-19 pandemic have boosted anxiety and depression to a crisis level.
Meanwhile, finding effective ways to treat mental health issues is critical for long-term success in managing these conditions.
Engaging With Nature
While mental illness has been stigmatized, that stigma is dissipating as more people are engaged with the treatment of depression and anxiety through psychiatric and medical counseling. Because so many medications have side effects, it’s important to discover treatments that are effective, yet limit pharmaceutical dependency. Finding non-chemical ways to treat these conditions often leads to more long-term success.
One scientifically proven chemical-free way to improve mental health through the reduction of anxiety and depression is by increasing outdoor green activities. Research shows that increased green activities—or living an active outdoor lifestyle—can reduce the amount of medication required to stabilize many mental health conditions. Regular activity outdoors can often be as effective as medication in treating mild depression.
Simply being outdoors working in the garden and walking in the fresh air can be both physically and mentally restorative.
Researchers at the UK’s University of Essex discovered that 94 percent of test subjects in a study commented that they felt green exercise had furthered their mental health in a positive way. Participants felt their physical health specifically improved with walking outdoors. Respondents also reported decreased levels of depression, felt less fatigued and tense after walking outside, and noted improved mood and self-esteem.
In other words, outdoor green activities such as gardening and walking can significantly influence one’s state of mind. These activities, which boost dopamine and serotonin levels, connect a person to the natural outdoor environment.
Brain Neurotransmitters, Sunlight, and Serotonin
Dopamine levels are known to increase in the brain when participating in general outdoor or green activities. Both serotonin and dopamine are pleasure center neurotransmitters that are associated with happiness, joy, pleasure, and love. Serotonin specifically regulates mood, memory, and impulse, while dopamine is closely tied to euphoria, enjoyment, motivation. Dopamine is also responsible for those magical feelings of “falling in love.”
When depression is caused by a chemical imbalance, it’s often associated with an insufficient level of dopamine in the brain.
Sunlight is a proven serotonin stimulator. By exercising outdoors in the garden or walking outdoors in nature daily, you are exposing yourself to the daylight spectrum. Sunlight exposure also appears to be an effective treatment for winter-based seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This particular type of depression is related to changes in the seasons, starting as the daylight ebbs in fall and stretching through the season until there is more daylight exposure after winter.
SAD saps energy and can make you feel moody and sorrowful. Performing green activities outdoors with exposure to daylight has a significantly positive effect on people who suffer from the condition.
One of the great benefits of nature, in general, is that it lends itself to mindfulness. When your mind is filled with all the thoughts about work, finances, and family, there’s no better cure than to weed or tend to plants outdoors, for instance. Gardening when we are distraught or stressed about something that is weighing heavily on us enables our minds to be intrinsically focused on the present.
Life’s difficulties and dramas melt away as we address our task.
Plants need love. Tending them takes our eyes, our hands, and our hearts. While out in the garden and very focused on our tasks, we hear the birds and wind through the trees, we see the beauty before us in flowers and color, we touch the soil and plants, we smell the magnificence of all of nature on a spring day, we can taste the harvest of a cherry tomato.
Whether gardening or bicycling or walking, living mindfully is often defined as “living in the moment.” Spending time outdoors walking in a park creates an environment where one must live in the present moment engaging in an activity that is good for you and nature. Nature can calm an anxious mind and allow that focus on the present to wash over you emotionally in a way that few things can.
Discovering an outdoor place where you can connect with nature therapeutically while performing green activities can be life-changing. These green activities can be defined as anything outdoors in sunlight: walking, running, gardening, and cycling are all good examples.
Adding green activities to your medical treatment regimen can contribute to reducing anxiety and depression levels.
Shawna Coronado is an anti-inflammatory lifestyle author, coach, media host, photographer, and writer. She is recognized for wellness and anti-inflammatory lifestyle, organic gardening, and healthy nutrition. Shawna dreams of helping others live a healthier, more active, lifestyle. You can learn more about Shawna at www.shawnacoronado.com
I often speak to parent audiences in school settings about screen addiction warning signs and prevention. On the way to the auditorium for a recent parent talk, I found myself wandering through the K-2nd grade hall of a local public school. My youngest of four children is in high school now, so it has been years since I visited an elementary school.
As I walked through the halls, I remembered fondly when my kids were little. Some things were the same: the smell of glue and crayons, and the tiny little backpacks and cubbies. But I began to notice some things were different.
I peeked in a classroom and assumed that I would see those little desks with the chairs attached. But they weren’t there. Instead, the classrooms had strange hammocks and swinging chairs hanging from the ceiling that looked like cocoons. Instead of little chairs at the desks, they had big balls and wobble chairs that I was told were for “active sitting.” My escort, Kathy, the technology teacher, told me that since kids spend so much time indoors on screens, they are entering school lacking the core physical strength to help them actually sit in a chair and learn. Everything in the classroom was designed to accommodate kids with gross and fine motor sensory deficiencies.
She explained these tools are necessary to accomplish the catch-up work needed to build kids’ core strength. There were floor surfers so kids could slide on their bellies across the room, vestibular wedges, a balance disk, and more. “This is the regular classroom. This is standard for our younger students,” the teacher said.
Down the hallway, there were art projects strangely different from those I remembered. Very few were made by hand. Instead, they were photos printed from a digital printer, sloppily cut out, and pasted on poster boards.
“Kid’s do digital art these days, they love the computer,“ she explained. I did get a glimpse of a few hand-drawn pieces outside the door of the first-grade classroom. Kathy said that this teacher doesn’t like to use technology in her classroom. It was refreshing to see something a little more familiar, but the drawings weren’t the trees, families, and flowers one might expect from young children. These drawings were block-like video game characters, computer/tablet screens, and one image with knives, red blood drops, and a disembodied head. I felt like I was in a science fiction movie. Where was the kid art? No houses, no birds or rainbows, and the few families drawn had no detailed faces–remember the wonderful drawing your child brought home on Mother’s Day with the exaggerated eyelashes and big earrings? None of those either.
As I continued through the building, I asked about a strange “dirt” line along the entire length of the hallway at waist level. Kathy explained: “When the children walk in single file, they extend their arms out to touch the wall so that they can get their bearings and not fall over. Their balance is off because their core is weak; they don’t get enough time outside in real physical play.”
Their balance is off in more ways than one.
I began to unravel this elementary school mystery when I got home and called Cris Rowan, a pediatric occupational therapist. She explained that the average child spends more time on a screen than asleep. They aren’t getting enough time moving or in free play to build core muscles. They aren’t spending enough time outside in nature—what’s known as a “nature deficit.”
“Humans have two sensorimotor systems that are stimulated by movement: the vestibular system located in the brain (often referenced as our “inner ear”) and the proprioceptive system located in our muscles. These two systems integrate with each other and with the visual system to provide core stability, motor coordination, and balance. Children who don’t move enough don’t fully develop these essential sensorimotor systems resulting in poor core stability, coordination, and balance with the consequent need to reach out to use the wall for stability,” she said.
Rowan said nature ignites the imagination in ways a screen never could. Nature stimulates all of our senses—sight, sound, touch, smell, and even taste—in the perfect balance that kids need to develop appropriately. Without exposure to these stimuli, kids become hypersensitive and anxious. I learned that a lack of nature experiences contributes to sensory deficiencies and that physical strength affects brain development. Who knew that holding crayons and learning to read were so dependent on how much time a child spends on the playground? It hit me just how much screen time is robbing our youth of necessary movement and physical exercise. With an increase in sedentary screen time comes attention and learning problems. It made so much sense now.
Our parents knew nothing about sensory needs or the critical core strength needs of children. Why did we not require cocoon swings, wobble chairs, and balance boards? Why were we drawing pictures of real human faces and trees and birds? Because nature was our classroom, we socialized face-to-face, and playing outside in the dirt was what we did to grow up.
Kids need to play outside.
My favorite memories of childhood centered around playing outside with my brother. These nature experiences were the building blocks of our personalities and who we became as adults.
We learned things outside you could never learn in a classroom. We used our imaginations and innovative skills to build a double-decker tree fort—complete with a trap door—in the avocado tree in our backyard. It was safe enough for us to sleep in. We made mud stew filled with leaves and berries and fought battles with kumquats—the more rotten the better. We became businessmen, selling avocados to the neighbor and investing our earnings in candy from the drug store.
We counted splinters, cuts, and skinned knees as badges of honor. We hung from trees and climbed Mr. Heart’s very tall brick wall daily (it was only five feet tall but seemed like 10 feet tall to us). It came naturally to us to see the backyard as our workplace. We learned to use a hammer, a shovel, and a saw. We rarely complained that we were bored. I have no recollection of our parents being involved in any of our outdoor adventures. We felt independent. We rode our bikes everywhere and our parents didn’t track us.
We worked hard to build our imaginations and strengthen our brains. We learned how to plan, try new ideas, and invent our own fun. We solved problems and invented as we learned how things physically worked. We acted out the Wild Wild West show. I convinced my brother to set up a zip line from the treehouse to the real house. It was a lesson in gravity, speed, and physics.
We dug big holes in the backyard (to make temporary swimming pools), and walked our cute dog, Daisy, twice a day, rain or shine. We got plenty of dirt and vitamin D. Most importantly, we had empty space and ample time to relax and contemplate. We watched 30 minutes of TV a few times a week if it was raining outside.
We stayed outside till the streetlights came on, ate our dinner as a family, and fell into bed every night for a full eight hours of rest. We built a wealth of memories as rulers of our backyard kingdom.
School was fun.
Recess was our most important period of the day. We got our energy out and then focused on math. Teachers knew that kids who moved a lot learned a lot. We never sat for hours in front of a screen–and neither did any of our peers.
We grew physically strong. The whole class participated in fitness programs and we got ribbons for being the fastest runner and doing the most sit-ups and pull-ups. We wanted to win, so we ran a lot at home and at recess to practice. We didn’t need vestibular wedges for our chairs because we swung upside down on the ring swings.
Our emotional health grew alongside our physical strength. We developed confidence and figured out who we were as we became gritty and worked hard. Our identity was based on what our family valued, what we learned, and what we accomplished, not the approval and influence of social media peers or virtual influencers.
We weren’t anxious, we were social. There were no smartphones at lunch and there was plenty of time to build friendships. Our emotional intelligence grew as we spent in-person time with a few close friends at home and a few more at school. Science would eventually explain why quality is better than quantity when it comes to building friendships.
We were practicing our executive function skills as we worked through awkward conversations with peers without being able to text mom for help or sympathy. We learned to compromise and cooperate and communicate. And the mean girls only got to be mean till three o’clock, then everyone went home for a break and a good night’s sleep.
We shared our feelings and social conflicts with close friends in confidence or by writing them down in the diary we kept under the bed, not on public platforms. Our family stories and secret handshakes were kept private, too, making them more valuable.
Kids are lost in a virtual bubble.
Now imagine growing up in today’s world without learning how to climb trees, build forts, and balance your favorite book, bubblegum, and baby dolls as climb up to the treehouse. Imagine never feeling the soft but sometimes itchy grass on your bare feet, and the feeling of that same grass when it gets wet and slippery as you run through the sprinklers. The sun, the mud, the made-up games in the backyard—the average child is missing out on all of that today. They are living in a physically sterile and emotionally toxic virtual bubble instead.
They are out of balance and stressed. They are lacking core strength, both physically and emotionally. And it gets worse: They have no memories and no stories to draw on for the rest of their lives. They are empty and depressed because their lives are void of nature and the most wonderful parts of being a child. What will they tell their children they did when they were children?
How to fill the void?
Today’s kids are starving, empty, and missing out. The only way to fix the problem is to replace the volume of hours spent on screens with the rich benefits of nature, in-person relationships, and purposeful downtime. Remove the toxic screens from our kids’ lives, and replace them with time spent in nature.
The best antidote for screen overuse is to go play outside.
This fix is easier than you might think. For younger kids, only a few weeks of a new low-screen time routine will reset their brains. For older teens, with brains that have already been shaped by the screen culture, it will be harder. But it is possible. I’ve seen it happen many times.
To start, try to gather one or two like-minded families and resolve to make a change together. The best place to begin is with one completely screen-free week. Then progress to a month and keep going one step at a time. When toxic screens are removed as an option, kids will be forced to go outside and explore like they’re supposed to. Will they complain at first? Absolutely. But they will also get bored, get creative, and make their own fun. They deserve the opportunity to experience the freedom that the natural world brings.
Aside from stimulating kids’ creativity, imagination, and all of their senses, nature is also a source of comfort. Kids with high levels of screen time are anxious and stressed—nature is the perfect balm for their anxiety. Research in Canada shows that nature experiences can even treat ADHD. Nature experiences also lower stress levels and decrease blood pressure.
It’s hard for kids to be in nature and not move. Outdoor time helps children expend energy and calm down. If their energy isn’t expended, it turns into stress. To put it in adult terms, proper exercise doesn’t exhaust you, it keeps you healthy and relaxed. And if you’re wondering why kids can’t use screen-based games to relax, it’s because screen-based activities aren’t relaxing. Ask any adult who tries to use Facebook as a relaxation technique: It overstimulates the brain and only increases stress and anxiety.
One of our most important jobs as parents is to take the long view when it comes to our kids’ lives because children (even teens) aren’t mature enough to do that themselves. Ask your children what their favorite backyard memories are. If they don’t have any, today is the day to start creating some.
7 Warning Signs Your Child has a Screen Dependency
Screen activities are the only thing that puts child in a good mood
Unhappy when forced to unplug
Screen use is increasing over time
Only thing that motivates child
Sneaks around to use screens and lies about use
Increase in anxiety and stress
Screen use interferes with family activities, friendships, or school
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Summer Elegance Sometimes a touch of nature is all we need to capture that seemingly elusive tranquility.