If picturing images of the natural world helps us to relax and recharge, imagine what a walk in a local park or along a Great Lakes shore can do for us. We recognize this at some level, given that a majority of us seek refuge in natural spaces, family cottages and national parks for our vacations. But in our daily lives? The average American spends only 7 percent of her or his daily life outdoors.
More than 1,000 studies over the past 40 years back up our need for and the benefits of connections with the natural world. Time spent in greenspace lowers our blood pressure and stress hormone levels, reduces anxiety and feelings of isolation, and improves mood and cognitive function. Beyond the exquisite vistas and escape from the noise and congestion of modern life, mountains, trees, lakes and streams also release ions and chemicals that we absorb, and that enhance our health and well-being.
If projections are right that two-thirds of the world's population will live in urban areas, if not megacities, by 2050, how can we ensure that we find time to receive nature’s gifts of energy and calm? In the rush of daily life and constant connections with computer, phone and television screens, can we prioritize the only 120 minutes per week that are proven to provide what we need from nature?
Encouraging Connections with Nature Through Science and Communications
When environmental awareness and protection was growing into adolescence in the 1980s, those of us in the environmental communications field focused on explaining how our lifestyles were impacting the Earth, and the sometimes simple but often complicated and expensive choices we needed to make to restore and protect our water, land and air. This is still essential to communicate, but it’s no longer where we start. We’ve learned over time that the messaging should focus first on getting people outside to heighten nature’s value in our lives—because what we value, we act to protect.
Many studies also have found that higher scores of connectedness to nature result in a sense that we are meaningfully involved in something larger than ourselves, a stronger interest in generosity and a commitment to act to protect it. Sustainability of the planet is ultimately about maintaining an intimate relationship with nature to become a positive global citizen.
The communications and engagement program created in 2015 for the IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement work focused on helping the region’s residents to make those valuable connections to nature and the lakes through a variety of methods.
This newsletter, aptly titled Great Lakes Connection, was created to share the latest news, science and policy about the lakes to connect readers with the lakes they love and how they can help to meet the Agreement’s goals to restore and protect the lakes.
Public meetings to hear citizens’ perspectives about the health of the lakes gave them the opportunity to directly act on their values and contribute to IJC recommendations to governments. As public affairs officer for the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office, I traveled around the lakes to put on IJC meetings, in the 1980-90s and from 2016-2020. Both times, the sense of importance and urgency the region’s residents placed on Great Lakes water quality was undeniable.
Encouraging Connections with Nature Through Story
As environmental communications has evolved, the variety of ways to connect with others has expanded. Studies in the early 2000s, for example, showed that reading fiction is as beneficial as meditation for reducing stress. It helps us to sleep better, improves our self-esteem, builds vocabulary, expands our imagination, slows mental decline later in life and helps us want to make worthwhile contributions to the world. Sound familiar?
These studies provided the impetus I needed: Could I expand my environmental messaging into fiction by writing a novel that communicates the value of nature in our lives? Where the setting is as much a character as the people, the story inspires readers to remember places and parts of nature they care about and where the main character has to decide just how important nature is to her?
The Best Part of Us, published in September by 2019 Independent Publisher of the Year She Writes Press, is my attempt to write about a woman who must decide whether to save herself and her connection with nature and a lake in the northern Great Lakes region, in order to explore the same choice humanity faces—for Earth will survive and heal, but our values and actions will determine whether humans and other species can as well.
What I’ve learned in my environmental communications career, including my work at the IJC, drove the novel’s messaging. I am indebted to every scientist, policymaker and citizen I’ve worked with for sharing their passion for the natural world, and particularly the Great Lakes, in ways that help all of us consider our personal and collective actions and their impact on nature.
If we truly consider and value the gifts that nature provides to us and recognize that we are a part of nature, we will treat the Great Lakes and the rest of our majestic planet differently. Spending time in nature will feel as vital, if not more so, than the latest episode of our favorite TV program.
From there, we can begin to dream of a new structure to societies, which focus economies on well-being, health and connection with everything else on Earth. Nature has absorbed our negative contributions -- our society’s air, water and noise pollution -- and yet still continues to provide health-giving ions and photoncides, as well as the air, water and soil we need to survive.
It’s well beyond time we celebrate our connections and give to nature as good as we get.
Sally Cole-Misch has created effective environmental communications and education programs for more than 30 years for local environmental groups to international organizations such as the IJC. Her novel, The Best Part of Us, immerses readers in a breathtaking natural world, a fresh perspective on loyalty, and an exquisite ode to the essential roles that nature family and place hold in our lives. The novel is available in paperback and ebook from all major booksellers, including Indigo, Bookshop, Amazon, Indiebound, Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million. For more information, visit sallycole-misch.com.