We know that trees have many benefits. In forests they provide habitat, wood, biodiversity and ecosystem services. In cities, they can mitigate the urban heat island effect by cooling the air and reducing greenhouse gases.
But, perhaps surprisingly, there is increasing evidence that trees are also good for our mental health.
Are we all tree-huggers?
The idea that humans are intimately connected to the earth has persisted throughout human history and across cultures. In the western world, this connection was most recently described by eminent biogeographer E.O. Wilson in his 1984 book Biophilia. Wilson notes that humans naturally like to be around other living things.
This theory helps to explain why people prefer green scenes to urban scenes, why pet owners are happier and healthier, and possibly why we’re so obsessed with cute and cuddly animals.
This hypothesis was the basis of “connection to nature”. Psychologists have now developed multiple scales used by researchers to determine how connected a person is, and how we might be able to increase our connection to our benefit.
Connection to nature research is still developing, but early results seem to indicate that how connected to nature you are is related to your environmental behaviours, such as participation in recycling programs and an increase in overall well-being and happiness.
Because it is still a new line of research, the relative connection to nature of folks who live in urban areas and cities versus those of us living in rural places has yet to be established. But many researchers and environmental educators have come to suspect that we are becoming disconnected from nature.
This disconnect from nature was set out in 2005 by American writer Richard Louv in his book The Last Child in the Woods. Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” which means that modern humans have become disconnected from nature through our daily activities and this disconnect has had negative consequences in terms of mental and physical health. Proof of this hypothesis so far lies in studies that show how people with “modern” ailments, such as ADHD, anxiety or depression feel better with exposure to nature.
Based in North America, the Children & Nature Network has pages and pages of summarised research from academics around the world that seems to indicate a strong likelihood this disconnect is a real phenomenon. The sheer number of studies and their results showing the miracle cure of nature can be overwhelming at times.
There are studies represented such as:
Do yourself a favour, skim the pages of research summarised in short abstract form on the Children & Nature Network website. You may start to wonder why we’re not hearing more about getting our children and ourselves back outside.
This research also clearly highlights the important role that urban trees play in cities: their enormous social and psychological benefits may be even greater than ecological benefits.
Reconnecting with the natural world
So what are our next steps? As I see it, there are two things that must be done.
First, as researchers we really need to directly test the idea of a disconnect particularly between urban/built up areas and more rural areas with plentiful trees. We need to know if people living in areas with fewer trees and natural environments are more disconnected from nature than those living in places where there are abundant trees and wildlife. Deeper still, we could also ask what interventions seem to connect folks to nature in a meaningful way?
Second and most importantly, if we are disconnected from nature, what can we do about it? Fortunately the above studies and resources show us many different activities and ideas we can use to increase our nature exposure.
Just a few ideas to try:
Bring a plant into your office.
Ask council to plant a street tree outside your office window or better yet all around town.
When walking, choose the path through the park instead of around it.
Take your children to the park, to the natural sections as well as the play equipment.
Practise the art of gardening or even veggie gardening.
Plant a tree.
Spend some time sitting under a tree. And if you’re so inclined, maybe even give it a cuddle.
The writer of the academic essay aims to persuade readers of an idea based on evidence. The beginning of the essay is a crucial first step in this process. In order to engage readers and establish your authority, the beginning of your essay has to accomplish certain business. Your beginning should introduce the essay, focus it, and orient readers.
Introduce the Essay.The beginning lets your readers know what the essay is about, the topic. The essay's topic does not exist in a vacuum, however; part of letting readers know what your essay is about means establishing the essay's context, the frame within which you will approach your topic. For instance, in an essay about the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech, the context may be a particular legal theory about the speech right; it may be historical information concerning the writing of the amendment; it may be a contemporary dispute over flag burning; or it may be a question raised by the text itself. The point here is that, in establishing the essay's context, you are also limiting your topic. That is, you are framing an approach to your topic that necessarily eliminates other approaches. Thus, when you determine your context, you simultaneously narrow your topic and take a big step toward focusing your essay. Here's an example.
|When Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening was published in 1899, critics condemned the book as immoral. One typical critic, writing in the Providence Journal, feared that the novel might "fall into the hands of youth, leading them to dwell on things that only matured persons can understand, and promoting unholy imaginations and unclean desires" (150). A reviewer in the St. Louis Post- Dispatch wrote that "there is much that is very improper in it, not to say positively unseemly."|
The paragraph goes on. But as you can see, Chopin's novel (the topic) is introduced in the context of the critical and moral controversy its publication engendered.
Focus the Essay. Beyond introducing your topic, your beginning must also let readers know what the central issue is. What question or problem will you be thinking about? You can pose a question that will lead to your idea (in which case, your idea will be the answer to your question), or you can make a thesis statement. Or you can do both: you can ask a question and immediately suggest the answer that your essay will argue. Here's an example from an essay about Memorial Hall.
|Further analysis of Memorial Hall, and of the archival sources that describe the process of building it, suggests that the past may not be the central subject of the hall but only a medium. What message, then, does the building convey, and why are the fallen soldiers of such importance to the alumni who built it? Part of the answer, it seems, is that Memorial Hall is an educational tool, an attempt by the Harvard community of the 1870s to influence the future by shaping our memory of their times. The commemoration of those students and graduates who died for the Union during the Civil War is one aspect of this alumni message to the future, but it may not be the central idea.|
The fullness of your idea will not emerge until your conclusion, but your beginning must clearly indicate the direction your idea will take, must set your essay on that road. And whether you focus your essay by posing a question, stating a thesis, or combining these approaches, by the end of your beginning, readers should know what you're writing about, and why—and why they might want to read on.
Orient Readers. Orienting readers, locating them in your discussion, means providing information and explanations wherever necessary for your readers' understanding. Orienting is important throughout your essay, but it is crucial in the beginning. Readers who don't have the information they need to follow your discussion will get lost and quit reading. (Your teachers, of course, will trudge on.) Supplying the necessary information to orient your readers may be as simple as answering the journalist's questions of who, what, where, when, how, and why. It may mean providing a brief overview of events or a summary of the text you'll be analyzing. If the source text is brief, such as the First Amendment, you might just quote it. If the text is well known, your summary, for most audiences, won't need to be more than an identifying phrase or two:
|In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's tragedy of `star-crossed lovers' destroyed by the blood feud between their two families, the minor characters . . .|
Often, however, you will want to summarize your source more fully so that readers can follow your analysis of it.
Questions of Length and Order. How long should the beginning be? The length should be proportionate to the length and complexity of the whole essay. For instance, if you're writing a five-page essay analyzing a single text, your beginning should be brief, no more than one or two paragraphs. On the other hand, it may take a couple of pages to set up a ten-page essay.
Does the business of the beginning have to be addressed in a particular order? No, but the order should be logical. Usually, for instance, the question or statement that focuses the essay comes at the end of the beginning, where it serves as the jumping-off point for the middle, or main body, of the essay. Topic and context are often intertwined, but the context may be established before the particular topic is introduced. In other words, the order in which you accomplish the business of the beginning is flexible and should be determined by your purpose.
Opening Strategies.There is still the further question of how to start. What makes a good opening? You can start with specific facts and information, a keynote quotation, a question, an anecdote, or an image. But whatever sort of opening you choose, it should be directly related to your focus. A snappy quotation that doesn't help establish the context for your essay or that later plays no part in your thinking will only mislead readers and blur your focus. Be as direct and specific as you can be. This means you should avoid two types of openings:
- The history-of-the-world (or long-distance) opening, which aims to establish a context for the essay by getting a long running start: "Ever since the dawn of civilized life, societies have struggled to reconcile the need for change with the need for order." What are we talking about here, political revolution or a new brand of soft drink? Get to it.
- The funnel opening (a variation on the same theme), which starts with something broad and general and "funnels" its way down to a specific topic. If your essay is an argument about state-mandated prayer in public schools, don't start by generalizing about religion; start with the specific topic at hand.
Remember. After working your way through the whole draft, testing your thinking against the evidence, perhaps changing direction or modifying the idea you started with, go back to your beginning and make sure it still provides a clear focus for the essay. Then clarify and sharpen your focus as needed. Clear, direct beginnings rarely present themselves ready-made; they must be written, and rewritten, into the sort of sharp-eyed clarity that engages readers and establishes your authority.
Copyright 1999, Patricia Kain, for the Writing Center at Harvard University