The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative
By Florence Williams
ISBN: 0393242714 / 978-0393242713
W.W. Norton and Company, New York
304 pp (hardcover edition)
‘…we’re losing our connection to nature more dramatically than ever before. Thanks to a confluence of demographics and technology, we’ve pivoted further away from nature than any generation before us.’ –Richard Louv, in The Nature Fix
Author Florence Williams struggled with moving from the rugged American West to the suburbs of the US capital; having spent a lifetime finding both adventure and relaxation in the great outdoors, she found herself tense, stressed, and melancholy once nature no longer featured so prominently. This journey from rural to urban is increasingly common in the modern world, and forms a backdrop against which The Nature Fix is written. It helps drive home the point that the questions being asked in the book have real implications for human health. The reader is constantly rooting for Williams to find a silver bullet that will enable her to find happiness in her new habitat – and, by extension, allow the rest of us some hope of experiencing ‘the nature fix’ ourselves, no matter what sort of environments we live in.
This personal element of the book is both a strength and a weakness. Despite being full of facts and details, The Nature Fix is easy to read because Williams’s conversational writing is accessible and witty. It has the feel of a travelogue as Williams gamely circles the globe talking to experts and volunteering herself up as a guinea pig in their various experiments – all in the name of seeking a cure for her suburban discontent.
In many ways, however, Williams is something of an outlier in the modern world, not only having spent time in the wilderness from a young age, but actually craving those green experiences. This foregrounding of her journey perhaps belies the vast gulf between her type of relationship to the outdoors and that of an increasing proportion of the human population – a majority of which now lives in urban spaces. Some of the biggest questions about the human-nature relationship are not ‘how much time should we spend outdoors to be healthy?’, but, instead, ‘do people even realize what they are missing out on when they don’t venture outdoors?’, and ‘how can even the most urban residents be convinced to spend time in nature?’. Some of these issues are briefly addressed in the book, particularly within the context of Williams’s conversations with researchers in population-dense parts of Asia. But, by and large, these different baseline experiences and attitudes are overlooked.
In her travels, Williams interviews, and participates in the projects of, a wide range of researchers; she converses with park rangers, neuroscientists, virtual reality programmers, therapists, and even patients, to name a few, and along the way she also quotes city planners and artists. The data she presents come in many forms, ranging from testimonials from students and PTSD sufferers on residential field courses to heart rate readings and measures of stress hormones in the blood. This provides a fairly comprehensive exploration of the subject matter, but discerning readers may notice some gaps. There are no case studies from South America, Africa, or India. There are no explorations of human-nature relationships amongst indigenous people, who might arguably be expected to suffer even more when disconnected from the wilderness given their different belief systems and relationships to the land. There are fleeting discussions of what happens at the intersection of urban economic and nature poverty, but the author does not consider the relationship between nature and rural poverty – and whether, in some cases (e.g., high-pressure farming), greener habitats could actually cause more stress than they cure.
While The Nature Fix does not answer every question it raises, or solve every problem it describes, it does clearly aims to demonstrate that humans need regular doses of nature in order to be healthy and happy. This may very well be the case, but there is a tremendous amount of nuance that is left unexplored. This nuance is important for turning the research that Williams discusses into actionable policies and recommendations that are fair and beneficial to everyone and not just to those like the handful of focal individuals described in the book.
Research is increasingly revealing the surprising levels of biodiversity that can be harboured and nurtured in anthropogenic spaces – not just in gardens, brownfield sites, and municipal parks, but even just in the cracks of sidewalks. Williams does note the benefit of house plants and even manmade ‘plants’ such as Singapore’s supertrees, but she overlooks other types of nature that all of us encounter every day – weather fluctuations, the gathering and dispersing of different types of clouds, mosses and lichens growing on our buildings, ‘weeds’ poking up from sidewalk cracks, insects buzzing past, even the microbes that live in and on us and our pets. These may not seem the most charismatic of subjects or processes, but they are all a part of nature nevertheless – and when you can find a fascinating wilderness even in a single square centimetre, it’s that much easier to be connected to the natural world wherever you are. Achieving this requires an awareness of these things and an appreciation of their value – both of which must be learned.
Williams’s book is an entertaining and educational entrée into the concept of a ‘nature fix’, but it is by no means an exhaustive account. The author is brave to share her own story and is right to emphasise the importance of those dwindling tracts of land where a person can truly immerse themselves in 360-dgree wilderness. However, readers should know that The Nature Fix is just the tip of the iceberg—there are more views to consider, more data to parse, and more aspects of nature to enjoy.
Caitlin Kight is an editor, writer, and educator affiliated with the University of Exeter, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.caitlinkight.com.