When the natural world is damaged, so are we.

Disrupting nature turns a health benefit into a toxic risk

Posted Aug 31, 2016

Patricia Prijatel
Source: Patricia Prijatel

I grew up on the high desert of Southern Colorado and have always felt an affinity for broad vistas of arroyos and bluffs painted in ochre, purple, and red. The Wet Mountains rose about 20 miles from my home in Pueblo, so I also love those heart-stopping peaks, their rushing, rocky streams, and their clear, cool lakes.  I’ve lived most of my adult life in Iowa, and find great solace in its wide rivers and gentle Grant Wood hills.

In short, I am a nature addict. Nature is a focal point for my travel to far-flung mountain ranges, oceans, and seas.

My exercise of choice has always been walking, be it in among cacti, giant pines, or sprawling oaks. I have done my time in a gym, but finally decided that life on a treadmill was a wonderful idea for somebody else. If I am going to be active, I will do it in nature.

The remarkable benefits of walking outdoors include reducing the effects of chemobrain in cancer patients, improving our mood, and curbing anxiety and depression

Much of this research comes through the Natural Capital Project, a joint venture of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, and the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. Its focus is “quantifying the benefits of natural resources to the public and predicting the value of investments in nature.”

In studies through the project, participants walked through quiet groves of oak and grass, while others exercised in a noisy, urban area. Not surprisingly, the benefits of the natural excursions were measurable. After only 90 minutes outdoors, participants’ brains actually changed, showing a reduction in stress and depression.

It’s a convincing body of research, one that I wish more policymakers followed and acted on.

But what happens when nature is compromised? When that ocean spews dead fish or that lake sprouts e-coli? When the oaks whither in drought, the cacti disappear in a dust storm or the mountain forest burns?

This is not the nature that builds mental health. Quite the opposite.

Researchers in Australia found a relationship between depression and drought-induced salinity of the land. That link comes because of the social connection people feel to the Earth; when the land is disrupted, so is the social order

“The degradation of ecosystems can lead to the loss of cultural identity and heritage, which can result in social disruption and marginalization, especially among traditional societies,” according to HEAL, Health and Ecosystems: Analysis of Linkages. a research-based organization. 

The health risks from a damaged ecosystem are numerous and well documented. The National Cancer Institute has a comprehensive list of carcinogenic pollutants in the environment, most of which are related to man's manipulation of nature. And, according to the Collaborative on Health and the Environment, environmental toxins are linked to heart disease, asthma, neurological disorders, even autism

This all came to mind when I realized that my enthusiasm for exercise around our Colorado cabin has waned to the point that something I used to love has become a chore. We’ve been here, in the shadow of the East Spanish Peak, for more than two months, and I’ve taken few of the long walks that had been the standard here, healthful and calming meanderings through meadows, deep forests, and surprising little landscapes of boulders and evergreens, like something planted by a high-priced gardener.

That’s because much of the forests are now black and the landscaped copses gone, after a fire in 2013 burned at least two-thirds of our trees, along with 13,000 nearby acres. We have remarkable meadows now, lush grass pushing forth through ashy soil and spreading neon green among trees. And now we can see far-away mountains, like Pikes Peak, that had once been hidden behind thickets of trees.

But the landscape has too many barren spots, expanses of dirt that grow only weeds, batches of burn where even the boulders are charcoal. Some of the stunning beauty remains and I can see it if my attitude is good enough, but all too often it’s easy for the focal point of a walk to be on acres of black hillsides. And, according to research at Colorado State University, some forests that burned with intensely high heat, as ours did, are not coming back as forests. They will be replaced by shrubs instead.

So, I have to force a good mood as we walk through this nature, rather than naturally enjoying an improved attitude after a hike. The benefits of my walks have been turned on their heads. I have to use my mental juices to enjoy a walk in the first place.

Exercise here is now a bit too much like the gym. I do it because I need to, not because I want to wander through nature’s wonders. I do it despite the fact that those wonders have been degraded.

As with everything, though, it’s perspective that matters—how we look at something changes its effect on us. So I’ve narrowed my hiking paths to those that go through undamaged forests, through a few glorious hillsides that remain full of healthy, living pines and spruces and firs. To roads that offer a breathtaking view of the mountains or of the sprawling valley, with the burned forests a small batch of gloom in the background, easily overlooked.

Still, new fires now burn in Colorado, one that’s threatening the cabin of a childhood friend. And several burn in California. Our mountain is often hazy from smoke. We now live with a bit of a perpetual backward glance, looking over our shoulders at what danger might be coming, hoping that what remains is safe, fighting depression over what we’ve lost, trying not to think too much of the beauty that once was ours.

We keep our eyes on the green that still sprouts, little packets of energy rebuilding the mountain and us. But the regrowth is slow and we will not live to see the forest as it was before the fire.