If Meditation Is Not Your Thing, Try a Walk in the Woods
By Karin Klein
There are times when I don't know what to do with myself. I feel at odds with the world, irritated by the people in it, in a funk about myself and what I'm achieving or, rather, not achieving, overwhelmed by the obstacles and complications of life. Happiness seems like an entirely elusive state of being.
At such moments, my friends know exactly what I should do. "When's the last time you've been on a hike?" they inquire gently, and it's time for a head smack. Of course, that's the answer. I might not feel like pulling on my hiking boots; my mood is more in line with reclining on the couch and streaming Breaking Bad for the billionth time. But what I need is the trail.
To say that I return in a better mood would be damning nature with faint praise. I'm wholly restored, optimistic, energized, almost euphoric. I sleep soundly that night.
For a long time, hiking felt like my personal mental health elixir, a magical relationship just between me and nature. The truth is that I was experiencing phenomena well known to science. Hiking is a near-perfect combination of elements known to relax us, raise our alertness, elevate our self-esteem, and physically prepare us for true rest afterward. It exposes us to sunlight, outdoors, the color green, the sound of water, physical activity, social interaction. All of these have been shown in research to have beneficial effects on our mental well-being.
Me, I can't meditate for shit. Sitting that long, paying attention to my breath or an imaginary white light, chafes my natural impatience. In contrast, hiking easily brings me to that sought-after state of being "in the moment." Hikers pay attention to where they are and what's going on. They have to, in order to avoid obstacles along the trail as well as such annoyances as poison oak and ivy. At the same time, the trail is a multisensory experience that calls on us to observe wildflowers, smell aromatic plants, and hear bird calls and the rustle of small animals in the brush.
These outings became such a strong return-to-sanity requirement for me that I trained to become a certified naturalist for my region's wilderness parks and wrote a hiking book. Most people don't go quite that far, but it's an unusual newbie who doesn't discover the restorative powers of the trail.
That's not to say that hiking can cure serious mental illness. But research shows it's a useful adjunct to other treatments for serious emotional conditions. For mild to moderate stress and depression, nature walks have time and again been found to boost mood and banish stress.
Science says it's both the walking and the nature that make powerful medicine together.
There's plenty of evidence in favor of exercise, which improves mood and reduces anxiety, releasing endorphins and raising serotonin levels. But a 2016 study in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity specifically found that bouts of outdoor exercise were significantly better at lifting the mood of people with mild to moderate depression than indoor activity. Previous studies found that so-called "green exercise"—and they didn't mean golf courses—raised self-esteem, especially among those with mental illness.
Exposure to sunlight alone improves cognitive function, according to a 2009 study in the journal Environmental Health. For that matter, outdoor exercise has been shown to lead to more vigorous workouts; people walk faster and longer but perceive their workouts as easier.
Other aspects of nature have a calming rather than stimulating effect; studies have found that the colors green and blue—the hues that make up most nature scenery—are relaxing, as well as the sound of flowing water.
Despite how cheap, helpful, and easy hiking is, access to nature itself can be uneven and downright difficult. People living in dense urban areas are generally farther from the backcountry and might not have cars to get there. Low-income neighborhoods are less likely to have parks of any kind. These are often places where Black and Latino communities are located, so they are particularly affected. A 2011 report by the National Park Service found that non-Hispanic Whites were highly likely to visit the parks, while "African Americans and Hispanic Americans visited at the lowest rates."
Various groups are chipping away at barriers. Outdoor Afro facilitates outdoor access in the Black community. In Orange County, California, the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks, which provides free guided hikes on conservation lands, has begun offering some of them in Spanish. Latino Outdoors is a nonprofit dedicated to providing nature experiences for that community, and Disabled Sports USA helps people with physical challenges get out on the trail. An increasing number of parks offer wheelchair-accessible trails. And for anyone who lacks a group to join, many wilderness parks include docent-led tours to give you a safe introduction to the back country.
While not as meditative as a solo walk in the woods, these kinds of programs address another aspect of mental well-being. Group outings overcome reluctance to venturing in unfamiliar backcountry and appear to heighten the positive effects of nature walks.
A 2012 study found that such experiences could even help people with suicidal thoughts. "A group experience of regular monitored mountain hiking, organized as an add-on therapy to usual care, is associated with an improvement of hopelessness, depression, and suicide ideation in patients suffering from high-level suicide risk," the authors concluded in their paper.
But endurance climbs over steep hills aren't needed to reap the social and emotional up sides of gathering with others on the trail. According to a 2014 study in the journal Ecopsychology, group walks in nature were linked to significantly lower depression and stress, as well as an enhanced sense of mental well-being.
Of course, any kind of exercise can be taken to unhealthy extremes. And taking on physical challenges in the wilderness without the proper knowledge, equipment, or level of fitness can be downright perilous. Hiking alone or going off trail often gets people into life-threatening situations. But I've been hiking regularly for 20 years without that ever happening. The studies seem conclusive: With reasonable care, a walk in nature is much more likely to help us than hurt.
I'd be on the trail, anyway. But it's good to know that science is on my side.
Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.
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By Alexandra Rowles
Oregano is a fragrant herb that's best known as an ingredient in Italian food.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6bd9fda1316965a9ba24dd60fd9cc34d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/3KaMnkmf0tc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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