Missy Conrad grew up half a mile from school – walking distance, though she preferred to run. Running meant having time in the woods between her home and school, time to climb trees, to pretend she was a Native American, to imagine she was riding a horse.
With five younger siblings and a mother who worked, Missy found refuge in “the magical tangle of woods,” a place not only to play, but to be alone in nature, where she could become the Lone Ranger one day, the Cisco Kid the next.
The Westchester County, N.Y., woods that defined Missy’s childhood are gone but her love of nature lives on, strong enough to dictate the life she has led, as well as the life she leads now, a woman of seventy-one with a thermostat set at fifty-six, cold enough to wear a hat in the house. She does.
Her once dark hair has grayed and her body has thickened, but the smile that lights her face at the sound of a red-winged blackbird is still reminiscent of the girl she once was, adventurous and spirited, a girl who loved running through woods.
At the Norwalk, Ct., split-level she shares with her husband, Jeff, Missy runs her dishwasher rarely and hand-washes and air-dries their clothes. She walks when she could drive, and takes sponge baths instead of showers, saving the cold water that precedes the warm for her plants. On the rare occasions when she eats out, she brings her own napkin, a red washcloth she keeps in her purse.
Mornings, she puts on her red hat and purple jacket and walks the neighborhood, plucking cigarette butts and bits of trash from yards and recyclables from storm drains. Some days she carries rocks to fill ruts left by the mail truck to help control erosion on her sidewalk-less street, where she knows every dog and cat by name and every bird and tree by species, and greets each with a muffled little cry of delight.
Under his wife’s tutelage, Jeff drinks warmed-over coffee salvaged from the Quaker meetings Missy attends on weekends, and sifts through trash at his gym for recyclable water and shampoo bottles, and wire hangers that would otherwise be thrown out.
In every way, the Conrads try to live in harmony with nature, following the three R’s to the letter: Reduce, reuse, recycle.
They’re not on a mission to save money. Nor are they collecting material for a book. They’re not part of a community of like-minded people, or contestants on reality TV.
So why are they living this way? Why do they care?
In a world in dire need of more people like them, a world of warming oceans and dwindling resources, in which environmental problems too rarely translate into the behavior required to solve them, the question has taken on new urgency, the search for answers driving research among scientists of all stripes.
Here’s what they’re finding: Sustainable behavior is a byproduct. It’s the result of a deep and abiding connection to nature.
“There is a tendency to look at people who do these fantastic behaviors, who live a sustainable lifestyle, who limit consumption, who use and reuse things, who buy organic, as though there must be something unique about them,” says P. Wesley Schultz, a psychology professor at California State University in San Marcos.
“Our research suggests it’s more about the experiences a person has.”
The concept of “nature connectedness” as a measurable, quantifiable trait is the cornerstone of the emerging sub-discipline known as eco-psychology. The link between connectedness and environmentally responsible behavior is capturing focus in a wide range of fields: psychology, biology, ecology, economics, and geography.
Nature connectedness, according to John Zelenski and Lisa Nisbet, Canadian researchers who developed a scale to measure it, “is an appreciation for and understanding of our interconnectedness with all other living things on the earth.”
Broader than environmental activism, deeper than a superficial love of “sunsets and snowflakes,” nature connectedness has physical, emotional, and cognitive components, and encompasses an appreciation and fascination for all aspects of nature, including the less appealing “mosquitoes, mice, death and decay.”
At the extreme end of the spectrum, says Nisbet, are people who “equate damage to the environment with damage to themselves.”
Spend an hour or two with Missy Conrad and it’s plain to see where on the spectrum she falls, refusing a straw at the diner and covering her water glass with her hand to keep the waiter from refilling it. In the parking lot, she gently admonishes a smoker to “please don’t throw your cigarette butts on our earth.”
She doesn’t consider her lifestyle extreme, but rather the result of a natural progression from the post-war thrift that shaped her childhood to the values that took hold during her years as a young wife and mother in the environmental movement, capped by her work on the environmental committee of the League of Women Voters. And while she is quick to concede that hers is a hard way to live, there is nothing austere or long-suffering about Missy, a woman as warm as her house is cold.
“It’s about wholeness, respect,” says Jeff. “It’s a moral and ethical value to be rewarded with a place on this earth.” Living a sustainable life brings its own reward: “The peace of belonging,” he says.
While the idea of a deep, empathic connection between the human psyche and all other living things isn’t new, scientific inquiry is bringing new focus to decades-old theories regarding this innate link between humanity and nature.
It comes at a time when the disconnection has never been greater, as evidenced by the environmental indifference that comes of spending more and more time indoors.
In previous generations, children developed a relationship with nature by virtue of being out in it. Like Missy Conrad, they ran through woods, rode bikes and climbed trees. They wandered and explored, built forts and threw snowballs, splashed through streams and camped out under the stars. In so doing, they sharpened their minds and strengthened their bodies. They learned to focus. They challenged themselves.
Our mothers were right: Nature is good for us. Evidence of that abounds. Patients recovering from abdominal surgery have shorter hospital stays and require less pain medicine if their bedside windows overlook trees rather than a brick wall. Students are 70 percent more attentive in classrooms containing plants. They also have better attendance.
A workplace study in the Netherlands found that adding plants to offices decreases colds, headaches, coughs, sort throats, symptoms of flu and fatigue. In Norway, rates of illness fell more than 60 percent in offices that contained plants. Even looking at pictures or paintings of water and trees reduces anxiety and improves concentration.
On the South Side of Chicago, home to some of the nation’s most notorious housing projects, Dr. Frances E. Luo compared apartment buildings with pockets of trees and grass to those without and found that the greener the surroundings, the lower the crime, and the stronger the ties among neighbors.
For children, nature is both tonic and teacher. Playing outside improves fitness, distance vision, and test scores in reading, writing, and math. A twenty-minute walk in a city park works as well as medication in controlling symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in twelve- to 17-year-olds.
Other dividends include enhanced creativity, self-discipline, emotional and intellectual development, and reduced aggression. Kids who play outside are demonstrably happier, healthier, and less stressed.
But in order to truly reap nature’s benefits, one must actually spend time in it. And that’s where the paradigm breaks down.
Parental concerns about crime and injuries, dwindling open space, the proliferation of screen-based gadgetry, and kids’ increasingly overscheduled lives have made childhoods like Missy Conrad’s a thing of the past.
Today’s 8-year-olds can identify 25 percent more Pokemon characters than wildlife species – not surprising, given the average seven and a half hours a day they are spending with electronic media. Children “are forgetting how to engage in free, spontaneous outdoor play,” play expert Joe Frost wrote in A History of Children’s Play and Play Environments, in which he declared “the golden age of play” to be over.
The time-honored tradition of getting to school under one’s own steam is another casualty of the digital age. Within a single generation, the percentage of kids walking or biking to school dropped from 50 percent in 1969 to 13 percent in 2009. That year, of 6.5 billion trips parents made to take their kids to school, half were within a quarter- to a half-mile from home.
The modern malady this has engendered has a name: “Nature-Deficit Disorder,” coined by author Richard Louv in “Last Child In the Woods” in 2005. It also has a price, measurable in the 25 million children and adolescents now considered at risk for obesity; the 74 percent increase in asthma over the past 24 years among children between five and 14; and the number of kids between four and 17 diagnosed with ADHD, up from 7.8 percent in 2003 to 11 percent in 2011.
Also on the rise: Depression, type 2 diabetes, nearsightedness and myopia.
“Less contact with nature, particularly in one’s young years, appears to remove a layer of protection against psychological stress and opportunity for rejuvenation,” Harvard physician Eva Selhub and naturopath Alan Logan wrote in “Your Brain on Nature” in 2012.
With Americans now spending more than 90 percent of their time indoors, according to Environmental Protection Agency estimates, re-introducing them to the outside world has become a crusade.
It’s also a business.
In the twenty years since he founded the Maine Primitive Skills School in Augusta, Mike Douglas has taught awareness and survival skills to roughly 500 kids, many of them inner-city teenagers sent by the courts, a program Douglas calls “hoods in the woods.”
Most arrived terrified, “of the dark, of getting lost, of everything you see on TV. They were scared of dirt, scared of germs, wild plants – everything is a poisonous lookalike. They were afraid of stepping on leaves; there could be snakes under them. Noises made them go crazy. The sound of a loon was always a wolf coming to hunt them down.”
As their first lesson, Douglas instructed them to stop and listen for the silence. They then had to take off their shoes. “Some had never been barefoot on the earth in their entire lives,” he says.
Spending time in the woods “is a good way to figure out who you are,” Douglas says. “You also start to care more about all of life.”
But even kids who grow up in Maine “aren’t in the woods anymore. They’re like little machines, sitting next to each other, texting their emotional states. The disconnection is so markedly counterproductive, it’s almost criminal.”
The good news, Douglas says, is that immersing people in nature can change them. Among his graduates: A man who initially sat reading a book, treating the woods as a backdrop. “I took the book out of his hand and gave him a tree guide,” Douglas says. “Now he’s working for the World Wildlife Federation protecting trees from poachers in Siberia.”
As not everyone can spend uninterrupted time in the woods, identifying experiences that produce nature connectedness has become a kind of holy grail. “We don’t have a good sense yet,” says psychologist Schultz, who has been tracking a group of children for a decade to figure it out. He’s less reticent about disclosing experiences that undermine one’s connection to nature: “The amount of time spent watching TV and playing video games.”
With 88 percent of teenagers in agreement that their generation is disconnected from nature, according to a national survey by StageofLife.com, an online blogging community for young people, some educators are advocating changing the way environmental studies are taught.
Rather than bombard young children with distressing images of clubbed baby harp seals, dying rain forests, and other distant – and distancing -- eco-disasters, educator and author David Sobel at Antioch University New England recommends using local landscapes as classrooms. “If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it.”
Sobel denounces the “indoor-ification” of early childhood, and recommends a return to nature-based preschools and forest kindergartens. He also suggests looking to the childhoods of today’s environmentalists to identify who – or what – inspired them.
In a review of the handful of studies on that subject, Louise Chawla of Kentucky State University found the majority cited two sources: “many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered wild or semi-wild place in childhood or adolescence, and an adult who taught respect for nature.”
Just so. Among Missy Conrad’s best-loved treasures is a brochure made for her by her grandchildren touting the benefits of “Camp Missy,” a “great fun place to experience the wild” while learning the ropes from “a wild life superstar.”