Florence Williams:

The kale analogy is pretty apt, because it turns out that even when we don’t enjoy spending time in nature, like during lousy winter conditions, we benefit from it just the same. At least that’s what Toronto’s Berman found when research subjects took walks in an arboretum on a blustery winter day. The walkers didn’t really enjoy themselves, but they still performed much better on tests measuring short-term memory and attention.

Japanese researchers understand our draw to nature, but American researchers understand our pull away from it—our distractions, inertia, and addictions. They want to help motivate us, to make our doses of nature so palatable and efficient that we hardly notice them. This is the next frontier in forest-therapy science, all aided by brain imaging.

Berman, for example, wants to figure out exactly which features (ponds, trees, biodiversity) yield the biggest bang in the brain. The idea is that once researchers know more about what makes our brains happy, that information can be fed into public-policy decisions, urban planning, and architectural design. The research has profound implications for schools, hospitals, prisons, and public housing. Imagine bigger windows, more trees in cities, and mandatory lie-on-the-grass breaks.

This approach, of course, is classically Western. Manipulate the environment; feel nature without even trying. As for me, I’m going to be looking for a more East-meets-West approach. I’ll try harder to quit checking my text messages and instead watch for rock bass jumping in the C&O Canal. Scratch and sniff some pine cones. Run my hands through the moss. Maybe even drink a little bark tea.

My memories of winter break from my school days largely revolve around wandering through the woods for miles. Some of the best hours of my life have been passed among coniferous companions. Some of the most useful thinking I’ve done has been while wedged in a seat among the branches. So I have no trouble accepting that there’s some kind of primal attraction there. But as with meditation, I hate to see the pleasure of the experience being jostled aside to make room for considerations like improved efficiency and increased white blood cell count. Not every experience needs to be justified in terms of making you a more productive worker-drone with a greatly-extended warranty. True mental health, to me, needs to make room for precisely such “useless” activity. I don’t wander in the woods or listen to music to become more accomplished in my career; rather, I perform my job in order to fulfill my societal obligations and thus be granted the leisure to do what really matters. As far as I’m concerned, every event in my life exists to make my wanderings among the trees more satisfying. That’s the purpose of it all. That’s why I was “put” here. To be all the woods-moseyer I can be.