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Local Opinion: Hanging out with plants can do us all a world of good

Local Opinion: Hanging out with plants can do us all a world of good

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The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.

With the U.S. handing in its notice on the Paris Agreement this week, at the same time that 11,000 scientists warned that without prompt action, climate change would cause “untold suffering,” many of us are left wondering what we can do. While the problem is vast, there is one small thing that all of us can do to improve our own well-being as well as that of the planet. We can end our “plant blindness” — our failure to notice other species.

Essentially, we protect and care for what we know. As National Park Service interpreter Freeman Tilden wrote, “through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; and through appreciation, protection.”

And yet, for many of us, our awareness of other species has narrowed to our dog and cat family members, our withering house plants, and the trees that drop leaves all over the yard this time of year. Most of us are so busy, we don’t prioritize even a few minutes outside. As a result, we become “plant blind” — we no longer feel a relationship with our planet and the myriad plants, animals, insects, and other organisms that co-inhabit the Earth with us.

One way we can make time to reestablish a connection with the plants and animals that comprise our ecosystems is to carve it out of our workdays. Short periods spent with the intent of “being in nature” quickly lead to a greater appreciation for, and awareness of, the species in the surrounding environment.

Further, it’s good for us. Short periods spent outside, free of technology, and in the presence of green things offers clear and measurable health benefits. Numerous studies, summarized on the American Heart Association’s website, have documented that time among living things outside leads to a nearly immediate drop in blood pressure, heart rate, and stress as well as a healthy dose of vitamin D. Further, employees with more regular contact with nature report fewer sick days and greater job satisfaction.

Admittedly, time spent outside and away from the desk is time when the actual “work” isn’t being accomplished. However, as a University of Michigan study documented, even short bouts of time out of doors lowers stress and anxiety levels and increase memory and productivity. As such, a few minutes away from a desk and into the sunshine may have an outsized positive effect on your efficiency and attitude upon returning to the desk.

As someone whose occupation is to coordinate research on plants, I am intimately familiar with the value of time spent in the presence of green things. In the early years of my research, I spent glorious quiet hours outside, peacefully counting individual plants in my study plots. Now my days are filled with emails, grant proposals, and countless meetings (all indoors). Yesterday, I made a concerted effort to observe the plants and birds I passed on my way into the office. I was impressed by the calming effect of simply noticing the gentle rustling of aspen leaves. I honestly believe my blood pressure dropped a bit as a result.

Taken on an individual basis, time spent outside in small doses has the potential to have measurable impacts on job performance and overall health. If implemented on a grand scale, these small efforts to reconnect with other species has the potential to lead to a large-scale shift in how we think about and prioritize action for our environment. Taking a few minutes out of each workday to reconnect with other living things is a very achievable way to nudge us in a positive direction.

Theresa Crimmins is the associate director for the USA National Phenology Network and a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project. She holds a Ph.D. from the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of Arizona.

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