The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative

The book cover depicts the profile of a human covered in maple leaves, with some of the leaves trailing off into the air as if windblown. The colors range from shades of green to yellow. orange, and red.

By Nina L.

Finding ways to increase our well-being during the pandemic has taken on greater significance than ever. Spending time outdoors, one of the few pastimes still available to us, may actually have greater benefits than we realize, according to The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. Author Florence Wiliams, a contributing editor to Outside magazine and transplant to Washington, DC from Boulder, CO, felt depressed, irritable, and unable to focus after the move. Realizing that she missed the mountains and easy access to nature, Williams began asking, “…how much nature do we need to fix ourselves?” and, “What is it about nature that people seem to need?” Williams embarked on a two-year research project to learn the answers from scientists around the world.

Williams buoys up the factual and data-heavy text with sprinkles of humor evident in chapters titled, “How Many Neuro-Specialists Does It Take to Find the Stinking Milk Vetch?” and, “Squat Down and Touch the Plant.”  She subjected herself to wearing an EEG device strapped around her head while viewing the San Juan River, went on a kayaking trip with veterans suffering from PTSD, and visited countries including Japan, South Korea, Scotland, and Finland to understand what we can learn from other nations.

Many countries make access to and immersion in nature a national priority. In Japan, the practice of forest-bathing, or shinrin yoku, has been found to have quantifiable effects on health. The practice involves slowing down in order to open up to the sights, scents, textures, sounds, and even tastes of nature. Williams’ initiation into forest-bathing started with a warm cup of “mountain-grown, wasabi-root and bark flavored tea.” Later in the day she inhaled the scent of sugi pines, stretched out on a mossy boulder, and listened to the quacking of ducks. Afterwards, not surprisingly, her blood pressure measured several points lower.

Subsequent chapters fully explore the individual senses of smell, hearing, and sight. The hinoki cypress forests found in South Korea are full of beneficial phytoncides, a chemical released by plants. Beyond just smelling good, phytoncides boost the immune system, reduce blood pressure, lower cortisol, and improve concentration. The Korean Forest Agency offers guided trips through the forests to help cancer patients, children with allergies, and prenatal women, among others.

Similarly, just listening to a trickling stream can have a positive impact on our brain. Even as we tune them out, industrial sounds affect us negatively — traffic, planes, electric saws, and leaf blowers can all raise stress levels and deter alpha waves, while the opposite holds true of the sounds of nature. Enjoying beautiful scenery also activates “happy molecules.” Visual artist and physicist, Richard Taylor, studies fractal patterns found in nature such as in clouds, coastlines, and plant leaves. Exposure to fractal patterns activates brain regions that regulate emotions and reduces stress up to 60 percent by increasing alpha waves.

The Finns have found that a mere five hours a month spent in nature improves physical and emotional health. Recommendations for time outdoors can be compared to the food pyramid: short walks during the week, a weekend away once a month, and every year or two aspiring to spend a few weeks in a natural setting. Beyond benefits on an individual level, the increasing scientific evidence of how nature improves health can shape public policy decisions, such as how educators approach school recess, city planners provide urban green space, and architects design hospitals.

The wealth of evidence in The Nature Fix supports what many of us already know, that nature is good for us. Yet taking a deep dive into understanding the scientific research helped me override the temptation to stay on the couch and choose instead to find time in my day, even if just a little, to enjoy the rich and renewing effects of nature.

The Nature Fix is also available from HCLS as an ebook and an eaudiobook via Libby/OverDrive.

Nina L. is a Customer Service Specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS. She loves art, yoga, dogs, cats, and reading horizontally.

All things LEGO!

The photograph depicts a jumbled, colorful pile of Lego blocks and figurines.
Image by Iris Hamelmann from Pixabay.

Did you know that there are more than 100 LEGO pieces per person on the planet? The word Lego comes from an abbreviation of the Danish words leg and godt, which mean play well. Lego was founded in 1932, and since then their “play well” philosophy continues to inspire citizens the world over. This universal building block connects generations and bridges language barriers – anyone can build Lego. Here are just a few resources from HCLS to inspire Lego fans of all ages – whether you’re an AFOL (adult fan of Lego), TFOL (teen fan of Lego), or KFOL (kid fan of Lego), here are some finds to get you in the mood to build!

A Lego Brickumentary is a fun and fact-filled foray into the fandom that is Lego. In a documentary that the whole family can watch together, animated Lego scenes are interspersed with interviews and awe-inspiring Lego builds. It explores the history and evolution of the world’s second biggest toy company and how it has become a catalyst for innovation. I was inspired through the artists, master builders, designers, architects, and therapists that have utilized this simple building brick to transform ideas and imagination into reality. This film runs 1 hour and 35 minutes, is rated G, and is available on DVD from HCLS.

Beautiful Lego is a full color portfolio of Lego artworks from 77 different contributors and a compendium of so many fantastical designs – from minimalism to monsters. This gorgeous book boasts more than 200 pages of inspiration. I loved the incredibly detailed model of an imaginary extraterrestrial city – the same one featured on the cover art. The book features unusual usage of different types of bricks in creating textures, expressions, and models of everyday objects. For fans of art, fans of Lego, and fans of both.

100 Ways to Rebuild the World is a children’s book full of ideas of how to encourage kindness, positivity, community, and responsibility. It features fun bright Lego illustrations and issues challenges to inspire kids to care about themselves, others, and the planet. My favorite challenges were “Start a chain of creativity” and “Step into their shoes.” It is a great resource for parents who are looking for ways to help their children connect with the community and the world around them.

The collage includes the Lego creations participants in the Lego Engineering Challenge class, including elephants, a dump truck, an arrow, windmills, and other vehicles.
A collage of the creative work of participants in the Lego Engineering Challenge class.

Lego Engineering Challenge is a biweekly prerecorded class produced by Ms. Julie. She issues four unique challenges in every class – encouraging children in grades K-8 to use their imagination and problem solving skills to complete fun tasks. After each session, Ms Julie compiles participants’ submissions and shares them to encourage budding engineers and artists. Pictured are just a few submissions from past classes. It is always fun to see so many creative solutions to the same challenge. Find the next class by clicking here, then register to receive a link to the next session.

Brick by Brick: How Lego Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry is an eAudiobook available on Cloud Library. It explores the business management and innovation practices of the Lego Group through anecdotes and case studies. This book was written to be an inspiration for business owners as a model of how innovation practices evolved at the Lego Group, and how the company used their 2003 brush with bankruptcy to realign, reconnect, and reemerge as a leader in the toy industry.

Inspired to create your own Lego masterpieces? Share them with the world through the Lego Ideas website. This is one of the Lego Group’s most successful innovations. A crowd-sourced idea generator, it began in 2008 as Lego Cuusoo (Cuusoo means “imagination” or “wish” in Japanese, and it still available as an archive here). On the Lego Ideas website, you can submit your own proposals for new Lego sets, vote on global submissions, and participate in activities and contests with other Lego lovers.

Kimberly J is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at the HCLS Elkridge Branch. She enjoys reading, photography, creating, crafting, and baking.

The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks In Arles

By Nina L.

We know them today as giants of art history, but in 1888 French artist Paul Gauguin had an estranged family, a background in financial trading, and limited artistic success. Vincent Van Gogh, a 35-year-old Dutchman, had failed miserably at several vocations before turning to art with the encouragement and financial support of his brother Theo.

The Yellow House, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles, by Martin Gayford, is an intimate and revelatory look at a time when Van Gogh and Gauguin lived together in a self-styled artist’s colony of two. They were an odd pair, full of contrasts – Gauguin cerebral, Van Gogh emotional, but both drawn to the idea of inventing a new art of the future. The book follows the events as they unfold day-to-day with granular detail.  Drawing on the copious letters of both artists, Gayford makes it easy to imagine being in the house looking on as the two men worked in the small, cramped, ten-foot wide studio filled with the heavy atmosphere of tobacco and turpentine.  

While living in Paris, Van Gogh dreamed of starting an artist’s colony in the south of France. He settled on Arles, a provincial town on the way to the Mediterranean coast. Both he and Theo admired Gauguin, enticing him to Arles with the offer of free room and board in exchange for his paintings.  Van Gogh, who later became the greater artist of the two, regarded Gauguin as a mentor and had high expectations of living and working together. In anxious anticipation of Gauguin’s arrival, he set about transforming the little yellow house, carefully choosing furnishings, brightening the exterior and interior with paint, and hanging his art work throughout the house, including his newly created Sunflowers. The first few weeks went well, with exchanges of ideas and daily painting trips to the surrounding countryside, but when the weather turned cold and rainy, spending all day in the small, cramped space didn’t bode well for the two large personalities.

By late December of 1888 the relationship was fraying and Gauguin considered returning to Paris. On December 23rd, while feverishly working on a painting, Van Gogh suffered a mental attack and cut off part of his ear with a razor. He then wrapped the ear in newspaper and took it to a local brothel with instructions to give it to one of the women. Gauguin, alarmed at Van Gogh’s deteriorating state, had spent the night in a hotel. Returning to the house the next day he discovered a trail of blood and Van Gogh deep asleep in bed with no memory of the previous night. The traumatic events ended the dream of living and working together. Gauguin left for Paris, later moving to Tahiti, never to see Van Gogh again. For the rest of his short life Van Gogh struggled with mental illness, which Gayford attributes to bipolar disorder, gaining fame only after his death.

After reading the book, I found myself looking at the world differently, imagining how Van Gogh or Gauguin would see it. One of Van Gogh’s breakthroughs was in placing contrasting colors side by side. Placing colors together which are opposites on the color wheel creates a visual frisson, or what Van Gogh called electricity. He even had a box of yarn to test out color combinations before using his paints.

Interested in creating art work in the style of Van Gogh? Here is a project suitable for any age. Take some time to look at one of Van Gogh’s paintings, such as A Starry Night. Use a blue or gray colored pastel or construction paper along with chalk pastels in white, yellows, oranges, blues, and purples. Black can be added as an accent. Lightly sketch in your own version of A Starry Night. Look at how Van Gogh painted the wind, winding around the canvas, or the stars radiating out as if glowing. Working from dark to light, use thick, short broken strokes and follow the contour of shapes, repeating the pattern over and over until filling the composition. You may find yourself seeing the world just a little bit differently.

Did you know? You can even borrow a framed print of a Van Gogh painting or one from Gauguin via the HCLS Art Collection.

Nina L. is a Customer Service Specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS. She loves art, yoga, dogs, cats, and reading horizontally.