Saturday, March 8, 2008

Leaf Watching.

Young leaves along the river trail glow in the aftermath of rain. Crimson. Bronze. Copper.

As the new leaves grow they change colour due to the green pigment that is Cholorphyll. Cholorphyll is a natural molecule engaged in an intimate tango with the sun and the wider ecosystem. It is also a very clever molecule. Its role is to capture the sun's energy so that it can be harvested for use in leaf and plant growth. By absorbing the sun's energy, Chlorophyll is able to synthesise carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water and produce sugars in the form of glucose.

This whole process from energy absorption to flourishing plant life is known as photosynthesis, literally meaning 'putting together with light'. Photosynthesis is the basis for sustaining the life of all plants and, as humans and animals alike consume plants of all varieties, and as humans breathe the oxygen from trees, this wondrous eco-cycle is the basis for sustaining the life of the whole planet.

The young new growth along the river trail, the scarlet of the Callistemons, the coppery leaves of some Eucalypts and the crimsons of other gum species, have not yet been awoken to Cholorophyll's green energy. In contrast, the colour fiesta of deciduous leaves in Autumn has lost its Chlorophyll greenness and as the green fades, bountiful yellows, oranges, browns, reds and purples are revealed.

As the weather cools, the energy exchange between plant and sun begins to grow sluggish. The colour green from Chlorophyll is slowly sucked from the leaves allowing the beauty of the changing seasons to explode into multiple hues. The reds and yellows are present in the leaves all the time but are not visible until Autumn when the green from Chlorophyll slowly vanishes.

When the sun's energy withdraws and the days grow colder, the glucose stored in the leaves is transformed into myriad luscious shades of yellows (known as 'carotenoids') and reds (known as 'anthocyanins'). The brightness and intensity of the Autumn colour fiesta is based on the kinds of weather patterns experienced both before and during the withering away of the Chlorophyll molecules. Cold nights, clear sunny days and adequate soil moisture are the most favourable conditions for the most spectacular display of colour.

Jeffrey Dawson, Professor of Professor of Tree Physiology at the University of Illinois has studied the magical process of photosynthesis and comments almost with a scientifically-embedded religious fervour:

'Leaf pigments behind the flashy autumn display of color ... are much more than cellular trash. Recognizing tree colors not only for their beauty, but also for the complex and vital roles the underlying pigments play in forest function and survival, might just bring new awe and appreciation to the autumnal rite of leaf peeping.'

'New awe and appreciation' can perhaps be interpreted as a new spiritual movement of leaf watching in Autumn. While photosynthesis is the holy ritual of this new spirituality.

The River's Side

When I was in Java a few years ago staying with friends, we'd often go for a walk around dusk. The locals would ask what we were doing and where we were going. 'We're going for a walk,' we'd say. 'Where to?', they'd ask and they'd look quizzically when we replied, 'Well, no where in particular, just going for a walk.'

In Britain walking is the most popular and pleasurable activity according to a study by the Department of Transport (cited in Edensor, 2000). Fourteen percent of people who go for walks said they take them for no particular reason, while one third of those surveyed go to the countryside specifically to go walking.

In contrast, city living, overshadowed by cars, noise and de-greened spaces, does not encourage walking or other physical activity. But this changes where there are parks in a local area. One US study on women and exercise found that urban parks, especially those with natural and aesthetic amenity, are beneficial to both physical and mental health (Krenchyn, 2006).

Parks having a range of attractive scenic elements such as hills, woodlands, wide views, open spaces and water were related to the frequency of exercise. The women interviewed by researcher Kira Krenchyn spoke about the beauty of the park and its peacefulness. They noticed the changing seasons, the feel of the wind, and the aroma of grass and flowers. It reminded them of the countryside, or of their favourite places while growing up. Specifically it offered an opportunity to escape 'the chaos' of the city, to reduce stress and to be in nature.

Visiting the park was a vital part of the women's day. Significant benefits included the sense of 'freedom', the chance to meditate, to 'clear out the cobwebs', and to reflect on things going on in their lives. 'You can get away from's rewarding.'

An Australian study by Ball et al (2001) reported similar findings. Both men and women were less likely to go walking for exercise or recreation in a 'less aesthetically pleasing or less convenient environment'. Women particularly said that without company or a pet to walk with, they were less inclined to do any exercise. Further research by MacDougall et al (1997) affirmed that attractiveness is an important correlate in encouraging locals to undertake physical activity (See also Booth et al, 2000; Pretty et al, 2005).

Walking the river is more than an aesthetic experience. It is a beautiful place, it offers an opportunity for relaxation, enhanced physical and mental health and spiritual reflection. As well as the sensory and emotional benefits noted by Krenchyn, and the desire for environmental aesthetics and convenience from Ball et al, the river offers something more. This is the sense of reciprocity, of mindfulness, bound up in an ethic of care or moral duty to act on behalf of the river. To speak for the river. To act for the river. To be on the river's side.

Ball K, A Bauman, E Leslie and N Owen, 2001, Perceived Environmental Aesthetics and Convenience and Company Are Associated with Walking for Exercise among Australian Adults, Preventive Medicine, 33, 5, 434-444.
Booth ML, N Owen, A Bauman, O Clavisi and E Leslie, 2000, Social-Cognitive and Perceived Environment Influences Associated wsith Physical Activity in Older Australians, Preventative Medicine, 31, 15-22.
Edensor T, 2000, Walking in the British Countryside: reflexivity, Embodied Practices and Ways to Escape, Body and Society, 6, 3-4, 81-106.
Krenchyn K, 2006, 'The only place to go and be in the city': Women talk about exercise, being outdoors, and the meanings of a large urban park, Health and Place, 12, 4, 631-643.
MacDougall C, R Cooke, N. Owen, K. Wilson, A Bauman, 1997, Relating Physical Activity to Health Status, Social Connections and Community Facilities, Australia and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 21, 6, 631-637.
Pretty J, J Peacock, M Sellens and M Griffin, 2005, The Mental and Physical Outcomes of Green Exercise, International Journal of Environmental Health, 15, 5, 319-317.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

New Moon over the River

The crescent hangs in the pale evening sky. The river breathes. The last carrolling of the Magpie and the laughter of the Kookaburra fade as darkness falls. Flying Foxes perform their sunset exodus up from the river valley and out across the rooftops, flying fast in search of blossoms and fruit. At dusk, the environs of the Brisbane River are indeed alive with movement and sound as night descends.

Being part of the river and connecting with its flow and the life of creatures who dwell here has been a significant factor in getting to know place. Being immersed within its ecosystem, though, has brought mixed feelings - as this beautiful valley makes way for ever-expanding and frequently unthinking development. Sustainable growth is possible, sustainable housing is practical - but both require a determined mindset that brings nature and the needs of the ecosystem as active players into government planning and decision making.

Perhaps too, it requires an awarenss of the benefits of nature connecting or nature-based experience in enhancing (human) physiological and psychological health.

There is a growing body of evidence that being in nature, connecting with green and blue places, from hiking to gardening, from wilderness excursions to sitting in the local park, correspond to increased mental health outcomes and psychological development (Davis, 2004). Active engagement in the outdoors provides opportunities for exercise and other activities beneficial for healthy living (Burton et al, 2007). So a reduction in green space amenity can affect a community's health and wellbeing, and certainly, all around this river city, green and treed spaces are being squeezed.

The benefits of nature-based experiences are felt holistically - touching the physical, emotional and spiritual health and wellbeing of individuals. In particular they are seen to have a formative effect on childhood and adolescent development (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989; Kellert, 2007). In fact, Stephen Kellert maintains that 'children have an inherent need for nature' for development, learning and stimulation, while Richard Louv (2005), in his book 'Last Child in the Woods', has postulated that children are suffering from 'nature deficit disorder'.

Nature deficit disorder is not only an issue for children. As lifestyles change, as gardens disappear, as trees are cut, as people move into apartments or homes without surrounding green space, the city too suffers along with its citizens (including the animals, insects, frogs and birds), from nature deficit disorder.

If meaningful experiences in nature, even in inner-city spaces, can give rise to improved mental and physical health, then a reduction in green spaces, by extension, could be seen to give rise to decreased opportunities for those improvements to take place. If the society values interior experiences more than those taking place in the exterior, to what extent will this impact on the physical and mental health outcomes for the community?

This is especially relevant in childhood where increasing time spent in indoor activities (e.g. computer games) may deleteriously impact physical health (Thomas and Thompson, 2004). A lack of exercise is already an apparent factor in increasing childhood obesity.

On the spiritual level, nature experiences can trigger peak experiences (Davis, 2004), defined as 'experiences of optimal mental health... characterized... by a sense of tranquility and serenity', personal transformation and insight. Wilderness guide and transpersonal (eco)psychologist John Davis states that it is experiences in the wilderness especially that promote the feeling 'that the world is enchanted, alive, whole and meaningful'. This gives rise, he says, to the realization that nature and wilderness encounters can lead us (humans) 'to feel more enchanted, alive, whole, and meaningful'.

With this feeling in mind, the River is calling.

Burton NW, B Oldenburg, JF Sallis and G Turrell, 2007, Measuring Psychological, Social, and Environmental Influences on Leisure-Time Physical Activity among Adults,
CJC Consulting, K Willis and L Osman, 2005, Economic Benefits of Accessible Green Spaces for Physical and Mental Health: Scoping Study, CJC Consulting, Oxford, UK.
Davis J, 2004, Psychological Benefits of Nature Experiences: An Outline of Research and Theory. With Special Reference to Transpersonal Psychology.
Kaplan R and S Kaplan, 1989, The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. New York: Cambridge.
Thomas G and G Thompson, 2004, A Child's Place: Why Environment Matters to Children. London: Green Alliance/DEMOS.

Monday, March 3, 2008

'It's religion'

It's called the green movement, the party is the Greens, but green is not the only colour for ecological care and action. The Brisbane River flows brown at the moment after the heavy rain, the grey-white spider webs resemble small nets in the bushes, while the blue-focused 'Save Moreton Bay' campaign is hotting up. One passionate campaign member is the brilliant writer Tim Winton who speaks plaintively about the Bay and the threats to its health.

'Moreton Bay is turtle territory. But it’s already lost 50% of its saltmarshes and 20% of its seagrasses that are prime habitat. 200 turtles are found sick, injured or dead in the bay every year. That’s a bit of a shock to discover. I can also tell you that it was a shock to find out that half of one percent of the bay is protected by sanctuary zones. Maybe I should repeat that astounding figure. Half of one percent. I mean, bloody hell, what’s the story?' (my emphasis)

The story of Moreton Bay and the so-called 'green' or sanctuary zones is bound up with politics, with persuasive campaigns of recreational fishers, and with the will of governments, federal and state, to care for the blue environment, specifically to create a network of marine parks and be brave, innovative and far-reaching about it.

Winton calls Moreton Bay a 'treasure trove', a 'jewel' on Brisbane's doorstep resplendent with mangroves, dugong, turtle, corals, fish. But it is endangered. He recalls his own West Australian experience where he's seen the gradual dismantling of marine ecosystems and the disappearance of iconic fish species. This saddens him and he comments: 'I have witnessed a steady decline in marine habitat. Like many coastal dwellers I have felt places begin to slip through my fingers. And some places are gone for good: stripped, built over, poisoned, silted up, bleached out, fished to buggery.'

Winton singles out politically expedient government policies and inaction but also points to the role of recreational fishers who he claims have a 'sense of entitlement' to exploit the marine environment. As a fisher himself, he reflects on the rec fishers attitude of having a 'God-given right to take fish from any bay, any reef, any river we find.'

In relation to management measures such as bag limits, seasonal and zoning restrictions, Winton says:

'We’ll grumble about it and blame shiny-arsed bureaucrats and scientists and bloody greenies for overreacting ... as though fish losses have absolutely nothing to do with our own actions. ... Somehow ... the prospect of surrendering a bit of territory for the common good, for the health of an ecosystem, for future generations, that causes a brain-snap. ... What seems reasonable to the scientific community and to non-fishing 'stakeholders' is deeply threatening to organised fishers and their commercial interests. A modest proposal for reserving marine assets for the entire community is seen as an infringement of some mystical sacred liberty.'

Research into why recreational fishers fish though is quite different to this notion of 'mystical sacred liberty'. Studies into the motivations of rec fishers have shown that what's important to them are the non-catch activities - being in the outdoors, being with mates, escaping daily routines, connecting with nature and relaxating (Fedler and Ditton, 1994; Scham et al, 2003). Knowing they could catch a fish is important too but catching a fish is not their top priority.

However, there are also the trophy fish hunters, the high end, 'high consumptive users' (Arlinghaus, 2004) who are more likely to be the group of rec fishers Tim Winton is talking about. For them, he says, fishing speaks to the heart of their very being.

'You have to remember that there are people for whom rec-fishing is not a pastime, nor even a lifestyle but life itself. It’s religion.'

Arlinghaus R, 2004, On the apparently striking disconnection between motivation and satisfaction in recreational angling,
Fedler AJ and RB Ditton, 1994, Understanding angler motivations in fisheries management. Fisheries, 19(4), 6-13.
Schamm H.L. Jr, PD Gerard , DA Gill, 2003, The importance of environmental quality and catch potential to fishing site selection by freshwater anglers in Mississippi. North American Journal of Fisheries Management, 23, 512-522.