Under Green Leaves

In an old essay on Ebon Musings, “Finding Beauty in the Mundane“, I wrote in a contemplative mood:

Have you ever considered the trees? Though their kind of life is far grander, slower and more patient than ours, they are each individuals, as different as human beings are. They add beauty to the world, give peace in their dappled shade, freshen the air and enrich the earth, and turn even the most hard-edged urban environment into a blossoming garden. We humans grew up beneath the trees, and we love them still…

Several years later, I still find this to be true. Whether I’m depressed or whether I’m already feeling good, it’s almost always the case that visiting a botanical garden or a nature preserve, or even just going for a walk on a tree-lined street, noticeably improves my mood. The sight of sunlight slanting down through green leaves never fails to give me a sense of calm and peace. I tend to think the cause is that looking up at a tree reawakens one’s sense of perspective: it’s hard to see your own troubles as so serious in the presence of an organism that measures time only in years and decades.

But trees have more than just aesthetic benefits. Human beings feel an instinctive attraction to nature and wilderness, what E.O. Wilson called biophilia, and we flourish in its presence. For example, in one famous study, surgical patients who could see trees outside their window recovered faster and required fewer painkillers than patients whose window looked out on a brick wall. Other studies have found that greener urban areas have lower crime rates and that being in green environments lessens the symptoms of ADHD and improves schoolchildren’s academic performance. (And that’s not even to mention the many environmental and economic benefits of trees, either.)

The most likely explanation for this is that millions of years of evolution have instilled in us a built-in preference for certain kinds of environments, namely those most similar to our species’ ancestral habitat. Wilson argues that this is the savanna, an open grassland broken up by patches of forest. This is the habitat we evolved in, the one we’re best adapted to, and when we’re placed in such an environment, we tend to fare better both mentally and physically. Urban environments, by contrast, present very different stressors that the human species never evolved to deal with.

I wonder if this feeling of displacement from nature is something that plays a role in religious conversions. When people live only in cities, surrounded by concrete and fluorescent lights, separated from nature, they do feel a sense of isolation and loss, and most of them don’t know why. Religious proselytizers, of course, claim they can offer something to fill that void, and to people who don’t know the true cause of these feelings, it’s probably an effective sales pitch.

But when you know the true source of these feelings, the imitation can’t compare to the reality. As I found for myself, the feeling of awe induced by direct contact with nature at its most spectacular is an ecstasy that easily compares to anything offered by any church. That’s a piece of knowledge we ought to spread more widely. If more people understood the true, natural roots of human spirituality, the artificial attractions of religion might not prove so resilient.

You Got Your Ideology in My Atheism!
Atlas Shrugged: Bring Me a New Black Guy
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Katie M

    I live very close to a National Historic site with wonderful hiking. Now I want to go today :)

  • L.Long

    I grew up around and in forests. The best part of my day was hiking thru them a finding new wonders. When I visit my G’Daughter the first thing each day a hike thru the cool shadows of the forest, along with Mom, G’Ma, & dog. When we skip a day you can see the difference in her temper. Later we go for the hike her day brightens right up. I know it affects me, and others and make the day nicer. So places like Centeral Park can only help make things nicer. And Yes I have walked the Park and it is no more dangerous then any other.

  • Scotlyn

    If more people understood the true, natural roots of human spirituality, the artificial attractions of religion might not prove so resilient.

    Lovely, pensive post.

    I just wonder if we need a better word for whatever this is you’re describing – other than “spirituality.” Because surely putting yourself in contact with the green, growing, breathing, dying and re-birthing natural world (and moreover, discovering that you are an integral part of it) is getting in touch with what is more real than imaginary, more physical than spiritual. In fact, it might almost be anti-spiritual.

    Says she, as she goes off to get in touch with her “naturality” while adding to her compost heap.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Yeah, my son and I make hikes a regular activity for exactly this reason.

  • http://1minionsopinion.wordpress.com 1minion

    This just reminded me – I went to see Inception recently and in it there are scenes where the characters are walking through a dream world that’s meant to represent the dreams of the main character and his wife who died. It’s incredibly urban with so many towering buildings and what isn’t a building is just coastline and sea. I don’t think there was a lick of green in it. I remember thinking, hell, if I had the ability to create dreams and live in them for decades it’d be sunny and green and lush like a bloody garden, not dark and gritty with so many buildings that the sun’s completely blocked from shining. That is not a dream world to me. It was majestic looking, but appalling all the same.

    I wonder if anyone else who watched that film felt something similar. As important as nature is to our well being, why would anyone not want to feel some connection to it? You don’t have to be at the point of hugging trees necessarily, but yeah, just knowing they’re out there can be a boost to the mood. I love the sound of wind through leaves. I love every shade of green, every texture of bark, and every wild and twisted shape a tree can grow. Why would anyone not?

  • Bob Carlson

    This post reminds me of Handel’s Largo.

  • AnonaMiss

    I actually really dislike trees. On their own they look ugly to me, and being in a whole forest of them makes me feel uncomfortable and claustrophobic. The only time I like the look of them is in the winter. I much prefer scrub or cacti – and it’s not an upbringing thing, either, because I didn’t move to the desert until about five years ago. I guess trees are better than no plant life at all, but with a few exceptions I consider them eyesores. (The exceptions are usually short, squat, or excessively gnarled trees – trees that don’t look like “trees” anymore.)

    I’m mentioning this not to be contrary so much as to point out that you’ve fallen into the yawning trap which characterizes evolutionary psychology: the unwarranted generalization of your own opinions or culture to the entire species, and then the justification of that generalization through completely speculative mechanisms by which it may have evolved. It’s harmless here, but where I usually see evolutionary psychology applied is by misogynists justifying their views or discriminatory social codes; so I tend to get angry vicariously whenever someone engages in this kind of thing.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    I have a huge maple tree in the middle of my backyward. And while it’s a pain cleaning up the leaves every autumn, the tree attracts a lot of birds, from the local robins and cardinals, to the occasional red bellied woodpecker and blue jay. I also was able to put up a tire swing on it this weekend for my kids to swing on.

  • exrelayman

    Only u know who can make a tree! (not!)

  • Wednesday

    @ AnonaMiss – thank you for reminding us that “normal” trees and forests are (a) not universally appreciated, and (b) not naturally found in all parts of the globe.

    It’s not just a problem we need to be wary of because of how it can be abused in evolutionary psychology*, but because of the history of Imperialism and colonization. While Australia was a colony, children there learned in schools that the natural environment of their continent was inferior to the trees and rainy moors of England.

    *I’m sorry to say, ev psych has tried to address the “humans think nature is beautiful” issue in its usual narrow-minded fashion. When I took a (serious) course on ev psych in college, we read a paper where the author put forth the claim that humans always and only find certain aspects of nature beautiful because they would have signaled resource-rich environments to our ancestors. We happily shredded that argument by pointing out that plenty of people find beauty in resource-poor environments, like Antarctica and images from the Hubble.

  • Hendy

    Cool little post! An interesting alternative take (evolution, native habitat) on the fairly well known phenomenon of being at the top of a mountain or large hill or overlook and thinking, “Wow, god is so amazing that he created this.” Biophilia… I like that.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    Beautiful. Simply, stunningly beautiful. While the immediately obvious explanation is not always the best one (and just-so stories can be oh so tempting), the cited studies still stand as such. As always, there is further research to be done.

    For my part, I love the deep woods, the open plains, the rugged mountains, the harsh desert, the balmy shores, the falling snow, the driving rain, the life-giving sun – I love it all so much, and I have no word for the feeling I get when I manage to break down that ego barrier and feel at one with it, but “spiritual”. Like morality, I think it needs to be taken back and understood for what it is: it’s not about “submitting to a higher power”, it’s not about anything else but us, and feeling that connection with all, rather than feeling alienated from it. It’s nothing magical, yet it feels magical all the same, and that’s kind of what’s so amazing about it. To me, anyway.

    Great post!

  • http://orandat.wordpress.com orandat

    I love the outdoors as well, and spent my youth and beyond exploring the woods near my home. I remember when I was small sitting in church, and (although it is a beautiful church) thinking this is a stale, artificial, dead place. It seemed to me at the time that God wouldn’t be inside a church, He’d be out there, with the trees and the animals and the wide open fields and the creeks–where all the life is. That feeling, along with being unable to see the stories the preacher told as real events, were the first steps in a long, long journey to atheism.

  • colluvial

    It’s an interesting thing to consider: “Why do I find that beautiful?” Landscapes, vegetation types, flowers, wildlife, not to mention potential romantic partners, works of art, architecture, etc.

    Before faulting evolutionary psychology as just-so stories, make sure that you haven’t placed humans in a category that is immune to “instinctive” behaviors. We accept instincts in every other species, whether it be birds that inherit the proper migration patterns or dogs with the desire to herd sheep or pull loads – behaviors that have been selected for, naturally or otherwise.

    And, if you’re a supporter of evolutionary psychology, don’t try to paint everyone with the same brush. We’re a diverse species from diverse habitats.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    This post really made me happy. This little blue-green planet in our little corner of the galaxy certainly makes us feel at home. Thanks for writing.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I actually really dislike trees. On their own they look ugly to me, and being in a whole forest of them makes me feel uncomfortable and claustrophobic. The only time I like the look of them is in the winter. I much prefer scrub or cacti – and it’s not an upbringing thing, either, because I didn’t move to the desert until about five years ago. I guess trees are better than no plant life at all, but with a few exceptions I consider them eyesores.

    Well, far be it from me to quibble with someone else’s personal preferences, AnonaMiss, but I think you’re the outlier. :) It’s good to be skeptical of just-so stories, but that doesn’t mean that we can never use evolution to explain certain aspects of human behavior. Refer again to the studies I cited; statistically speaking, most people do tend to have positive experiences from contact with nature. This is much more than just anecdotal evidence.

    Wilson’s specific version of the biophilia hypothesis is debatable – if we instinctively prefer savanna, I’d be interested to see if there are any negative psychological effects on people who live in different environments, like hunter-gatherer tribes in Amazon or New Guinea that live in dense rainforest. But I do think something of the kind can’t help but be true. Our brains evolved in a very different environment than the one most of us live in now, and there just hasn’t been the time to adapt to the different stressors that urban life places on us.

  • Zietlos

    Oddly, I love the arguably worst environment for humans: I am a night owl, already a disadvantage, and I find beauty in human creations moreso than nature. I stand at the foot of the CN tower, look up, as I near it, the top sinks into the sky out of view. I think to myself, if someone from the 1500s saw this, what would they think? It makes me pensive. I looked out a helicopter, and saw a vast network of canals and lift-locks, reservoirs and dams, hydro-electric power plants. They’re all round roofs and bubbles, very interesting views. Old castles, pyramids, even the giant statues of our modern era, I look out there, and I see Progress. I see Ingenuity. I see Hope. We as a species have made buildings which have lasted for thousands of years.

    Even at a much more micro scale, I sometimes walk through the halls of the engineering department of the local university. There is a beautiful, in my opinion, diorama set up of technology through the ages, old logic circuits and computers, calculators, slide rules, to the modern integrated circuit. Look at an IC if you get the chance. Every silvery line going perfectly on a green background, red and yellow and brown baubles dotting black boxes every so often, silvery teardrops spotting the micro circuitscape. It is… beautiful. There really is no other word to describe it. Really, if you have one spare, take a deep look at a computer’s motherboard, and try to comprehend it by looking at it, glancing across it to glean its secrets. You can’t, of course, but try, and I hope you can see the same beauty I do.

    Those that find beauty in chaos, and in the random and hectic, those that need to “find themselves”, they are lured by the wilds. I, however, am an accountant-dash-computer geek. Keep your garish light of day, your blazing sun burning your fragile skin. Walking along a suburb mall parking lot, midnight, bright harvest moon supplementing electric lights to give a haze-like and ethereal quality to the steps and houses, the roads and stores and cars… That dream-like quality that simply cannot be found in nature, there’s no beating it for me.

    I think it just shows that some people are different from others. I can appreciate a good nature scene, of course, but I’m just one of those people who never lost that sense of wonder a child has when they first get vertigo looking up a tall building… Though I’ve mostly curtailed jumping up and down on elevators… mostly. :)

  • Thumpalumpacus

    While I prefer the beauty of a deciduous forest in October, the fact is that apartment buildings are no less natural that beehives.

  • Demonhype

    I am an outlier too, I guess. I have been in the country for over fifteen years, and I’ve hated every minute of it. Once, when biking with my dad, we took a break as he waxed poetic on the beauty of the fresh air and the wind in the trees and such and I just assented in a noncommittal fashion. At which point he looked at me and said “none of this means anything to you, does it”. To which I replied “no, it doesn’t”. Out here in the country, I feel like I’m in hell and like I’m disconnected from anything. Plus, I’m absolutely phobic about bees of all sorts, and this area is always lousy with them and with nests everywhere, so I’m terrified to leave the house. If I died and went to Hell it would be a lateral move for me right now.

    In the year I spent in Pittsburgh, however, I felt better, I breathed better, and everything was just plain better for me. I was happy for the first time in my life and I felt connected rather than isolated. If I was in 1minion’s movie, I would be dreaming of urban landscapes because that would be my vision of paradise. I’d be depressed if I lived in a garden or in a forest. I’m depressed now. When I was in Pittsburgh, the view outside my window was of another apartment building, and I loved it. Right now, I look out at a wilderness of green, growing things and I’m miserable.

    Of course, while I’m not particularly fond of trees, I’m not averse to them either, and if I have to look at trees at all I’d prefer them to have leaves. Winter also depresses me, though it wasn’t so depressing in the city as it is here. Of course, in the city it was much warmer, whereas living in the middle of nowhere in a tiny manufactured home that’s falling apart with people who don’t believe in heating the place unless it’s absolutely necessary, and when they do heat it does nothing because our sub-standard house has no real insulation–well, it’s hard not to be depressed when you can’t get anything done due to having to unthaw your hands every five minutes.

    However, I do realize that many other people love this shit, even if I can’t figure out why. They wanted to build a strip mall around here and start urbanizing (or at least, sub-urbanizing) the area and I helped vote it down. My mom was mystified, because she thought I was no better than Bush and all those conservative businessmen who want to level every forest. I explained that the fact that I hate living in the forest doesn’t mean I need to cut it down and build a city there. I’d rather just move to the city and leave the forest intact for the people who want to live in the horrid thing! :)

    Besides, even in the city you live in a global ecosystem, and what happens in (or to) the forest affects you in the city as well. So my pro-ecology attitude is also practical, as well as empathetic towards wilderness-lovers. You can’t escape nature even by moving to the city, and if you think you can then you’re just plain stupid or in denial.

  • Demonhype

    Zietlos, will you marry me? Or same-sex marry me? I’m not gay, but I’d make an exception! :D

    That was great. You pretty much stated my feelings even better than I could. Right down to the night owl in the city (though in my case, I have to go out in the summer sun fairly regularly, because I’m getting skin problems from it–damn my reverse-vampirism!). Night air smells even better in the city! And the childish vertigo upon seeing one’s first skyscraper–man, if I ever tire of being surrounded by incredible triumphs of human engineering and find myself longing for forests and gardens…well, I don’t know how that could ever happen to me. I would have to become an entirely different person.

    As bad as Ninja Turtles III was, I have always related to Donatello’s comment when the rest of them wanted to stay in medieval Japan–something to the effect of “you can stay here if you want, but I’m not going to live the rest of my life without ever seeing another microchip…” Okay, I don’t have it memorized, but the sentiment has continued to resonate in me. :)

  • Terrence

    I’d love to see documentation of surgical patients recovering better with the sight of trees. Reminds me of the lawyer awaking after surgery who asked the nurse

    “Why is my room so dark and the drapes closed?”

    “Oh, don’t worry- there was a big fire across the street and we didn’t want you to wake up and think the operation failed.”

  • Zietlos

    Preach it! :)

    Admittedly, being one of those pollen/ragweed/grass allergy people probably also sways my vote. It makes sense, to pull it to the OP, for people who have adverse reactions to nature to prefer things that avoid it. Less tress means less bees, means less flowers, less bugs, less heat preservation (cooler at night in summer), and more weather alterations (it rains less, and snows less, in cities due to their nature).

    I, however, love winter. We get stupidly vicious winters and summers here, but of the two, you can always add another layer of clothing, and we do have insulation. :) I can never get used to the heat. Frost covers everything, and it lets you know: There are no more mosquitoes, blackflies, sand fleas, bees, they’re all dead. There’s no more pollens, dust mites can be killed by leaving a pillow on the balcony. Sorry I can’t wax poetic about winter wonderlands, but it is really about the season of rest. The coydogs are a bit worrisome even in winter, but they generally leave people alone, and are still easier to see without the foliage.