Rambling On



Rambling On

When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?


The idea of solvitur ambulando (in walking it will be solved) has been around since St. Augustine, but well before that Aristotle thought and taught while walking the open-air parapets of the Lyceum. It has long been believed that walking in restorative settings could lead not only to physical vigor but to mental clarity and even bursts of genius, inspiration (with its etymology in breathing) and overall sanity. As French academic Frederic Gros writes in A Philosophy of Walking, it’s simply “the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found.” Jefferson walked to clear his mind, while Thoreau and Nietzsche, like Aristotle, walked to think. “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking,” wrote Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols. And Rousseau wrote in Confessions, “I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs.”

Scotland clearly relishes its twin legacy of brains and long-striding. On the wall of the National Museum of Scotland hangs a quote from James Watt, inventor of the steam engine (yes, the steam engine) in 1765: “It was in the Green of Glasgow . . . when the idea came into my mind, that as steam was an elastic body it would rush into a vacuum. . . . I had not walked further than the Golf-house when the whole thing was arranged in my mind.” Nikola Tesla, too, invented a revolutionary engine while on a long walk in a Budapest park. Little did these men know how transport engines would hasten the demise of pedestrian life.

Anticipating the exercise/nature debate, Thoreau opined, “. . . the walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise . . . but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.” He also wrote, in his essay “Walking,” “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

Walt Whitman was an even stronger evangelist on the topic, exhorting men to be more perfect and more manly by striding around outside. “To you, clerk, literary man, sedentary person, man of fortune, idler, the same advice,” he wrote. “Up! The world (perhaps you now look upon it with pallid and disgusted eyes) is full of zest and beauty for you, if you approach it in the right spirit! Out in the morning!”

If for them nature provided mental clarity and adventure, for Wordsworth it provided sanity itself. Nature, as he declared in “Tintern Abbey,” was “the nurse, / The guide, the guardian of my heart.”

It’s worth taking a short perambulation to the poet’s sensibility, not just because he was the Romantic Age’s greatest advertisement for both Scotland and for perambulating (he is estimated to have walked some 180,000 miles in his lifetime, composing poems as he went), but because he wrote so often about the ways in which his own mental health was bound to nature, and he was the first to do so in a thoroughly modern voice. Dismissing Wordsworth as a daffodil- gazing nature poet would be a mistake. His greatest defender of recent times has been the late Yale scholar Geoffrey Hartman, who argued that Wordsworth essentially invented modern poetry (with a small assist from Coleridge), and in so doing saved the art form altogether. I’m fascinated by how Wordsworth intuited the neuroscience in both psychology and cognition. We forget today that poets were the philosophers of their time, and that the good ones changed the course of history.

Wordsworth was a child of trauma. His mother died when he was eight and his father when he was thirteen. He was sent off to live with unsympathetic relatives. Money was tight and the siblings lived apart. It’s hard to overstate the stress of these events, and at a critical time in the development of the poet’s psyche. Hartman’s own history followed a similar trajectory. In 1939, at the age of nine, he and dozens of other boys were plucked from a Jewish school in Frankfurt and sent to live in an outbuilding on a country estate in England. He remained there for six years until the war was over, when he was finally able to reunite with his destitute mother in New York.

Hartman celebrated and summarized one of Wordsworth’s central themes: “Nature does everything to prepare you, to make you immune, or to gentle the shock. He doesn’t say there is no shock, or surprise, but that nature aims at a growth of the mind which can absorb or overcome shock.”

A few months before Hartman died in 2016, I called him up. In his mid-eighties, he was still living in New Haven. I had taken a class with him in Romantic poetry at Yale more than two decades before. I wanted to see if he could once again help me through some of the material. Mostly, though, he wanted to talk about what Wordsworth meant to him all those lonely years ago, during his own period of shock. “I think the comfort of nature and the comfort of enjoying poetry and being encouraged to read, including especially Wordsworth, certainly helped to make my exile a little bit more tolerable,” he explained. “I hadn’t enjoyed nature before England. . . . So going to England and reading Wordsworth reversed my sense of things.” Perhaps it was inevitable that Hartman would be the one to rehabilitate Wordsworth’s reputation in postwar academe.

As Hartman reminded me, Wordsworth made the perceiving self central to perception. Nature was meaningful precisely because of how it “interfused” with the mind, forming the basis for imagination. This is a central theme in the first book of The Recluse, a long autobiographic poem written in 1798. “How exquisitely the individual Mind/. . . to the external World/Is fitted:—and how exquisitely, too—/. . . The external World is fitted to the Mind.” And sitting on the banks of the River Wye, the poet marveled at how “an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony” offered relief from “the fever of the world.” Nature had certainly offered that relief to Hartman, and I imagine it may have in his final months as well.

Wordsworth is sometimes credited with launching the idea of tourism, but at least equal credit should go to his sister, Dorothy, who slogged many, many miles with him and wrote Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland in 1803. It’s a great read, not only because it depicts Coleridge as wet and cranky, but because it recounts things like eating boiled sheep’s head with its hair singed off. Wrote Dorothy Wordsworth: “Scotland is the country above all others that I have seen, in which a man of imagination may carve out his own pleasures. There are so many inhabited solitudes, and the employments of the people are so immediately connected with the places where you find them.”

Both siblings were inveterate Romantics, reacting against the march of industry and commerce into pastoral landscapes. While cities had once offered excitement and revolutionary ideas to a young William, he later came to believe that they embodied disillusionment and stagnation, a “savage torpor.” Far from making people more creative, the din and grime stifled their dreams, or at least his.

The Wordsworths were contemporaries of Jane Austen, whose Pride and Prejudice appeared in 1813. The notion of walking as an expression of good breeding and good health was in full swing, but it also enabled an outlet of independence rare for a woman, and both Dorothy Wordsworth and Austen’s heroines relished the act. As the essayist Rebecca Solnit points out in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, when Elizabeth Bennet charges out alone across the muddy downs to help her ailing sister at Darcy’s place, she is rendered both slightly scandalous and alluring.

By the early nineteenth century, it had become hard to disentangle walking and its hale enthusiasts from the Enlightenment, from Romanticism and, thanks to Thoreau and Emerson, from budding American nationalism. Walking was a philosophical act, facilitating a direct experience with divinity. It was a political act, mixing the educated classes up with the poor (who had always walked, doh). And it was an intellectual act, generating ideas and art. The ramblers of yore embraced a kind of radical common sense.

Today, when everyone from corporate executives to distracted “knowledge workers” are obsessed with creativity, walking is getting a new look. Executives hold walking meetings and even walk on treadmills at their desks (a terrible idea—go outside for a real walk!). People everywhere obsess over their step-counting wearable devices. They organize community walks. And if they are the sort of scientist I’ve been writing about in this book, they also walk with portable EEG units—or make their subjects, and inquisitive visitors like me, go out and do it for them.

THE ABILITY TO see electrical waves inside the human brain was pioneered by German psychiatrist Hans Berger in the 1920s. Berger, who fell off a horse as a young soldier and was convinced his brain then sent a telepathic message to his sister, wanted to investigate. He also believed it should be possible to watch the brain convert energy into blood flow, electricity and, ultimately, thoughts themselves. What started off as a kooky quest eventually led him to invent the electroencephalography machine, which translated signals from electrodes placed on the head to a photographic recording device. He referred to the contraption as a brain mirror, although that was optimistic. It wasn’t able to read or reflect minds but it could capture electrical signals that revealed clues about mental states. Berger learned that alpha waves, for example, appeared during rest or relaxation. Later, there would be other insights, such as that beta waves indicate active thinking and alertness, that gammas dominate during sensory processing, that delta occurs in deep sleep and so on.

Until recently, EEG was complicated to administer, requiring tight skullcaps fitted with dozens of button-sized electrodes, each wired to a large computer. A person wearing such a device looks like a shriveled sea urchin. But now, thanks to wireless technology and microprocessors, subjects can take those electrodes for a walk, as long as they don’t throw their heads back and forth in abandon (for this reason, we have no idea what the brain looks like while dancing). Although EEG remains a relatively crude measure of the average electrical output of thousands of neurons over a wide area of brain geography, it holds an obvious allure for researchers interested in environmental psychology.

In a small but intriguing 2013 pilot study, researchers asked a dozen volunteers to walk around Edinburgh for a total of 25 minutes. Their path took them through a busy urban thoroughfare, a city park, and a quiet street. The walkers wore a newfangled portable EEG that wraps just a few plastic tentacles around one’s head, made by the California company EMOTIV. The unit has only 14 electrodes and transmits real-time information wirelessly to a laptop. EMOTIV then runs the frequency signals of alpha, beta, delta and theta waves through an algorithm that translates them to short-term excitement, frustration, “engagement,” “arousal” and “meditation level.” (This is also the same kind of unit I wore on the lake in Maine.)

When the Scottish volunteers entered the park, their brain waves showed evidence of lower frustration and arousal, along with higher “meditation” levels. Encouraged that these results aligned with Attention Restoration Theory, the researchers have now launched a much larger study with 120 senior citizens. They are calling it the Mobility, Mood and Place study.

The lead researcher, Jenny Roe from the University of York, agreed to let me have a go with the EEG unit on the route through Edinburgh. I met her neuroscience postdoc, Christopher Neale, downtown, and after a bit of hair maneuvering and saline-solution dabbing, he clamped on the headset. “You have a lot of hair,” he muttered. “That’s one difference about working with older people. They’re mostly bald.” But the device was finally transmitting, and so with Neale leading the way about ten paces in front of me, we began the walk.

It was a beautiful June day. We headed down Chalmers Street, bustling and loud with students, lorries, buses and motorbikes. This was gratifying, because I knew the noise would stress me out, and of course I knew the study design (which does not make me an ideal subject). Then we turned into the Meadows park, and I prepared to calm down. But I couldn’t. The park was jam-packed with picnickers, baby carriages, joggers. Boom boxes blared from the picnic blankets. A park maintenance truck was backing up out of a small dirt alley. Oh no! You people are all messing with my solitude! This is generally my attitude while in city parks, but it was exacerbated by the pressure to produce good brain waves. Look at the grass, I willed myself. Listen to the damn birds. A bicyclist careened past. We exited the park and walked up a quieter street, ending up near the National Museum. Neale unclenched the unit from my now throbbing head and promised to send me the results.

Months later, I got the analysis of my brain waves back from Neale. It was a bit disappointing, if not surprising. “You can see that when you transition into the green space, your excitement, engagement and frustration levels all go up,” he wrote. “These results suggest that you were more excited and engaged in the green space when compared with the urban busy section. Interestingly, your frustration levels go up and remain up. Perhaps this was due to the fact that you were walking around a new city, and technically ‘at work’ too!”

More likely, I was just, like Wordsworth, pissed off by the crowds.

In any case, I was, as Neale put it, “non-typical. Early results using the raw EEG data in our newer study in older people are promising and more in line with our hypothesis, i.e., that walking in a green setting is restorative.” Something Ruth Ann Atchley said in Moab came back to me, about how she thinks different people have different tolerances for doses of “nature.” Someone who lives in a city might be overjoyed and calmed down by a single tree, but others of us require a bigger hit. “If you’re used to Colorado, you’re going to want quiet and big views,” she’d predicted. Nature was like caffeine, or heroin. You keep wanting more.

I was, it seems, spoiled.

OR I COULD just be a terrible research subject. A few months later, I traveled to Urbana, Illinois. I went to visit Art Kramer, the exercise neuroscientist, rock climber and Harley rider whom I’d last seen fidgeting on a deck chair in Moab. It was apparent he didn’t like to sit still then, and when I saw the sixty-three-year-old’s office at the University of Illinois’ Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, it was even more obvious. As the institute’s director, he commanded a wood-paneled office large enough to accommodate a treadmill desk.

“One to one and a half hours per day,” he said, as I sized it up. “One point seven to two miles per hour.” Kramer, who has expressive, sunken eyes, a trim gray beard, and an appearance of explosive energy modulated by sensitivity, was wearing a slightly rumpled striped shirt, and I wondered if he had just climbed off the thing.

Kramer has made many academic splashes, but a big one was when he figured out that forty minutes of moderate walking per day could protect the aging brain from some cognitive decline, especially in executive function skills, memory and psychomotor speed. To exercise, he has added a list of additional advice: have good genes, stay intellectually challenged, maintain social interactions. He has even advocated walking book clubs, which, I must say, sounds not nearly as fun as curling up on couches with dessert and glasses of wine. And thanks to his colleague and former student David Strayer, he’s taking a look at nature as a way to boost creativity. After attending Strayer’s desert confab, “I thought looking at nature would be a great idea,” he said. “We can begin to look at the synergistic effects of nature and exercise. We can try to isolate it in a lab.”

Kramer was intrigued by a recent Stanford study that showed walking on a treadmill and walking outside both increased divergent creativity, which is the kind of expansive thinking that includes brainstorming and finding more than one correct answer to a question. That study did not show that walking improved convergent creativity, the kind exemplified by the word-association task that Strayer used showing big payoffs in Outdoor Bound hikers (as a reminder of the task, find the one word that connects to all three words: cake, cottage and Swiss—the answer, in case you’re not hungry enough to free-associate it, is cheese). But the Stanford study did not look at walking in nature per se. The “outdoor” part took place on campus streets, alleys and courtyards. Stanford may be beautiful, but it is also loud with people and service vehicles, as I learned when I walked the route myself. Naturally, it was during a walking meeting that Stanford professor Daniel Schwartz and his Ph.D. student, Marily Oppezzo, got the idea to study walking and creativity. Because they were being so dang creative on that walk.

Wanting to work in the nature piece, Kramer thought he’d dish out a few creativity tasks before and after putting volunteers on a treadmill for twenty minutes. Some would “journey” through a virtual-reality park, and some a city street. Of course, I wanted to try it. Kramer’s grad student set me up. From the get-go it was a disaster. The pretest was to create a list in a category, in this case “animals,” coming up with as many as you can in a set amount of time. I was on a roll, probably because I once lived on a game ranch in Africa. I was up to wildebeest, oryx, black rhino and water buffalo when the timer buzzed. This was a problem. In order to show that nature makes you more creative, you’re not supposed to ace the pretest.

It was time to mount the machine. The treadmill faced two enormous screens running the 3-D video of the walks. I started ambling at a comfortable pace, but the machine made a loud whirring noise in the windowless room. This did not feel like a pleasant nature environment. Not at all. The room was stuffy, the machines loud, the images on the medium-pixelated TVs glaring. VR, I was learning, is much more V than R. When I shifted my gaze from the left screen to the right, the picture quality there was so bad that the trees looked like they had been dusted with nuclear ash. Then a bright flash would burst and the image would shake and reset. I felt woozy, as I had the last time I’d gone virtual in a lab. I waved down the assistant, who managed to switch the video to 2D before I felt the need to hurl. Afterward, I took the word-associates test.

I bombed.

But, apparently, so did other people. Kramer told me later the study “was a bit of a bust.” There were problems with the lab technology, specifically the “presentation of scenes across multiple screens and mismatching auditory and visual scene elements.” Perhaps it’s time to admit it, people: nature just does the elements better.

DAVID STRAYER HAD been having better luck with his post-Moab experiments than Kramer. He conducted his own walking study outside, per his style. “We know the field is messy,” he told me. “There’s wind and rain. But being in the lab strips away a lot of the interesting stuff, so I’ve learned to grin and bear it and accept the consequences.”

Strayer decided to make use of the Red Butte arboretum near the University of Utah campus. He wanted to look at the effects of being in nature on walkers’ memory, and he also—because he is David Strayer, Distracted Driving Man—wanted to look at how technology use might mess with memory. For the experiment, Strayer and doctoral student Rachel Hopman set up three groups of about twenty people each: one group would hand over their cell phones, walk for thirty minutes in the arboretum and then take a recognition memory task. A second group would take the same walk and test, but during the walk, they were told to make a long phone call. Moms were happy that day. The third group was the control. They took the memory test before the walk. The first group, walking with no phone, averaged 80 percent in their postwalk memory test. The group that talked on the phone scored only 30 percent, and the control group scored about the same.

Strayer was delighted to see both that nature walking boosted cognition and that the addition of evil technology totally wiped out the gains. “What we find is consistent with the other literature that working memory improves,” he said. And, he explained, it is also consistent with the Kaplans’ Attention Restoration Theory. The quiet hikers were able to access the Kaplans’ magic recipe of feeling “away,” of being open to soft fascination in their environment, of having a sense of compatibility with the landscape and feeling as if they are in a vast, restful space. The phone talkers, by contrast, may have been relaxed by being outside in the fresh air, but they were not as liberated from daily cares. They weren’t truly resting their top-down attentional networks. They were multitasking, walking, looking, listening and most importantly, speaking, which uses up a lot of attentional bandwidth. Note to self: leave the cell phone at home, or at least deep in your pocket, when in need of a cognitive reboot.

About the same time Strayer was running his experiment, yet another Stanford team designed a walking-in-nature study (it’s interesting to note that the campus most known for changing our relationship to technology—by incubating it—is now becoming known for helping us ditch it). As sometimes happens, neither team was familiar with the other’s work, but there was some nice complementarity. Working with ecosystem services expert Gretchen Daily and emotional-regulation-psych guru James Gross, doctoral student Greg Bratman randomly sent sixty volunteers on either a fifty-minute walk through a busy street in Palo Alto or on trails around the iconic local green space known as the Stanford Dish. Before and after, he measured their moods, anxiety and rumination, and also gave them a series of punishing cognitive tests. Results? The subjects performed significantly better on a test measuring memory and attention—and they also reported feeling happier—after walking in nature.

Bratman and his colleagues had a theory about why, and they wanted to test it. His coinvestigator, Gross, is an expert on rumination. This is something cows do literally, but our minds do it too: chew on an unpleasant memory to create, as the study authors put it, “a maladaptive pattern of self-referential thought.” We might replay an unpleasant exchange or bad feeling over and over until we drive ourselves batty. Rumination, as Gross and others have shown, is linked to depression and anxiety. When people ruminate, they activate a portion of their brains called the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a region also linked to sadness, withdrawal and general grumpiness, according to Bratman.

For the next experiment, they sent 38 healthy (not depressed) city dwellers on a pretty big walk—90 minutes this time—either back to the green Dish or along traffic-heavy El Camino Real, and scanned their brains before and after. They also had them fill out rumination-measuring questionnaires. On the scans, the nature brains showed a significant, sizable reduction of blood flow to the subgenual region, while the urban brains showed none. The questionnaires also revealed less broody feelings in the postwalk Dishers but not in the roadway walkers. The results were exciting for Bratman, because they point to a possible causal mechanism for how certain landscapes might be boosting our moods, basically, by quieting some brain circuitry governing self-wallowing. The world is bigger than you, nature says. Get over yourself. At the very least, nature distracts us the way a parent might distract a whining toddler, by waving a favorite stuffed animal. As Bratman put it, “The results suggest that nature experience is impacting rumination in a way that is markedly different from urban experience.”

CLEARLY, IT WAS time for me to get walking. I was, despite trying for nearly two years, still feeling unhappy in D.C. The city sounds jangled me. We were hemorrhaging our savings. My husband had a fulfilling job saving nature, but we had to leave wild landscapes for him to do it, which still rankled. What about saving us? I was grateful to spend more time with my father, who continued his impressive recovery from his brain trauma. Together, we took increasingly longer walks in an arboretum near his place or along the canal near mine. He was happier and mellower after his accident, and, walking, he often brought up pleasant reminiscences (as opposed to ruminescences) and some pretty sappy sentiments. I haven’t seen any studies on nature and sentimentality (hear that, Bratman?), but the connection wouldn’t surprise me. One day, as we returned to my front steps, Dad thanked me. “You are the light of my life,” he said.

“Wait a minute!” protested his wife, Galina. He laughed.

“You both are.” We had a group hug, reminding me that nature is, truly, best shared.

To motivate myself to get out walking more, I found a study I could join, a big, old-fashioned study with questionnaires.

I learned that Lisa Nisbet at Trent University was sending over 9,000 people out into the verdure for the May-long “30 x 30 nature challenge”—30 minutes a day of walking, for 30 days in a row). I signed on. My first task was to answer a fairly long questionnaire designed to ascertain our general mood state, vitality, activities and “subjective connection with nature.” That done, I set out for my walks, generally down to my usual path along the C & O Canal, but in one case along a park in the late evening in downtown Helsinki, where a man stood in a clearing and waved his penis around.

When we are determined to hobnob with greenery every day, most of us will, inevitably, encounter setbacks. Over the course of writing this book, I was jumped by numerous rogue and grimy dogs and splattered with mud by bicyclists. I broke a finger when my own dog lunged for another dog on a crowded park trail, wrenching her leash around my hand. I was stung by four bees, three in D.C. One morning I was seized by an unstoppable urge to go to the bathroom and hurriedly plunged into the dark creekside thickets of my neighborhood park (please don’t tell the listserve). I consequently contracted poison ivy. The Lyme disease came later, from Maine.

It’s not easy being outside everyday. Either a lot of people in Nesbit’s study decided they preferred the air-conditioning, or they simply didn’t respond to the follow-up questionnaire. Of the 2,500 who stuck it out, most were just like me: women in their mid-forties. Researchers love us because we do, sigh, follow through on our commitments, and we are conditioned to be helpful. But there were rewards: I spoke to Nisbet months later, after she’d sorted the data. “The more time participants spent in nature, the greater well-being they reported,” she said. One of the most interesting findings was that we seemed to like being in nature so much, we doubled our weekly green time by the end of the month, from five hours to ten. As the month progressed, we also reduced our time in vehicles, texting and emailing. Progress! All this temporal rearrangement appeared to be good for us. We reported significant increases in all measures of well-being, including in mood and mental calm, and also decreases in stress and negativity. We slept slightly better, and also reported feeling slightly more connected to nature.

This was all true for me. The more I made myself get outside, the better I slept and felt, except when my bee-stung arm turned into armzilla. But the discomfort was temporary. Despite the planes and all the people, my nearby parks were invariably cooler, breezier and better-smelling than anywhere else in the city. I watched the buds turn to leaves and I made a point of trying to identify a few birds by sound and of looking for fractals. I often walked to look at the Potomac River, just to take the currents in and let the water (always the highest-rated nature feature in surveys) work its magic on my tired neurons. The required thirty minutes often turned into many more.

Still, it felt a little contrived. Pull out the stopwatch. Try to feel connected. I wanted to find people who were spending even more intensive time in nature, real nature, and, frankly, I wanted it myself, now that I was all connected.

It was time to head for the backcountry.




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