City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

April 26, 2017

April 24th

Benefits of Nature – Part II – Restoration of Well-Being and Stress Reduction

4:00 p.m. Heavy rain falls all day, and I am running in a medium to light downfall. Even so, there are twelve runners and walkers on the road and enjoying a wet canyon. The stream is swollen. The rain brings out the colors of the tree trunks: the Box Elder, cottonwood and River birch all have slightly varying grades of gray. Under this light and the soaked trunks, orange lichens have a high contrast. The red trunks of the Red ozier dogwood bushes also starkly contrast with their two-inch sparse green leaves. In the winter, these red trunks contrasted again the white snow. The Gambel’s oaks all show signs of leafing through mile 0.2, but they slumber thereafter. All other trees through mile 1.2 have significant unfurled buds. Green begins to dominate the upper story of the forest along the road, and Solomon’s seal dominates the understory. I hear about eight unseen chickadees in the forest’s thickets.

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Attention Restoration Theory (ART) proposes that the daily mental strain of modern life leads to cognitive burn-out and that a natural environment can restore prefrontal cortex-mediated executive processes. In 2012, Ruth and Paul Atchley at the University of Kansas and David Strayler at the University of Utah measured the creativity of 56 participants before they entered three-day Outbound Bound retreat in the wilderness were technological devices were banned (Atchley et al 2012). Post-wilderness participants had significantly higher scores on a creative problem-solving task as compared to pre-wilderness participants. This is a psychologist’s way of showing that vacations are necessary for restore ones mental functioning. In another small study, Howell and colleagues at Grant MacEwan University surveyed 452 undergraduate students regarding their degree of connectness to nature and their sense of emotional well-being (Howell et al 2011). They found that a person’s sense of connectedness with nature, measured using accepted psychological test scales, is positively associated with their sense of emotional well-being. But these are small studies involving non-randomly chosen populations.

* * * *

Research also indicates that exposure to nature reduces stress. Previously discussed studies involving a self-reported sense of well-being based on using accepted psychological test scales may be describing a subjective response to nature that has no physical counterpart. Such studies lack objective physiological, biochemical measurements. Thompson at the University of Edinburgh and colleagues measured outdoor activity and cortisol in salivary secretions over two days in 25 unemployed persons between the ages of 33 and 57 years of ago (Thompson et al 2012). They found a positive association between the slope of their daily cortisol levels (which naturally decline throughout the day), an increasing self-reported sense of well-being, and their increasing levels of activity in natural areas. Persistent low-levels of cortisol are indicative of continuing emotional stress, e.g. as in PTSD. Park at the Chiba University and colleagues used a portable electrocardiograph, a wearable blood pressure monitor, salivary swabs and psychological tests to measure changes in heart rate, ECG, and cortisol levels before and after exercise by 480 urban residents before and after traditional Japanese Shinrin-yoku nature walks in forests (Park et al 2010). Different types of electrocardiograph data is correlated with activity in the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. Park et al found that as compared to urban settings, walking in forests lowered cortisol levels, pulse rate, blood pressure, increases relaxation (as measured by parasympathetic nervous activity) and lowers the flight-or-flight response (as measured by sympathetic nervous activity). Alvarsson and colleagues found in laboratory experiments on forty university students that the sympathetic nervous system, measured using skin conduction, recovered faster to loud natural sounds as opposed to loud noise, e.g. urban noise (Alvarsson et al 2010). This suggests that interrupting living in an urban environment saturated with traffic noise over-stresses the fight-of-flight (symathetic nervous) response and that breaks in a natural setting might aid in restoring symathetic nervous system. Again, these are small studies involving non-randomly chosen populations.

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On April 24th, 1992, Beacon Elementary students held a one-mile hike in City Creek Canyon support of the creation of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail (Salt Lake Tribune, Tribune April 25, 1992). According to Rick Reese of the Shoreline Trail association, progress is being made on agreements to start construction of the segment between the University of Utah and City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune, April 25, 1992). Reese’s vision is to be able to “to walk from Emigration Canyon to Shriners Hospital without traffic or constraints[.]” (Reese was a legendary early rock climber who with Former Mayor Ted Wilson, explored many now classic rock climbing routes in the Wasatch. Reese went on to be an officer of the Great Yellowstone Coalition in Montana.) The Children’s Association to Revive the Earth will also plan to plant trees with Gov. Norman Bangerter on Arbor Day. On April 24th, 1908, the Police Department did a sweep of vagrants seeking to arrest one with experience handling explosives. A skilled prison laborer was needed to dynamite rocks during the construction of City Creek Canyon Road (Salt Lake Herald). R. B. Matthews, the City Creek Canyon water patrolman, impounded 13 stray cattle found in the canyon (Salt Lake Tribune).

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