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Studies have linked nature experiences with not just a general sense of well-being, but measurable decreases in mental distress, improved cognitive function, and higher levels of creativity, as well as improved sleep and reduced stress.

AscentXmedia/The Globe and Mail

When Mark Brennan moved from Scotland to rural Nova Scotia, he saw the natural landscape with fresh eyes.

A landscape artist, Brennan was awestruck. He began to record the chorus of the Canadian landscape – at first as a source of inspiration in his studio, and then as artistic oeuvres all on their own.

“For me, this is a form of meditation. I use all of my senses to look outward into the world; my problems fade away. I am brought to the present moment and find joy in the smallest things,” says Brennan, whose nature recordings are now sold on his website, alongside his other art.

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“It is difficult to express what it is like to actually sit in an ancient forest, miles from any major road or building and actually experiencing something as ancient as the dawn chorus.”

The benefits of nature to our physical and mental health are well documented. Studies have linked nature experiences with not just a general sense of well-being, but measurable decreases in mental distress, improved cognitive function, and higher levels of creativity, as well as improved sleep and reduced stress.

Yet people have become very disconnected from nature, Brennan says.

“I think we have developed a sort of blindness towards the Earth and nature. Traditionally we tend to exploit nature, not preserve it,” he says.

But preserving the sounds of the wild is exactly what he aims to do, sometimes spending days canoeing into what he hopes is a pristine wilderness, microphone in hand.

“It is very difficult to capture the perfect soundscape without human noise. I would say most of the time, I can find perhaps just 15 minutes of natural silence before an aircraft or distant engine emerges into the recording,” he says.

“I have been in the most beautiful ancient woods and started to record when I begin to hear the drone of an aircraft through my headphones.”

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Those unadulterated ancient sounds are becoming increasingly rare, he says.

“If you think about those sounds in nature, the bird song, the sounds of the streams, waves lapping at a lake edge, all of these sounds are older than anything man-made,” he says.

There is no human health without healthy ecosystems

— Matilda van den Bosch, assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences and its School of Population and Public Health

Despite forests’ worth of scientific papers linking physical and mental health benefits to the sounds and experience of nature, that value is not always taken into account, says Matilda van den Bosch, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences and its School of Population and Public Health.

Van den Bosch was one of 26 researchers from around the world involved in developing a framework to measure these benefits for use in land-use and city planning.

“If we can provide good evidence on the effects on health from healthy ecosystems, that provides an incitement for taking care of these trees, taking care of the ecosystems,” says van den Bosch. “It’s a way to change the way people think about nature as a real, tangible asset.”

The paper, Nature and Mental Health: An ecosystem service perspective, was published in July in the journal Science Advances.

With mental illness on par with cardiovascular and circulatory diseases on the scale of total global burden of disease, it says, “it is important to determine the degree to which nature experience might lessen this burden – and to integrate these effects into ecosystem service assessments.”

A 2017 study at Brighton and Sussex Medical School monitored the neural and autonomic nervous system activity of participants while listening to natural and artificial soundscapes.

Researchers found that activity in the brain’s default mode network differed in each. Natural sounds invoked an outward focus of attention, while artificial sounds invoked an inward focus – a pattern linked to stress.

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The study also noted differences in the physiological responses. Natural sounds linked to nervous system activity associated with relaxation, as well as a better performance at assigned tasks.

In a previous study van den Bosch was involved in at Lund University in Sweden, participants were exposed to virtual reality nature, first without sound and then with it. They found natural sounds have a significant impact on stress recovery.

“There is no human health without healthy ecosystems,” van den Bosch says.

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Ben Porchuk, co-founder and executive director of the Global Institute of Forest Therapy, agrees.

“It’s a very soothing, calming experience,” says Porchuk, an ecologist by trade who became one of the first two certified forest therapy guides in Canada in 2015. He estimates there are now about 100, certified by his and another, California-based organization.

Inspired by the Japanese practice of “forest bathing,” Porchuk and his colleagues have designated five forest therapy trails, so far all near Markham, Ont.

“Most of us in North America spend 95 per cent of our time indoors over the period of a year,” he says. “So when people get back outside and you draw attention to the sounds, whether it’s a running stream or a bird call or the wind through the trees, it’s a nice memory and it’s a reminder of the sense of place and the permanence of the nature around us.”

A forest therapy session involves being guided into a natural environment, eyes closed at first. This heightens the sense of sound and other, less utilized senses, Porchuk says.

Though he spent a lot of time in nature, he says approaching it as therapy was transformational.

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“For me, it felt like there was a lot of magic that I had been missing,” he says.

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