Healing Environments

Nature has the remarkable ability to restore itself and does so at every opportunity, without our help, and usually, much better than we could do so if we tried. The firestorm that erupted on October 8, 2017, near my home in Sonoma, will serve as a lasting example of the healing power of the environment as we see the landscape regenerate over the next century.

With nature, time is the most abundant of resources, unlike with humans. We are here for only a short time, and with the amplification of technology, we are able to destroy such outsized portions of our environment that the same technology has to be brought to bear to try and reverse, or mitigate, the devastation. Even then, we cannot bring back what has taken millennia to naturally grow and evolve. In this way we have removed natural selection from the process and substituted human selection. The problem is that our evolutionary path, and our judgment, has had a relatively short, 2 million years, to mature, compared to a 200-million-year-old, species such as a redwood tree. We have upended natural selection and are now in the age known as the Anthropocene, the human epoch.

The evolutionary success of redwood trees is nothing short of remarkable. They were, at one time, found throughout the world and are virtually impossible to kill. They can withstand fire, drought, most weather events, pestilence, rot, and nearly everything else, except men with chainsaws. These trees can live to be three thousand years old, and their root system, key to their longevity, may live for thousands of years more, sprouting fairy rings in perpetuity. The redwood lumber in your deck was harvested from 20- to 30-year-old fairy rings. Like the fish in our fisheries, however, trees never reach maturity nowadays, and are harvested at ever younger ages, so the trees stay small, creating low canopy, brushy, immature forests that catch fire and burn easily. This low dense environment is also more vulnerable to pestilence and pathogen.

The forests of California’s North Coast are a healing environment in several ways. The forest lost 97 percent of its old-growth trees to industrial, clearcut, logging. That means almost all the trees you see when you drive up Highway 1, are less than 100 years old and have re-grown since the gold rush and 1906 earthquake rebuild. The remaining 3 percent are recovering groves that provide a healing environment for other beings as well as for themselves. Irrefutable, measurable, scientific evidence for the stress-relieving, cortisol-reducing, healing benefits of a walk in the woods is available with a few keystrokes. It’s an effortless connection that puts us in touch with our little-used natural neural network, which enables communication with the rest of the universe, something your smartphone won’t do.

For twenty years, I was a contractor for the Nature Conservancy, and my job was to document this environmental healing process. In nearly all cases, the Conservancy would target the habitat of rare, threatened, or endangered species and devise a program to acquire as much of the habitat as possible and restore or preserve it—essentially by limiting human activity so the environment could heal.

We need to give more thought to healing our environment by allowing it to do what it’s been doing so successfully for billions of years, and let it heal us in the process.

Grant Johnson
December 2017