Deficient In Nature’s Breath
As I grow accustomed to concrete cityscapes and chemical-ready monoculture I forget about Nature and its bouquet of pleasant aromas that lift me off my feet in a buoyancy of heavenly smell.
Humans must be biologically hardwired to enjoy the olfactory wonders of leaf, bark, earth and water because as soon as I wander back into nature an epiphany strikes me with such alarming force it’s like a clever friend dropping a cast iron pot on my head and clanking it hard with a wooden ladle – a startling shock to say the least. Consequently, I am amazed at how I could have forgotten such a wonderful thing as the untainted purity of fresh air and the beauty of nature itself.
Perhaps what I’m more infatuated with is the temporary break from the stale and artificial odors permeating a modern society, but surely that cannot be the case. The indescribable pleasure induced by nature’s potpourri is not just a mere novelty to be enjoyed on some chance encounter. It’s a marvelous awakening that should be taken like a pill, every day. The benefits of a walk in nature are so substantial that the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine was created just for the research and advancement of this unique medicine.
This so called forest bathing needs to be experienced to be believed. Take a drive to the nearest forest and stroll under its towering canopy. Turn a nostril and breathe in the pristine phytoncides exterminated by the dense flora. The wooded ambience provides the needed aromatic therapy to the city dweller, cleansing the soul and relieving the stress induced work comas we daily submit ourselves to.
Qing Li, president of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine, has done extensive research into the physical and psychological effects that forest bathing has on the human body.
A three-day/two-night trip into the forest significantly lowers our blood pressure, decreases stress hormones and boosts anti-cancer molecules in our bloodstreams. Forest bathing also raises serum adiponectin and dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate, suggesting an anti-aging effect. It also improves vigor, anxiety, depression, and anger. Improvements in nerve activity has also been observed, implying even the visual cues in the fibonacci geometries of forest scenery can have a relaxing effect on our brain.
Besides the physiological benefits to human well-being are the emotional and evocative qualities of personal memories that manifest with distinct scents. For instance, walking through a grove of balsam fir can illicit a bursting flood of warm feelings when the common pagan holiday is remembered.
Unfortunately, entrepreneurs of all shapes and sizes have waged war with fresh air by dumbing it down into scented candles, room sprays, cleaning solvents, car fresheners, perfume, fabric softener and a slew of other household items with chemical ingredients that create more pollution than anything else.
Losing a Battle or Two
The battle against fresh air has been fought by humans and nature since the discovery of controlled fire, some 800,000 years ago (or 6,000 years ago for Jesus diehards). In present day, the largest offenders of fresh air are industry and agriculture in an undiscerning mission of progress, as some like to call it.
Take the Red River Valley for instance. I liken the region between North Dakota and Minnesota as the ass crack of America because of its linear form and how horrible it smells. The giant sugarbeet factories of American Crystal Sugar pollute the region with the most putrid odor ever, covering the north flowing Red River up and down both sides like an unattractive skid mark on your underwear. The reduction of clean air lowers the quality of life in cities like East Grand Forks and Moorhead where residents have to live their lives in a stench that’s reminiscent of vomit, wastewater, dirty jockstrap, rotten eggs and who knows what else – just gag me with a spoon. But of all the concerned citizens who have complained about the rancid stink that comes from making real sugar, I wonder how many still continue to blindly purchase products made with the unnecessary ingredient?
Worse than industrial processed plant food is the meat industry. Unregulated waste management and corporate subsidies have helped maintain the cost of McDonald’s cheeseburger at one dollar, but growing meat for food also has a highly negative impact on human health (in more ways than one). Industrial-scale factory farms are a major source of environmental pollution across the United States. North Carolina, for example, is home to over 2,000 feedlots with vast lagoons of pig shit from the state’s nearly 10 million swine. The grotesque odor and dangerous levels of ammonia in the toxic cloud enveloping neighborhoods is so intense that residents are forced to stay indoors until winds change direction. Only then can children play outside and parents complete outdoor chores. The situation begs the question again, how many of those victims still go hog wild over bacon and pork chops after experiencing the result of their food choices?
Scented candles can suffocate the freshness out of the air nearly as much as anything. But you would think they were less belligerent, being extinguishable with just a wet thumb and index finger. A burning paraffin candle will emit acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, benzene, toluene and a mixture of other toxic chemicals similar to diesel fumes, and while the EPA is relatively unconcerned with added contaminants emitted into the air we breath, the carcinogenic volatiles only serve to compound with the cornucopia of other toxicities in our lives. Still, the good news is that most people don’t place a burning candle underneath their face to sniff sooty aerosols for hours every day, generally speaking. But all of these examples pale in comparison to fresh air’s most outrageous predator.
The perfume and cologne people coat themselves with are composed of petrochemical ingredients called phthalates whose listings are not required on product labeling due to an ignorant loophole in FDA guidelines regarding trade secrets. Chemically speaking, there’s not much difference between cigarette smoke and the scent of a woman. Each scent can contain a dozen or more synthetic petroleum-based chemicals that have been associated with hormone disruption, sperm damage, allergic reactions, asthma and a plethora of other unfriendly side affects no one wants to talk about. What’s worse is when nasal fatigue sets in and the offender has to apply the stench even more liberally to smell it. An air mask is highly recommended for those proximity situations that overwhelm the senses with the poisonous spray of a neighbors’s Eau de Parfum.
But then there’s carbon dioxide as the unequivocal wild card in this mix. After being railroaded by the propaganda campaign to villainize the essential gas, it’s easy to assume it too reduces air quality. Yet, plants have evolved over millennia to flourish in an atmosphere rich in CO2. That’s why horticulturists inject more of it into greenhouses, to create an ideal environment for cell reproduction. And for anyone who’s seen NASA’s global visualization of CO2 derived from data collected by the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, it’s easy to see how ravenous Earth’s plants are. We could easily double, or even triple, CO2 levels and collectively plant more forests to cultivate the fresh air our fleshy bodies crave.
Unfortunately, humans have acted as an invasive species, cutting down more trees than I can shake a stick at. The species has built a ridiculously inefficient food supply system with overcrowded breeding grounds taking giant leaps backward in maintaining fresh air. The non-profit Habitat for Humanity is so blind and stupid I don’t know what. 7.4×109 large mammals should not be allowed any more space to live, it’s going to be a St. Matthew’s Island all over again. Blasphemy aside, the most intelligent thing humans can do for themselves and the future of life on Earth is to reduce their own population and regrow forests, grasslands and wetlands to give flora and fauna the opportunity to thrive again, all the while creating a more healthy and sustainable environment for humanity to prosper.
It only takes one trip into the wilderness of nature, away from the anxiety of a burgeoning civilization, to realize we are missing something precious in our lives. Fresh air. And after just a few whiffs of the priceless resource we soon ask ourselves the obvious question. Wouldn’t it be nice to take home a few Mason jars full of nature’s breath to enjoy later?
Grow Your Own Fresh Air
The ambient air quality in offices and homes is not on most people’s conscious radar and yet it’s a major component of health, productivity and well-being.
Kamal Meattle’s talk on TED reminded me it’s more than possible to grow my own fresh air with three common house plants: Areca palm, Mother-in-Law’s Tongue and money plant. Areca palm converts CO2 into oxygen during the day, Mother-in-Law’s Tongue converts it at night, and money plant helps remove formaldehydes and other volatile chemicals from the air. Meattle’s research consists of studying how growing these plants inside buildings can reduce respiratory symptoms, eye irritation, asthma and headaches at the same time reducing energy requirements for office buildings by 10 percent.
If I had the ambition to acquire enough of these plants, I could live on a pirate ship in an impossible bottle with the cork stopper installed and I would never run out of fresh air. It would be a happily ever after scenario for my smelling and breathing organs.