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Aerial shot of Jackson Heights featured by Transhistoria: Stillspotting ( ) NYC

The Guggenheim Museum commissioned me to write an essay for the Transhistoria: Stillspotting exhibit.  Actors read my essay for visitors over the course of a month last spring.  This notice remains among my greatest honors as a writer.

The Guggenheim wanted me to focus on Jackson Heights,and the challenge of finding stillness and peace in such a loud, busy, diverse immigrant hub.  I began by researching the neurology of music, trance states, and how through these pathways music and peace might be linked. Instead I came upon a beautiful facet of humanity, and remain grateful to the Vecchia family for inviting me in.

I hope you enjoy this essay.

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PEACE BY THE DECIBEL

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by Erik Baard

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1. The Roar of Peace.


When we listen for sound waves to ride to inner peace, our ears aren’t attuned to the city. We don’t expect peace to have a New York accent. Peace is idyllic escapism. It’s questingly anti-urban.

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I WILL arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

 

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;

There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

 

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.



William Butler Yeats, though a vigorous young man when he wrote “The Lake Isle of Inisfree” more than a century ago, longed to step off the “pavements grey” of New York’s “sister city,” London. Peace is a hope and a soft memory for Yeats, and he shares it through a lulling rhythm.

Back then, much of Queens would have manifested the poet’s soothing fancy. Not today.

I grew up under the whine of jet airplanes approaching LaGuardia Airport, and the rumble of others more distantly ascending. My vision was terrible and my glasses were always streaked. Blurry silver glints swung groundward in methodical, wide arcs. Wings vanished in foreshortening as planes banked. That illusion of bare fuselages looked like the Atlas and Titan rockets I saw on television and which were a highlight of kindergarten trips to the nearby New York Hall of Science. Just as NASA’s lunar program was wrapping up, I was blissfully misunderstanding my sky to be filled with countless space missions, launching and landing one neighborhood over.

I was innocent of missiles. I knew nothing of the Cold War undertones of the Space Race. The thunderous, shuddering metal rockets were humanity’s vow to strike a path into cosmic wonderment. I dreamed to one day blaze it deeper.

Peace was loud. It was the exhilaration of throwing energy at adventure and exploration. Children so young can’t rightly be said to hold delusions. Instead, their walls of knowledge have many gaps through which imagination floods. But one fact of childhood remains with me: peace needn’t mean the stilling of energies.

2. Heart of Noise.

January 22, 2012. An early afternoon thaw is starting to loose the noises of Jackson Heights from the muffling blanket of snow that fell the day before. Outside the Apna Cash and Carry on 37th Avenue, the usual cacophony burgeons. Car horns blare the long, sustained, atonal, and frustrated wails of small, tense men. The roll doors of trucks crash closed. Arguments in Bangla flash. Along Roosevelt Avenue, the elevated 7 train obliterates conversations in clattering swells.

Noise and heat are often the castings of purposeful effort. An incandescent bulb glows with utility but burns with wasted energy. The archipelago we call home was once filled with wetlands, meadows, and forests that covetously held sunlight — indeed, treetops climbed higher in competition for that energy. New York City today is a “heat island” that absorbs light into barren hardscapes of concrete, stone, and asphalt, only to re-radiate it unused in longer, warming infrared wavelengths. With industrialization, the energy of labor has been radically condensed. Muscle action and tropism that slowly and quietly shaped ancient landscapes were overwhelmed by combustion engines. Our machines do the work of generations in a year or a season, but with this energy they are also groaningly and concussively profligate.

Imagine a topographical map of North America showing noise level readings as mountains, valleys, and plains. The Boston-Washington corridor would be a towering mountain range, scaling to an apex in New York City. Noise is measured in logarithmic decibels, with distance as important as source. A subway train ringing in at 95 dB is 10 times louder than an 85 dB jackhammer, and 100 times louder than a car idling at your corner with its sound system whump-whumping at 75 dB. Traffic typically registers between 60 and 87 dB. In a city’s tight quarters, many sounds, like car horns and garbage trucks, assault us at over 100 decibels. Anything above 85dB has the potential to cause permanent hearing loss. The atmospheric soundscape of the deep forest is as quiet as a lover’s whisper — both have been recorded at 20 dB.

Jackson Heights is blessed with canopied streets, courtyards and garden areas, but could benefit from trees nearer to its major thoroughfares. According to the US Forest Service, “a belt of trees 98 feet wide and 49 feet tall can reduce highway noise by 6 to 10 decibels.” We need that shielding. Random and continuous noise breeds stress. The World Health Organization estimates that 210,000 people die each year from noise stress induced heart disease. More suffer from the effects of frequent deep sleep disruption. The Environmental Protection Agency calculates that nearly half of the U.S. population is exposed to dangerous noise levels.

King Mithridates VI of Pontus sought to protect himself from assassins’ poisons by ingesting toxins bit by bit. His efforts are said to have been so successful that he foiled his own suicide attempt. Are we now subconsciously trying to practice auditory Mithridatism by dropping this poisonous cacophony into our ears day by day? I often wonder what a Homo Urbanis would look like, a hominid evolved for city living. I imagine a sculpture of Homo Urbanis standing in Grand Central Station to remind commuters of the gulf between human design and urban planning. Such a being would be built for a sedentary life, with a vascular system that runs no risk of thrombosis and an endocrine system that doesn’t crave fats and sugars. Its nostrils would be densely bristled to catch diesel particulates, its eyes would filter damaging screen glare. And of course, it would have ear flaps.

But let’s return to that topography. Where humanity clusters, there will be music. Few can ascend the peaks of New York City’s music scene. Jackson Heights is defined by immigrants from Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Tibet, Nepal, Ireland, China, and Thailand. Diving into our streets, we swim through Bollywood dance music, bhangra, Indo-techno, samba, tango, corrido, vallenato, salsa, alvasos, sanjuanitos, pasacalles, tonadas, yaravies. Elevating carnatic sangeet from India, bitter bachatas from Latin America. Romantic pleadings from everywhere humanity has trodden, and trodden over hearts.

Hispanic thrash metal bands have regular gigs at D’Antigua Lounge on Northern Boulevard at 84th Street. Do their head banging fans know that well over half a century ago inventor Les Paul did pioneering work on the electric guitar and multi-track recording a few blocks away? That he nearly died from electrocution, guitar in hand, in the basement studio of his apartment building? After some research I was delighted to locate his apartment complex, just off Roosevelt Avenue: Electra Court, naturally.

3. Another Humanity.

Homo Urbanis is wholly imagined, but walking among us are those who might teach us to usher in Homo Pacificus, a peaceful humanity. It seems that the same brain circuits that produce and appreciate music might sketch the outlines of a better mode of being. I’m counting on a nine year-old girl named Samantha to guide me.

Samantha’s standing at the corner of 37th Avenue and 74th Street with her father, Dr. Anthony Vecchia, who practices emergency medicine and resides in Queens. They’ve kindly agreed to share a walk through Jackson Heights so that we might experience this neighborhood through Samantha’s ears and gentle nature. One of 7,500 of us, like Samantha, is born with Williams Syndrome. Like the better known Down’s Syndrome, this condition arises from a chromosomal transcription error. “Williams people” are often happier among themselves because they are wired to be hyper-social (they approach strangers as we would dear old friends), empathetic, musicophillic, and guileless to degrees we would find incomprehensible. Without exception, they are kind and open. It took an accident to reveal the better angels of our genes.

But a Williams person’s I.Q. is lower, typically about 65. Despite this, they retain a wonderfully vivid ability to tell stories and make music, sometimes even at a high professional level. Too often they are victimized and financially exploited because they are utterly trusting and poor at math.

Musicality gyres in toward people like Les Paul, starting from a cosmic outer rim of sterile mathematics. Nature is full of cycles and orderly patterns. But there is no “Music of the Spheres.” Newtown’s Laws rigidly dictate the movement of planets, stars, and comets. That lockstep progression is a metronome at best. Life makes music. NASA astrobiologist, and my buddy, David Grinspoon, says, “Life isn’t something that happens on a planet, it’s something that happens to a planet.” David also happens to be a rhythm guitarist with House Band of the Universe and has a website called “Funky Science.”

Life responds to the metronome, aligning with the rhythms of rotations and revolutions and tides. With heartbeats, breaths, and bioluminescent pulses, life begins to generate its own rhythms. Life is an eddy within entropy, and perhaps an emergent order that will become all encompassing. The raw universe wants to scatter and fray, but here we are assembling life from seeds, literally molecule by molecule. My murdered friend, “fringe science” advocate Eugene Mallove, wrote movingly of the “quickening universe.”

But we still haven’t arrived at music. An article of faith of mine is that living worlds become musical as they become intelligent. We adore patterns within patterns, and playful, unexpected riffs on those patterns — the punchline, the beat drop, the giraffe’s neck. Patterns and play — order with room for innovation and contradiction — for me, that’s as good a definition of peace as any.

In our time, we’ve seen music as an instrument of peace. John Lennon and Yoko Ono famously devoted their talents and fame to humanizing the perceived enemy, and Live Aid eased starvation in Africa, where rock and roll’s taproot draws most deeply. Music brings us together, sometimes intimately: Charles Darwin theorized that music began in courtship displays. More recent neuroscience research ties music to language, which jibes with Williams peoples’ love of storytelling. But with language comes shibboleths. As much as music and language connect us, they distinguish us. Teens famously cluster and clique around music genres and favorite bands. Pity the dweeb who Tweets the wrong song. Jingoistic tunes accompany wars, just and unjust, to build cohesion against an enemy. Catchy rhythms bypass our reasoning centers and deliver our loyalties. I think we’re better able to modulate our responses to other arts. Our bodies wholly surrender to music.

“We listen to music with our muscles,” Nietzche wrote. A more mercenary take comes from Napolean: “Give me control over he who shapes the music of a nation, and I care not who makes the laws.”

Do you want to see people in Jackson Heights who can roll between cultures, bypassing these prejudices of affiliation? Check the prams: as Oliver Sachs recounts in his book, “Musicophilia,” auditory cognition researchers Erin Hannon and Sandra Trehub found that “infants at six months can readily detect all rhythmic variations, but by twelve months their range has narrowed, albeit sharpened. They can now more easily detect the types of rhythms to which they have been previously exposed; they have internalized a set of rhythms for their culture. Adults find it harder to perceive ‘foreign’ rhythmic distinction.” I recalled their discovery when I read that a 2010 study led by Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, director of the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, indicated that Williams children might be the first category of humanity to not display racial bias.

4. Crossings and Castles.

Samantha is pulling her father’s hand, leading him around the corner to 73rd Street. South Asian music is shaking the air over widening snow puddles in a 22 note diatonic scale with polyrhtyms and syncopation. We grab a drink at Haat Bazar Restaurant. Samantha’s striking up conversations across the counter and in each booth she passes. Bangladeshi patrons and workers warmly receive this petite girl who has a broad smile and angular blue eyes that constitute the “elfin” features of a Williams person.

I listen to Samantha talk with her dad, Tony.

“What happened when we played music last night?,” he asks.

“We had to dance. We had to dance together, right?,” she replies.

That’s key: “we had to dance together.” Oliver Sachs describes the workings of a brain’s fear, novelty, and rhythm centers when rewired by Williams Syndrome. “This very extensive brain activation…seemed to go with their almost helpless attraction to music and their sometimes overwhelming emotional reaction to it.”

I ask Samantha what makes her happy. “Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga,” she says, while Tony reminds her of Adele. “What makes you happy besides music?,” I ask. With some more coaxing, she replies, “Smile, fishes,” but then seems to lose herself in another thought, or maybe the idea of happiness. “Wow, so lovely,” she says, and lingers in an internal gaze for a moment.

The winter has been a sad struggle for me, but I think I’m covering it up well.

“Are you okay?,” Samantha asks. She peppers me with that question a few more times during the afternoon. Does she uniquely cut past my facade to notice, or uniquely care enough to ask? Empathy is the outward gift of Williams Syndrome.

As we ready ourselves to leave for our walk, I regret that we’re a few months early for a quirky detour; on 35th Road near 71st Street, there’s a mockingbird that I imagine Samantha would love to meet. I’ve never seen him, but we play a game of call and response when I hear him in trees near that corner. Mockingbirds in New York City are often forced into nocturnal lifestyles because daytime noise drowns out their songs, which are used to attract mates. But the truncated one-block pass of 35th Road is ignored by drivers during morning rush hour. It indulges this many-songed vestige of nature.

Over on 37th Avenue, Bangla dance music pulses and pops from loudspeakers rigged over sidewalks. A street hawker of CDs is repeating, with commercial compulsion, ‘Three dollar, four for ten dollars.” Samantha takes a palm reading calling card from a quieter street vendor and points it at the CD man as if it was a remote control. She says clearly, but with no hostility, “Turn it off.” Baffled, he pauses to assess this little girl. “Thank you,” she replies, and we’re walking again.

We duck down into Punjabi and Bollywood basement music stores on 74th Street. Videos enthrall. I expect Samantha to bounce to the joyous tunes that swallow entire movie set villages in an India of garish colors and suspended disbelief. But Samantha stands nearly still and looks clearly vexed. The young man behind the counter, perhaps sensing something’s amiss, lowers the speaker system’s volume. The whispery audio of the shop’s ceiling-mounted flat screen TV monitor can now be heard. Samantha dances and is happy again. It suddenly hits me that she was disturbed to see a cast of hundreds dancing out of sync with the music — with the removal of overlaying music, Samantha’s universe is realligned. A few minutes later, further down 37th Avenue, she bounds down into New Singapore Emporium, where the proprietor is clearly brightened by this cheery dancer. I buy her the CD, “52 Nonstop Remix.”

A block or two east on 37th Avenue, Tony and I pop quarters into a storefront mechanical ride. Again, a rhythm into which Samantha invests her heart. Afterward, she starts talking enthusiastically of a “castle with horses.” I look up the avenue and slowly connect the dots. The mechanical ride is Samantha’s horse and the great brick edifice of PS 69 is her castle. She’s weaving narratives on the fly.

There’s a weekend event underway at the school and Samantha leads us inside. Pine trees line the short walkway — that small vault of green is the stillest, quietest place we’ll encounter on our walk. My memory slips back to a haiku I wrote decades ago, about the commonality of seemingly disparate experiences:

Far inland, a wind
Spins fine snow off ancient pines.
Shimmers like sea spray!

But Samantha is quickly bored by this vision of peace. “This is not a castle,” she clarifies.

A few minutes later, Samantha’s bopping to a cumbia out of Yambao, a second-floor Latin music store under the 7 train, around the corner from Electra Court. This is our last stop. I’m startled at how much motor control and sense of possibility her dancing displays. She’s happier than me, the oaken observer. She is fully herself and in harmony with her surroundings.

I start to more fully comprehend a connection between music, peace and, indeed, stillness. By moving so freely with things as passing as music and neighborhood ethnic identities, Samantha is in fact still. She is peaceful. Her gracefulness in matching motion to motion is the heart of Relativity. Surrendering to motion is the way to stillness.

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Plumb Beach, Brooklyn cleanup 

 

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by Erik Baard

 

Yet despite this powerful, primordial drive, we turn away from life at our feet when with some labor, it could be replenished. Why?

 

Majora Carter has made the Herculean task of turning a truck-choked section of NYC into a greener, healthier place for families her daily job and mission. She founded and directs Sustainable South Bronx, which started a local green roof movement, trains residents for “green collar” jobs, created a waterfront park, and is swinging resources behind a greenway. She became a MacArthur Fellow in 2005 for her pioneering achievements.

 

As a South Bronx native, Carter knows how completely people can be severed from their landscape.

 

“They don’t see it as an environment, period. That’s why they go to Jones Beach,” said Carter.

 

But aren’t we always aware, at some level, that we are in nature? A bird flying overhead, a sprout shooting up through a crack in the pavement, and periods of rain and sun remind us. Our streets aren’t the sterile clean rooms of a microengineering lab. Biodecathection recognizes that we suffer from something more nuanced than depravation. Subconsciously we are lowered into a grinding state of constant mourning. And we worsen our lot in the long run by submitting to the immediate impulse to turn away from the source of that grief.

 

I don’t want to overstate the power of biodecathection in relation to biophilia. The latter is such a fundamental part of our makeup that it can’t be countervailed. There is no equal and opposite force. Even executives of the worst polluting companies enjoy lunch in the park, or vacations to idyllic spots. In that sense, maybe biophilia’s place in our psyche is akin to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition of the Creator: while there are destructive urges, creation is more potent. Dualism is an illusion. I believe that biodecathection is merely the greatest of the lesser forces arrayed against biophilia (and a small outgrowth of it).

 

Another drain is biophillic misdirection. Parents, educators, and environmentalists often lament that kids today prefer to stay indoors immersed in videogames, television, and other multimedia. The industry of animation derives its name from anima, Latin for “living” and the older Sanskrit aniti, “he breathes.” Let’s recall that the first definition of biophilia given by Wilson was the “innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes” (my italics). In short, modern entertainment companies are parasites profitably siphoning energy from biophilia’s wiring.

 

David Orr proposed a phenomenon of biophobia, an aversion to environments outside human control. While the urge to have dominion over Earth certainly could grow out of specific phobias exaggerated well beyond their reasonable origins – snakes and spiders can deliver venomous bites, extremely open or closed spaces leave us vulnerable – I have a hard time buying that our species has turned neurotic in such a wholesale fashion. And an aversion to contamination, a disgust response, is learned early. But those studies focused on specific objects that were easily replaced, not the ecosystems upon which we depend.

 

Another negative force is less abstract. There are people with a vested interest in keeping voters and neighborhoods disconnected from their environment. A conscious realization of environmental degradation, with the full emotional infusion that would entail, would undermine a momentarily profitable false faith in Nature’s endless bounty and regeneration. And people who are eco-emotionally depressed to the point of resignation, to sad slumber, are ideal neighbors for toxic industries. Awakening brings pain. Pain engenders anger. Anger demands change.

 

It starts with cathecting, a word that derives from the Greek kathexis, “to hold.” Carter recalls in the documentary “City of Water” that her community needed something to “smell, touch, taste” to believe in its power to resurrect Hunts Point, its environs, and the Bronx River. 

 

The American Littoral Society leads volunteer shoreline cleanups that have gathered up hundreds of tons of floatable trash from the shorelines of New York State alone (pictured above is a recent cleanup of Plumb Beach, Brooklyn by volunteers in partnership with ALS, the NYC DEP, and National Parks Service). Grassroots neighborhood groups link up with Partnerships for Parks to replenish and plant. The New York Restoration Project’s staff and neighborhood volunteers have turned hypodermic needle-strewn lots into gardens and revivified parks once thought to be hopeless cases.

 

I don’t know how much the visceral experience of biophilia can transfer to a global consciousness. I don’t believe biophilia encompasses systems so large that they become abstract; evolution would have no basis for selecting for that attribute. But perhaps some of the epiphanies of the environmental movement are nudging us in that direction – the iconic Apollo 17 photo, the Gaia hypothesis’ pop personification of the global ecosystem (even if that’s not what James Lovelock intended).

 

What I do know is this: Each neighborhood is an ecosystem and we need to cathect. We something we can champion, something we can heal. Something we can hold and that will persuade us that it’s worth the risk of feeling again. We need Bernie Ente’s green heron as much as it needs us.

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Green heron on the Newtown Creek by Bernard Ente

by Erik Baard

I often visit the Newtown Creek by kayak. When sentiment overtakes me and I talk to it, it’s without much expectation, much as with a dying elder who seems insensate.

Its breast rises and falls with the mechanically reliable tides, but that life support won’t return vibrancy to the body at its inland stretches. Those extremities are stilled. Sandy slopes where creatures once skittered and slithered have long-since been replaced by stained retaining walls. Nothing below is attuned to the the muffled sound of my voice, nothing darts from the turbulence of my paddle. The brightness of the sun and moon glints but doesn’t register. It’s an ecosystem in deep coma.

This was once a marshy expanse rich in herbs, grasses, blue fish, striped bass, waterfowl, turtles, and oysters. Small, family farms later flourished, harnessing tides to cleanly turn grain mills. Of the local apples, Thomas Jefferson boastfully wrote from Paris in the 1780s, “They have no apples here to compare with our Newtown pippin.”

Starting in the 19th century, landfill truncated the meandering, sustaining tributaries, erasing all 1.5 miles of its tidal wetlands. Industries including leather tanning, paint production, and metal refining left toxic deposits on the creek bottom; six state superfund sites flank the creek whiles dozens more are contaminated. In the 1950s, Standard Oil (precursor to Exxon-Mobile) spilt at least 17 million gallons of its product underground in a plume that now encompasses 55 acres. Raw sewage and untreated stormwater gushes into the creek at a rate of 2.7 billion gallons per year.

This green heron stood in the backwaters of one of the Newtown Creek’s branches, gingerly perched atop the protruding wood edge of a collapsed pier. The first thing I saw in Bernie Ente’s marvelous photo was the brilliant conversation of colors. But that superficial stimulation yields quickly to sad awareness of the water’s oily sheen and the sulfurous black muck smeared across the balloons’ faces. Certainly sympathy is drawn into those alert yellow eyes. But there’s a broader malaise in a scene like this, a sense of a place where life itself seems irrevocably aggrieved.

Now imagine living next to it. After a time, would you turn away? Would you leave your neighborhood to seek “nature” elsewhere, even if as a tourist?

That shrinking away from one’s own ecosystem is what might be called biodecathection. Decathecting begins the grieving process; we withdraw in anticipation of loss. It’s emotionally self-protective. In the case of a long degradation destined to snuff out a beloved ecosystem, I believe it grows outward from a collection of personal experiences into a cultural meme. It spawns neglect. We abandon corners of our city where riotous wilderness has been hushed to a thready pulse. A corner where the heron surveys the damage.

I came to the idea of biodecathection amidst something of a crisis of faith in one of the most important underpinnings of my volunteer work and hobbies: biophilia, Harvard University entomologist Edward O. Wilson’s insight that humanity is born with a hunger for the very presence of life. Possessing that word let me harness the passion by which I was possessed.

One person who seems quite well-qualified to give biodecathection a sniff test is Stephen Kellert, co-editor, with Wilson, of The Biophilia Hypothesis and author of Kinship to Mastery: Biophilia in Human Evolution and Development. His recent book, Building for Life, guides readers toward design that integrates biophillic wisdom. I asked point blank if there was merit to this idea.

“I suspect there is. There’s no question in my mind anyway that when environmental systems are degraded there’s a great emotional impact. There’s a kind of grief and one way of dealing is to shut it out, to deny it,” said Kellert, who is the Tweedy/Ordway Professor of Social Ecology of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and Co-Director of the Hixon Center for Urban Ecology. “If you have a sort of diagnosis, if you know what the problem is, you might find a remedial approach.”

The “cure” for biodecathection is to take the emotional risk of full engagement in the renaissance of an ecosystem. Muddy hands, grit under the fingernails, sunburned calves, aching shoulders, stiff backs, bug bites. Hours spent in dreaming up solutions to the problem with partners, arguing them out, and passionately advocating for them.

As Kellert said, “Getting people involved in restoration is a powerful emotional, psychological, and spiritual event. It can be an incredible act of atonement that’s intensely gratifying.”

It’s also a social event, given the enormity of the challenge. Indeed, ours communities heal with our ecologies. They are one.

It’ll be up to the pros to test the applicability of the biodecathection diagnosis. Many researchers have demonstrated the usefulness of the biophilia concept in the decades since its 1984 introduction in a book of that name. Tapping the human desire to affiliate with other species has made school curricula more compelling, cities more sustainable, parenting more interactive, and homes more comforting. Social psychologist Frances Kuo of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign reported that kids with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder performed better in tests of their concentration after just minimal exposure to greenery. Some children’s advocates have even gone so far as to repackage that label as Nature Deficit Disorder.

Anyone can immediately sense the stress that grows with passing hours in a barren setting, especially one where life once thrived. Lush locales induce the opposite effect. No wonder why resorts pull in billions of dollars to their retreats amidst green mountains and tropical islands.

Unbroken background stress, which can emanate from living in a despoiled environment, can overtime interrupt sleep patterns, exacerbate heart conditions, weaken the immune system, and cause otherwise cause illness. But episodic stress exists for a reason. It drives us to take necessary action. One obvious action to take when scraping by in a challenged ecosystem is to plod on to find a new one, lured by this psychological force of biophilia. Certainly humanity has migrated great distances to settle the planet, and quests for lands of plenty have shaped history. But is that all we’re about – acquiring, fouling the nest, and moving on? As disappointed as I am with our species, I’m not that uncharitable.

I propose that if our intelligence evolved from a need to keep track of complex social networks, then our minds are naturally predisposed to building webs, complex manifestations of order, like ecosystems. “Play” reinforces survival behaviors in all species; I would put art and gardening in that category. The roots of agriculture are here, but only to a point. Intensive monocultures covering thousands of acres don’t bring the same sense of wellbeing as diverse, if smaller, gardens.

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Coming tomorrow in Part 2: Healthy skepticism from Majora Carter, and a discussion of what other forces are arrayed against biophilia.

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