The first snowdrop appeared just after the snow melted. A few days later, the yellow crocus showed up down the bed. Small green buds appeared on the currant and bridal wreath bushes, and a block away, the first blossoms appeared on a crabapple tree. Though it was early, spring was coming on.
A bunny showed up on the bright-green patch of grass I had reseeded last fall. Through the patio door, the cat watched it attentively, apparently unsure whether it was a squirrel or another cat. Meanwhile the squirrels had begun their spring scampering, leaping, chasing each other and generally acting silly. In a patch of dirt at the base of the pear tree, one rolled, leapt and did that John Belushi dance thing from “Animal House”.
It’s warm this week and the birds are happily flitting from bush to tree and back, and vying for turns at the feeder. With daylight savings time kicking in the days seem longer and a little brighter. It makes me feel more like getting outside and doing something physical. One afternoon I trimmed all those green ash saplings that show up in the flower beds and cut back the dead wood on the lilacs. I’m itching to get out in the garden, but concerned that early March is too soon to get my hopes up.
There are still two large flower beds to clean out, and one needs a major overhaul, but I’m not quite ready to take on a task that intense. I’ve been lulled before into thinking spring is here, and the disappointment is hard to take. But, I am happy that spring is just around the corner.
A recent study of how happy we really are looked at a lot of variables and concluded, among other factors, that people who live in more densely populated areas tend to report less satisfaction in their life overall. This was identified as “The Urban-Rural Happiness Gradient,” plotted in several colors. They attribute this to “the savanna theory of happiness,” where the hunter-gatherer lifestyles of our ancient ancestors form the foundation of what makes us happy now. Apparently prehistoric man lived in spheres of 25 to 150 people, and the theory proposes that being among too many people disrupts our happiness.
I certainly don’t have the credentials that these multi-national researchers do, but I think I’ve studied happiness most of my life. I’ve been happy; I’ve been sad; and I’ve been close to a few people that also experienced happiness and sadness. I guess I’ve concluded that it isn’t the proximity to others that affects happiness, but the proximity to nature.
Study after study has shown that contact with nature reduces stress; even a bland photo of a tree-lined street or a patch of vegetation works. If you define urban areas only by population, you’ve missed the point. It is possible to integrate nature into urban areas; in fact, we do so with photographs or artwork, houseplants, windows, bird feeders, and landscaping. Vegetation helps clean the air and storm water, reduces noise and attracts birds, insects and often critters. We smell the flowers, relish the shade of a tree on a hot day, and feed pigeons and squirrels, while we imagine running barefoot (if not naked) through the park. Cat and cute animal videos dominate the internet, and we tend our pets more carefully than our own kids. (After all, the kids will probably move out one day.)
In Vancouver, BC, it appears that most non-skyscraper buildings have balcony and rooftop gardens. Nearly every balcony on ten- and fifteen-story buildings had its planters and flower pots. Trees loomed from the rooftops, and vines draped down from lush planters. The people seem happy (even for Canadians), and I know I was when I visited.
A busy, crowded plaza is enjoyable if it has trees, some plantings, proper scale and natural light. Old cities like Paris and London have such spaces, and many of our US cities are learning to create them as well. Architects design atria to create space inside a building to integrate nature into its function.
We once knew that street trees and planted medians made our roadways and neighborhoods more livable, but lost touch with the idea in pursuit of faster and faster travel. However, we’re now remembering those concepts and many places are recreating boulevards that add a sense of calm to the speed. More care is given to roadside plantings, and concrete walls are being decorated.
One commentator on the study noted that we are obviously less happy around other people, as demonstrated by the horrible experience of riding on a crowded subway. While I agree with the nature of the experience, I have to wonder what could be less natural than being on a crowded subway? Jammed bodies, dirty surfaces, bad air, loud unpleasant noise, a rough ride and a jostling, impatient, impolite mass of people. However, I contrast that experience with a reasonably smooth, quiet ride on light rail, large windows looking out onto the world, the wash of fresh air at each station, and a somewhat more relaxed vibe, like we’re all in this together. I suppose light and air are a part of nature, too, and have their effect on the riders.
I will admit, however, that being around too many people can be stressful. In fact, most of the time it’s not the number of people, but the specific people we have to interact with.
Enough said. You know who you are …