Nature Now

You Are Nature

You Are Nature

We’re elemental, dear Watson!

Molecular Structure. Science background. 3D Render

What do you, me, the birds in the air, fish in the sea, the universe, and a tank of gasoline all have in common? We’re all mainly made up of the same three basic elements.

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Our human bodies, like those of the birds and the bees as well as the fish and fleas and everything else living on Earth, is mostly —as in 95%— made up of atoms of only three elements: hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon.  

Gasoline is made up of the same three elements because it’s made from the remains of ancient living creatures: plankton and algae from prehistoric oceans, squeezed and heated under layers of rock until the hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon in their bodies turned into the sticky stuff we call crude oil. 

It turns out that most of everything else in the universe is made up of the same three elements, plus helium (possibly the laziest element, it doesn’t react to anything). That prompted famous scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson to wonder what our shared ingredients might mean for life on other planets. Read his thoughts here. 

Healthier dirt makes for healthier humans

It’s time people gave dirt more respect. When the dirt we’re around is healthy, we’re healthier. And according to researchers, the reverse is also true. Sick soil can make us sicker too.

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Invisible microbes in unhealthy soils can threaten humans with tetanus, botulism, gastrointestinal and lung diseases, and even anthrax. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can hide in the dust in unswept corners of public spaces, while poor potting soil can provoke eye infections in contact lens wearers. 

 The diverse community of minute life in healthy soil can actually boost our health. When a Finnish daycare upgraded dirt in its playground, children’s immune systems got stronger. Asthma patients experienced fewer symptoms after their houseplants were repotted in healthier soil. 

Improving your house plants’ soil can be as easy as adding some overripe bananas and eggshells. Or boost the health of an entire garden. Either one could make you feel better too. 

Portrait of a man breathing fresh air in nature

Feeling frazzled? Need to focus? You need some Nature

Researchers monitored people’s brain activity while they walked —some in city settings, others in nature— then measured their mental ‘executive control’, roughly their ability to focus on a difficult task. One activity came out way ahead.

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Researchers in Ohio sent two groups of volunteers on 40-minute walks of the same distance and similar difficulty. One group walked through city streets and past buildings. The other group walked past a creek under overhanging trees with views of a waterfall. Neither group was allowed to interrupt their walk by using their phone. 

 In standardized tests of their ability to focus on mentally demanding tasks afterwards, the nature group performed “significantly better than the urban walkers. 

City parks offer a free escape from the urban built environment, places where your brain can relax and restore its focus in natural surroundings more like those it originally evolved to handle long before cities.   

It’s Up To Us

When it comes to forests in the city, tiny is huge

A little nature goes a long way. Communities across Canada are discovering that small plots of land densely planted with a variety of native trees, shrubs and other plants quickly create thriving habitats for birds, insects, butterflies, and small mammals.

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A green respite for human neighbours is another benefit claimed by legions of new ‘tiny forest’ fans picking up on an idea started in Japan. The forests can be set down in vacant lots, alongside roadways, or in scraps of ‘green space’ where only grass is growing now. After the first few years, they become self-sustaining and don’t need much care. 

 A key is variety. One tiny forest in Montreal holds some 600 plant species, including beech, fir and oak, in the area of a tennis court. Most mini-forests have come from collaborations among local volunteers and organizations with tree-growing expertise. 

 If there’s a bit of land near you that you think would benefit from some trees, check out these folks at Green Communities Canada for ideas on how to make it happen.

A huge school of sardines, packed together. Scientists call these behavior "bait ball". The fishes stay together to escape the attack of predators like sharks, dolphins and other sea creatures.

Yes! There IS room for people and wild Nature… both.

International scientists have done the math, and despite the explosion in human populations in the last 100 years, it turns out there’s enough room on Earth to preserve tens of thousands of animal species while still ensuring that Nature continues to provide what we humans need.

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Researchers identified ten of the most important things Nature does for human societies, from feeding us to keeping the global temperature in our happy zone. Then they identified the places most important to keeping 27,000 species of reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals alive and well. 

They found that by conserving about half the planet for wildlife, the rest could provide 90% of Nature’s present contributions to human well-being. 

The trick to making that happen is using each hectare for what it’s best at, serving people or supplying Nature. 

But they estimate that about a third of what’s needed for Nature is at risk of being developed for humans. To find out more about the study, see this report from The Nature Conservancy, one of the participating groups, or read the researchers’ findings in their own words here. 

Doctor listening to patient's heart with stethoscope

Take more nature for health and happiness

Nature created our human bodies and human minds. They’re both still attuned to Nature in myriad ways. Ways that can bring us myriad benefits if we give Nature a chance.

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That moment of calm release you get in a green space? That’s your body and mind relaxing in ways that science has documented. Just twenty minutes spent in a park can add measurably to a person's happiness and boost their energy and creativity when they go back indoors. 

 Leaving buildings behind for a few minutes has been shown to reduce some the bad stuff in our lives too, like concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, and elevated blood pressure and heart rate. The boost to our immune system from being outdoors can reduce our risk of disease. 

 And when the day’s over, having spent some time outdoors in Nature may even help you get a better night’s sleep. To get more Nature into your diet, try starting by typing ‘parks’ into your phone’s maps app, and check out the one nearest you! 

Kids were made to play outside.

Structured playdates and engineered playgrounds are a very new idea. Until recently, the natural place for children to play was, well, out in Nature. And Nature’s still the playground that delivers unique benefits.

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Fans of outdoor play describe it as a basic childhood need. Beyond healthy exercise, when kids play in natural settings, whether it’s climbing a tree, exploring a park meadow, or jumping in a pile of leaves, they grow their confidence and movement skills. 

Encountering and conquering the unexpected in Nature also builds a kid’s resilience, while physical play in the outdoors can lower their anxiety and ward off obesity, according to the Canadian Paediatric Society. 

 Parents who missed out on free play in Nature as kids themselves may be unsure how far to let their own children run wild in green spaces. The University of British Columbia has teamed up with other organizations to offer some ideas and support. Go here to read what paediatricians say. 

Did You Know? 

Nature is inside you too

You are the universe to trillions of tiny other lives. Ten times as many microorganisms live just inside your gut as you have cells in your whole body. Good thing most of them are friendly.

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They’re everywhere. Invisible to human eyes, billions upon billions of microbes —bacteria, fungi and viruses— live happily alongside, as well as inside and outside, of our humans bodies. Researchers say the average person is home to at least 10,000 other species of life — and a hundred trillion one-celled microbes. 

But hold the ‘Ew!’ Without all those ride-alongs people would be a lot worse off. Microbes are critical to digesting what we eat. They can protect our skin against infection. And they help maintain reproductive health, especially for women. In fact, our resident microbes provide more genes important to our physical survival than we carry ourselves. 

It could even be more important to care for our good microbes than to worry about ‘bad’ ones. The United States’ National Institutes of Health advises: “Don’t use antibacterial products you don’t need. Antibacterial soaps have little or no health benefit. And antibacterial versions of household products (like phones and staplers) have not been shown to reduce your risk of infection.”

This ‘shroom loves plastic. Good thing.

We have a lot of plastic in this world, and we all know it doesn’t ever go away, it just breaks down into smaller and smaller bits. To humans it looks like a problem. To this fungus family it looks like dinner.

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Students discovered the fungus clan with the tongue-twisting name of ‘Pestalotiopsis’ during a research trip to the Amazon rain forest. Several of its members digest the carbon in common plastics as food. One variety, Pest’y microspore, can chew up some plastics in as little as two weeks. 

A favourite snack is polyester polyurethane, found in everything from footwear to phone cases to car seats. Other mushroom strains have an appetite for hard-to-recycle materials like cigarette filters (a surprisingly large proportion of that floating ocean ‘Garbage Patch’). 

And before you ask, yes, Dutch designers are already at work on ways to turn waste plastic into ‘shrooms fit for the dinner table. 

Disposable single use plastic objects such as bottles, cups, forks, spoons and drinking straws that cause pollution of the environment, especially oceans. Top view.
The Earth Space Planet 3D illustration background. City lights on planet.

Meet our new lichen overlords

Who knew? Lichen, that humble looking grey and green and occasionally orange stuff that grows on rocks and trees from coast to coast to coast in Canada, is insanely tough. Tough enough, in fact, to survive space.

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OK, full disclosure, lichen isn’t actually a thing. It’s two quite different kinds of life: a fungus, and bacteria or algae, living in a permanent relationship. Still, the rugged little partnerships are found from pole to pole on Earth, in some of the harshest environments the planet offers. 

It turns out they’re even tough enough to survive unprotected in space. Curious researchers attached lichen from Antarctica to the outside of the International Space Station and left it there for a year and a half in the vacuum of space, with no water, in extreme temperatures and exposed to intense radiation. It lived. 

The outcome has some scientists speculating that lichen could be the first Earth life form to survive and grow on Mars. You can find out more about the space experiment here. 

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