Chelsi Abbott, technical advisor for the Davey Institute, talks about the scientific benefits nature has on our health, how to create these healing spaces on your own properties and how to gain the benefits of nature from public spaces.
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Doug Oster: Welcome to the Davey Tree Expert Company's Podcast, Talking Trees. I'm your host, Doug Oster. Each episode showcases one of Davies certified arborists sharing advice with everyone about caring for your trees and landscapes. We'll talk about everything from introduced pest, seasonal tree care, deer damage, how to make your trees thrive, and much, much more. Tune in every Thursday to learn more, because here at the Talking Trees Podcast, we know trees are the answer. Well, this week, it's a return of parents of Chelsi Abbott. She's a technical advisor for the Davey Institute based in Chicago.
Chelsi, last time, we talked about flowering trees this time, it's all about healing gardens, which is cool. I know you're based in Chicago, but you do cover a bigger area than that, right?
Chelsi Abbott: Correct. I mostly will cover areas in the Great Lakes region of United States and in Eastern Canada. It's two epicenters that I deal with.
Doug: Before we get into healing gardens, tell me a little bit about what that means being a technical adviser.
Chelsi: As a technical advisor, what we're mostly focused on, of course, is supporting the field and all things related to science. A lot of it is going to be diagnostic stuff on how to keep trees healthy. When we're thinking about healing gardens, really, we're thinking about how trees can return the favor to us, and improve our psychological benefit or our psychological needs. If we can keep trees healthy, then they can then pass that along, as far as a mental standpoint.
Doug: When you think healing garden, tell me what you're thinking because I'm thinking every garden is a healing garden. There are specific, like, I've seen specific healing gardens.
Chelsi: A healing garden in general, there's actually two I would say facets of a healing garden. One of them is something that you walk through or meditate within whether it'd be walking or sitting. Another one could actually be healing garden through the actual act of gardening so much more of a hands-on thing. There are two areas in which you can view a healing garden as.
Doug: Can it be a frustrating garden too? Is that [crosstalk]-
Chelsi: I'm sure the gardening side of doing it with your hands, there's frustrations, but then maybe joy when you succeed.
Doug: That's the healing part.
Chelsi: Yes, exactly.
Doug: Now I got that.
Chelsi: You got to work a little harder for it. [laughs]
Doug: Tell me a little bit about, if I wanted to make a specific thing called a healing garden, what would some of the things you would think about I would incorporate into it?
Chelsi: If you've got a green space of your own, and I can also touch on if you don't have a green space because there's a couple of ways you can use nature's healing force. Imagine if you have your own green space that you like, either you're doing the hands-on gardening, or you want to do the more meditative walking through sitting, really, the biggest thing about a healing garden, or just any forest bathing situation is to bask in it, which means trying to activate all five senses with that garden. That's touch, that's hear, that's smell, that's sight, that's kind of the feel of things.
As long as you've got, nice lighting, access to touching plants, things that your eye was drawn to, but also the one that's oftentimes forgotten in people's own healing gardens is the sound. You can activate your basking, at least from your hearing standpoint, with wind chimes, with low bells, things that have a lower register, because that will simulate what it would be like as the wind blows through the trees in the forest.
Doug: Now that you say that, I'm thinking about my little fountain, because my pump is broken and I got to replace it. I miss the sound of that running water. That's my healing garden. Believe it or not, I'm off the road, but I can still get some road noise until I get that fountain running that blocks it out.
Chelsi: Yes. Running water, that's a great point is also a good listening stimulant that will activate some of those lovely endorphins to calm you down and stuff like that. If you get any white noise-ish sound, that's very, very beneficial.
Doug: The other thing I think about with what you said there, and that I see often in gardens is there aren't enough places just to sit that people are like we talked about, working in their gardens all the time, but that being able to put a bench somewhere and just sit and enjoy just what you can look at.
Chelsi: One of the biggest proponents of ecotherapy and forest bathing again, is cutting out time to reconnect with our roots let's say. This was something that initiated back in the '80s. It came out of actually Japan, in which they were trying to counteract the tech boom burnout that happens with a lot of our technology increases and stuff. They found that through just research that all these psychological benefits reducing blood pressure, reducing anxiety, increasing happiness and motivation came from just connecting with nature again, which is really back to our roots as humans living as an organism with all the other ones that we're supposed to be interacting with on a daily level.
Doug: When you bring up forest bathing, first off, the term sounds so wonderful. That just sounds so wonderful but is there a way to explain exactly what that is?
Chelsi: Yes, so forest, babe, it's funny, because it always makes people think of literally bathing in water under a waterfall in the forest, which could be a form of what we're talking about. Really, that's the best English translation for the Japanese word. If you want to think about it as forest basking, that might be a little bit easier. Think about basking in the sunlight. You're usually in just one place, you're absorbing the warmth of the sun and just being at peace but just replace the sun with greenery. Just again, observing with your eyes, your ears. If you know what you're dealing with, you can activate your taste sense. It's really just immersing yourself back into the greenery and trying to connect with the world in that way.
Doug: Before we started recording, you told me a little bit about you were working on a certification that got stopped by COVID. Tell me about that.
Chelsi: Since this has started to become more and more of a, I don't want to call this a trend but I would say people are learning more about it and becoming interested. There has been an avenue for those people who are interested in becoming essentially leaders. What I was getting my certification in was being what's called an Eco therapist. This is someone who would guide a group of people or an individual through the process of forest bathing and forest basking and help them activate those senses in order to have that benefit.
If you're not familiar with nature, there's actually quite a few certified Eco therapists you could actually look through certain websites to find accredited. You can just go on a walk. It's not very far. Usually, it's less than a mile and they just teach you how to activate all your senses so that you can get that benefit from the forest.
Doug: With my Eco therapist am I laying down on the leaves, and then getting asked questions about caterpillars?
Chelsi: That's the other wonderful thing about this industry is it's all dependent on each Eco therapist, how they want to walk you through it. Some people might just sit you down and have you bask that way. Some people might do the walking form. My background, of course, is in plant pathology. I might be much more interested in as I bask you through the forest, "Oh, hey, look at this cool disease or mushroom" or "Oh, my gosh, an insect." It's very individualized to each Eco therapist and how they see it.
Doug: Chelsi, let's talk a little bit about taking some time because, again, when I'm hearing you say this stuff, I'm thinking to myself, well, I've got a spot out with a chair and a place to put my feet up. It's all covered in ferns and evergreens but yet, I have not sat there probably since May. Let's talk a little bit about actually taking the time. I hate it because I walk right by it. I look in there and I'm like, "Oh, why don't I just sit in there for 10 minutes just to really watching the ferns and what's running through them?"
Chelsi: I think like with these types of things with anything, we can get caught up, "Oh, I got to do this, I got to do that," and it gets to a point where you almost feel like you have no time left to do these things. I think it's like what you said, you've got to make the decision, carve out the time. I think starting small, 10 minutes. Maybe that's you just can't imagine giving up 10 minutes. Maybe start with two, or five or something like that. Just say I'm just going to sit there and I'm going to touch the ferns. I'm going to maybe break the leaf and smell it.
I'm going to try to figure out where the lights coming from. Just, if you ask yourself these questions like oh, what do I feel? What do I smell? What do I see? Just go through your five senses. Maybe that'll take you 30 seconds, but it's better than just walking past it and getting a sense of guilt.
Doug: Looking through the trees and looking at that chair that's been sitting there for who knows how long.
Chelsi: Just give it a sit and then just ask yourself five questions, I think then expand it from there.
Doug: I like that idea. One time I was sitting there and I heard something moving at my feet and it was a snake came right through my feet. That was some definite forest bathing.
Chelsi: This is just like wonderful interactions whether that caused you anxiety or happiness, not sure, but hopefully, it caused some reaction.
Doug: For me it was happiness.
Chelsi: There you go.
Doug: For some people, it would have probably been screaming and jumping through the garden or something but-
Doug: The other thing Chelsi, I wanted to also talk about something we found out about each other is we're kindred spirits in our love of grey weather and rain, and that is another way to enjoy the garden as far as a healing garden for people like you and I?
Chelsi: Oh, absolutely. I don't think even if you don't like the rain, I don't think anyone could say that the sound of rain hitting leaves on a tree isn't soothing. There are apps that actually simulate this noise to help people fall asleep. Imagine if you could just bask in that for parts of the day that to me sounds magical.
Doug: Maybe I have to go out into my little fern room there and wait for the rain to come because it's on the way.
Chelsi: There you go. See now if it's raining, what else are you going to do? Go take the time while it's raining to use your forest basking skills.
Doug: I like forest bathing better. I don't know, it sounds magical to me. I spend a lot of time in the woods, I live in the woods but I don't do the basking and bathing like I should. I use those trails to walk the dogs up and down. I need to do more forest basking. Back to healing gardens, when I think of healing garden, I think of a space like maybe a hospital or something like that, where you put some green space in there so that you can sit and reflect. I think sitting and reflecting are two things no matter where you put your healing garden are important parts of this type of gardening.
Chelsi: Yes. That actually brings my other point around. There are, the space off of the research, they are starting to install these healing gardens around hospitals and like, say long-term homes just for the benefits. It's actually, again, that has all those not only physiological benefits but mental benefits. Say if you don't have your own space, maybe you don't have your own green space, you can still engage in this because of this new knowledge about how trees are related to humans, and how we can activate it, you could theoretically forest bathe in any city green scape as well.
Again, it's going to be about activating those senses with whatever you have. Funny enough, there was a lot of this is done in Finland as well, because they are huge proponents of getting in touch with nature as most of the Nordic countries are. They actually came up with a prescription of trying to activate how much time do you need to spend in nature to get the benefits. They said, if you do and I'm going to try to remember as much as possible, they say if you can do 15 minutes every other day in nature, you can get the activation that you need to or to have the benefits. Or if you wanted to do just one shot on the weekend, you would spend about an hour and a half but the difference is the green space.
If you're going to do it just in one shot, you should go to the most forested location, you can find where there's just no hardscape around, but if you have just, cityscape and parks 15 minutes every other day or every three days is going to be adequate.
Doug: Is there more science about this that you looked at? Obviously, we just know as human beings that time with trees, time in nature, time in the garden, it feels good but have you seen any other science through the years confirming that?
Chelsi: Yes, as a scientist myself, oftentimes, I will look into I would say the more quantifiable factors that forest bathing can have and what I've seen based off the research, as far as people actually measuring the blood pressure and the heart rate. They, of course, will have qualitative studies where they ask people, how do you feel after you've been in nature? There are studies out there that I've actually measured those types of things, and even just the chemical balance in a brain afterwards and they're all very positive.
It does actually decrease heart rates, it does actually decrease low or sorry, decrease blood pressure. Then, there's this interesting chemical that they found in the trees themselves, called phytoncides that are released that have that chemical reaction in people, and actually elicits humans when they breathe it in to release these chemicals that are calming. It's very interesting if you wanted to look into it. There's actually a whole bunch of information, of course, a lot of it's out of Japan and the Nordic countries.
Doug: Tell me about that. Again, what were they called that the plants actually emit, is that what they're doing is they're sending it out?
Chelsi: They're phytoncides which are if you've ever heard of chemicals called volatiles, which is the aerial way that a lot of plants will talk to each other. They emit these things that are supposed to be deterrents for like herbivores and things like that but when humans breath them in, and again certain species are going to release that. They're still doing studies in the USA to see if there's any trees that release it but in Japan, there's a bunch of species that do. This volatile, this gas that the trees are sending out, when a human interacts with it, it actually will have a beneficial reaction in people's brains to do these things like decrease your heart rate and your blood pressure and increase calming hormones in a person as well.
Doug: I want to switch gears a little bit and talk a little bit about your job and especially this season. Was this growing season any different for you than any other season? Do you see too much rain, dry? Does any of that stuff matter with what you do?
Chelsi: Yes, absolutely. I will say because my region is quite large actually had an opposite thing happening. In a lot of my US region, it was quite droughty. We had the drought in the spring when we normally would get the rain that persisted pretty much up until I would say maybe a couple of weeks to maybe a month ago. Then in my Ontario region it was exactly the opposite. It's been very, very rainy to the point of just oversaturation and flooding, and now moving into more of drought. Of course, both of those instances too much and too little water is definitely going to stress out the trees just in different ways. Depending on where we're talking about, I had fungal issues related to the water, and then I had a lot more insect issues related to the drought.
Doug: For me in my garden, I'd rather have the rain than have to deal with the drought, same with my trees. We were a little droughty here, these last end of the summer here, and I'm just waiting for this rain. It's funny that anyone that deals with plants, trees, your vegetable garden, your flower garden, whatever it might be, you're always looking at the weather one way or the other.
Chelsi: Water is life. Yes.
Doug: If you don't mind, I'd like to ask you a little bit about healing gardens for you personally. Tell me where you go or what you do, or how you get your healing garden mojo going?
Chelsi: Yes, one good thing that helps me is I get to work with plants most days. I'm doing a lot of the field part, I'm touching a lot of stuff but when I want to actively go out and participate in this, I do live in the City of Chicago. I have a hardscape around me, but I have some really good parks that are within walking distance that I will try to go. One of my favorite things to activate is smell and touch, and I'm a big bark toucher. If you want to see a tree hugger, I have been known to embrace a tree here and there. I love ripping leaves, especially now that we're moving into fall, because you get that nice spice smell, and if you just sit and listen to the wind, it sounds like the ocean after a while, with the ebb and flow of the wind through the trees.
I would say it's mostly-- I'll have about three parks that I try to get to twice to three times a week. I'm trying to hit that prescriptive 15 minutes every other day thing and even if I can just walk through it, it might even elicit if I don't spend, say 5 to 10 minutes, I can just remember the last time I was there and how calming it was if I don't have the time. It is definitely something that you have to work at but even if you're say walking home and there's a small green scape that you walk past, maybe just walk through it, and then just stand still for about 30 seconds and see what you can see, smell.
Again, if you're going to taste anything out in nature, just make sure it's not poisonous but yes, I just try to activate the senses that I enjoy, which is mostly touch and hearing, and smelling.
Doug: Well Chelsi, I know that you've inspired me and I know you've inspired our listeners to take some time and use their garden as a healing space. I want to thank you again for your time, and I look forward to talking to you again.
Chelsi: Oh, thank you so much.
Doug: Well, as soon as I'm done here, I'm headed out to sit in the front room before that rain comes. Tune in every Thursday to the Talking Trees podcast from the Davey Tree Expert Company. I'm your host Doug Oster and do me a big favor, subscribe to the podcast. We're having fun and learning too, and for next week's show, have you ever heard of zombie trees, they're a real thing. We'll learn all about when good trees go bad. As always, we'd like to remind you on the Talking Trees podcast trees are the answer.
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