Q&A with Emma Loewe for Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us:
- How has your career as an environmental journalist shaped your journey as an author?
As a journalist covering the intersection of the environment and health, I’ve had the chance to learn about so many different facets of the climate crisis from a variety of thought leaders. Occasionally, I’ll stumble across an idea that feels so rich that it can’t quite fit into the confines of a single article or series of articles. That’s when I start to consider how to cover it in a longer format project, which is how Return to Nature came about!
- What first brought you to the concept and idea behind your new book Return to Nature? It seems many authors have an “it” moment that leads them to a topic, was there one for you?
There were a few inspirations for this book. One was the fact that in interviewing all those thought leaders, I found that a lot of them answered one question the same way. When I’d ask them about their inspiration for getting into the environmental field, they’d point to a powerful experience they’d had outside. This made me think that a book that helps people connect to nature as a kind of gateway to environmental action could successfully bring more people into this movement.
In the last few years, I have also been interested in the research on how time in nature can improve our health. I saw the rise of practices like forest bathing and wondered what the equivalent could be in other landscapes. In combining these two ideas, I came up with the concept for Return To Nature: A guide to eight different landscapes that share their health benefits, how to explore them, and how to protect them.
- How has your personal experience with the intersectionality of health and nature affected both your personal journey and journey as an author?
The challenge for me has always been practicing what I preach in terms of getting outside and exploring. As a writer, a lot of your day is spent huddled over a computer screen and it can be easy to skip out on that midday walk or after-work park sit. But writing this book really showed me how essential it is to take breaks and head outside—both for my mental health and for the work itself. There’s plenty of research to show that heading out can promote creativity and mental clarity. I also try to remember that as a creator, if you don’t get out there and experience life, you won’t have much inspiration to pull from and your well of ideas will quickly dry up.
- What was the most inspiring thing you learned while researching for your book? And further, what was the most shocking or concerning thing you learned about as well?
It’s hard to choose just one, but the first inspiring thing that comes to mind is the global movement to grant legal personhood rights to rivers that are threatened by things like pollution and human development. The first instance of this happening was in New Zealand, where the local Māori tribes secured rights for the Whanganui River. Essentially, any time there is a proposal that will affect that river, two human representatives (one government-appointed, one a member of the Māori) will speak for its best interests in court. There is now a petition circulating to grant similar rights to other rivers around the world, which you can learn more about here.
In terms of shocking and concerning findings, I don’t think we talk enough about the rapid desertification that’s happening in regions of China and Africa. It’s scary to juxtapose this uncontrolled drying we’re seeing in some places with the extreme weather and rising sea levels we’re seeing in others. Closer to home, it’s upsetting to consider the inequitable distribution of green space: Low-income, minority neighborhoods are far less likely to contain green space than high-income, white neighborhoods. I write in the book that the parks that do exist in majority nonwhite areas are, on average, half as large and nearly five times as crowded as parks that serve a majority-white population. That’s an essential area of retreat, restoration, and peace that these neighborhoods are missing.
- Your book discusses using both new research and ancient knowledge to guide readers—do you think society should rely more heavily on one than the other, or is it truly the weaving of both that produces the best results?
I think it needs to be both. There are so many fascinating elements of the natural world that Indigenous cultures have known about for eons and science is just starting to catch up to. I keep coming back to one quote that I heard the incredible tree researcher Dr. Suzanne Simard say during a talk: “Science is human.” When I think about the really transcendent experiences that people can have in the outdoors, it does feel like they are beyond scientific comprehension in some way. These are deeply human experiences that cannot be easily contained or squared away.
- How did you go about choosing subjects for Return to Nature? There are so many experts out there—what drew you to work with the subjects of your book?
I wish I had a good answer for this! I usually go with my gut. If I read about someone’s work and immediately want to know more, chances are they are someone I should be talking to.
- What did you learn about yourself the most through writing your book? Did you discover any personal changes you’re excited to share with others?
This is kind of a given, but I definitely learned a lot about my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Whenever you take on a larger project, I think it also helps you expand your comfort zone to be a bit bigger than it was before. And I like to think that it never shrinks from there. I would also say that talking to so many folks who have really rich and reciprocal relationships with the landscapes they inhabit made me want to learn more about the ecology and makeup of my own neighborhood in NYC. So that’s something I’m working on moving forward.
- If you had to choose one major takeaway for your audience to leave with after reading Return to Nature, what would that be?
Get outside! It doesn’t matter where. But once you’re there, really give that place your attention and let its gifts find you. Then, consider what gift you can give that place in return.