Florence Williams Interview

We spoke with Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. Read related post here.

Williams was raised in New York City and Washington D.C. As a young girl, Williams took English riding lessons at the now closed Claremont Stables and rode in Central Park. In Virginia and on vacations out West, she rode Western. Her daughter is now an enthusiastic rider, too.

Although, Williams was raised in big East Coast cities, she has spent significant time outdoors, especially in Colorado. She told me she loved the Mancos area and has spent much time kayaking the Dolores River.

Years ago, Williams was an intern at High Country News and she now sits on its board.

ColoradoOutsider: In The Nature Fix, you write about the ‘forecasting error’ of subjects who underestimate how good being outside would make them feel. Were you concerned that people would similarly love this book but still ignore nature?

Florence Williams: Oh, yeah, definitely. I mean, there are a lot of books out there telling people to eat their vegetables and it doesn’t really work. It’s always a risk. Changing behaviors is hard.

As a journalist, though, I have this optimism that information can make a difference. So I have to kind of go with that.

COO: Elizabeth Kolbert (Pulitzer Prize winning author and one who praised Williams’ book) wrote this month about the evolutionary theory behind ignoring what makes sense. That doing the wrong thing is often what we do.

FW: We tend to be influenced by peers. But we’ve also seen some incredibly wonderful and helpful policy changes through the years as people do change their behaviors. The food movement, for instance.

COO: Are you hoping that this book will effect policy and urban development, for instance, more so than, say, getting individual readers outside?

FW: I would love to see it influence both. I think effecting policy is very challenging, especially in this climate. But one thing I would very gratified to influence is how our institutions take on this issues. For example, I would love to see schools embrace recess. I’d love to influence the recess movement. Where I live in DC, ten percent of the students are meeting daily recess recommendations. It’s outrageous.

In office spaces, there could be more integration of biophilic design.

In neighborhoods, people could clean up existing parks and making them friendly enough. There could be more walking groups. We know that one of the reasons women don’t use parks more is because they don’t feel safe enough. I think we have a lot to learn from the United Kingdom where there has been this tremendous explosion of walking groups.

COO: Of the team of researchers you interviewed in Moab, Utah, a lot of them referenced their childhood experiences. You write about people’s ability to reset and relax in nature in part because those happy childhood experiences flood back into their brain.

What happens when there are fewer adults with outdoors-y childhood experiences?

What happens when there are fewer and fewer past experiences to reference?

FW: I think that’s a huge concern. I think this generation of children is more disconnected from nature than ever before. That can have tremendous consequences as far as their ability to enjoy and find comfort in nature as they grow up and also for conservation because there isn’t this love of nature that’s been established early on.

But one of the scientists I talked with was Adam Gazzaley. He grew up in Queens and doesn’t have those memories from childhood. He sort of discovered a love for nature in his early adulthood. So I think it’s possible.

COO: I do a lot of reporting in the equine world and there is a lot of research supporting the notion of how beneficial it is to spend time with horses. In your research, did you ever see a connection between equine therapy and nature therapy?

FW: I grew up loving horses. I rode in Central Park. It’s hard to believe. My daughter is also hugely connected to horses. She rides them almost every day in the summer.

I think the [animal] connection is absolutely a big part of the nature connection. Our natural inclination to want to affiliate with other species is a very powerful human urge. I didn’t spend a lot of time writing about it but I totally believe it. I was also totally moved by my experience with the veterans with PTSD and how much their service animals helped them. It’s absolutely important.

COO: At a neurological level, do you see similarities between equine therapy and nature therapy?

FW: I think it’s a little different. There is the eye contact moment. It’s supposed to release oxytocin when you make eye contact with another species. So, there are some subtle differences there. But both are certainly capable of changing the brain and bringing us joy and awe and delight.

COO: As a society, we’ve gotten away from rewarding intuition and instead reward for tech-oriented, logic-oriented achievements. Yet now, science is circling back to confirm that what we knew intuitively (like healthy bodies support healthy brains and vice versa). Do humans, Americans in particular, require scientific confirmation?

FW: I do think we live in a very evidence-based society. For better or for worse. The cool thing is that we’re now learning that some of our intuitive processes are good for productivity, good for creativity, good for preventative health.

It is kind of ironic. Like we did, for instance, move away from intuitive-based medicine but now that evidence is reinforcing it, it’s back.

Florence Nightingale, 160 years ago, understood the importance of fresh air and sunlight. She described very sick patients during their head to the light. I love that. For a hundred years, we forgot that. We’ve been putting patients in climate-controlled environments, cutting them off from nature.   Now, there is new evidence that it improves healing.

The body holds a lot of wisdom and that’s a little bit of a cliché. But now that we’re able to measure what that wisdom is and what the physiological consequences are, I think there’s renewed respect for what we crave and where we feel best.

I think we’re living in a moment now, too, where we’re able to understand the degree of our disconnection because there is a lot of anxiety around technology and how it has sort of stolen our lives. So I would hope it’s a real opportunity to reexamine those connections. I think we’re at a crossroads.

COO: But sitting on the couch becomes a habit. We know from science that those dopamine cycles are what’s hard to get away from.

FW: Cognitive behavioral therapy has been very effective for a lot of people. It’s just kind of baby steps. A program that’s simple and easy to follow. And, you know, going outside is simple. It’s inexpensive. It’s accessible. I define nature in a very generous way, even if it’s just listening to the birds on your street.

I think you’re right. There are challenges in terms of habits. But I also think that cognitive behavioral therapy has shown us that small adjustments can make a huge difference in our mood, even a huge difference in our need for medications.

Thanks, Florence!

Review: Cotopaxi’s Toliman Hoodie

For this review of Cotopaxi’s Toliman Wool Hoodie, we sought out WashingtonOutsider, Natalie Lord. The Toliman is made in Portland, Oregon, just 170 miles south of Lord’s home base.

Cotopaxi Toliman

The 20-something spends more time outdoors than most of us even hope for. The talented skier graduated from St. Lawrence University where she was active in the Outing Club and has enjoyed many outdoor adventures from surfing to skiing. Since landing in Washington, she’s explored much of the state’s western region.

She writes:

I pulled the Cotopaxi Toliman hoodie out of the box, put it on, and got in the car for a weekend trip to the Outer Coast of Washington. The trip was a perfect way to get to know my new layer, as I used it on a rainy hike out to Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park, and after a cold surf session in the Pacific Ocean.

During the hike out to Shi Shi, I ended up taking off the pullover because I was too warm, hopping over logs and trekking through giant mud pits. Yet once we got out of the rainforest and onto the beach, with wind whipping and a rainstorm headed our way, I quickly put it back on and was comfortable again.

One of my favorite features of this pullover is the hood. Finally, a pullover with a hood that isn’t too small for my head!

While scrambling over rocks and collecting marine debris, the stretchy fabric allowed for flexible movement without the typical restrictions from layering. The Power Wool portion of the pullover did an excellent job wicking my sweat on the hike.

Photo by Beau Gaughran

It really came in handy the next day after my surf session when I threw it on over my bathing suit for the walk back to the cabin. Normally, I freeze during these walks, but this layer used my body heat to my advantage and the hood made a remarkable difference!

Since I had such a great experience with the Toliman pullover out on the coast, I decided to bring it backcountry skiing near Mount Baker for the next weekend adventure.

When traveling in the backcountry, weight is highly stressed factor. The Toliman is a perfect layer to bring because it’s light, packable, and warm.

Growing up skiing in Maine, I’ve been used to the tight synthetic layers. The Toliman pullover is my first wool layer. It manages moisture and breathability perfectly for ski touring.

On this particular outing, it was a ‘blue bird’ sunny day, though with the wind the temperatures remained chilly. Once again, the hood came into great use, providing an extra level of warmth. For the ski down, I decided to keep on the pullover as my outer layer instead of add on an additional puffy. At the end of a long day of skiing, this is the layer I don’t need to take off immediately.

The Toliman Pullover has become my perfect mid-layer for any outdoor excursion.

Photo by Beau Gaughran

Raves for Raven Narratives

Last month, I had the supreme joy of participating in the Raven Narratives, the new storytelling project developed by my community heros, Sarah Syverson and Tom Yoder.

Listen to my story.

13239263_1439789109380657_6219832636324042774_nWe, a group of seven storytellers along with Syverson and Yoder (who told a story and co-produced the event), performed to sold-out shows at the Sunflower Theater in Cortez and the Durango Arts Center theater in Durango.

We told eight-minute stories of losing loved ones, of epiphanies, of mysterious knives, and, in my case, of rescuing lambs on a cross-country road trip. The theme was Baggage.

All our Raven Narratives will soon be available as podcasts. The inaugural Raven Narratives, with a theme of Wild Places, took place earlier this year and those podcasts are available here.

As you might imagine, public speaking is not my forte. I was more anxious about stepping on stage than I’ve ever been for, say, competing in a running race or horse competition. As fellow writer, Kevin Fedarko said, “This isn’t an environment in which I feel comfortable. What I’m most comfortable doing is putting words on the page.” (Fedarko, author of The Emerald Mile, spoke at the Cortez Public Library recently. We’ll post a three-part interview with him soon.)


A dry erase note left by fellow storyteller, Dan Jenkins, in the Sunflower Theater green room.

But peer support and positivity make for great worry balms. Along with Sarah’s pre-performance tips (“stay hydrated,” “do something you love to do”), my colleagues were rock stars. Theirs was a laughing, ‘hey-I’m-nervous-too,’ spirit.

Storytelling is enjoying resurgence, led by national projects like the Moth Radio Hour and Story Corps. Even the Department of the Interior is getting into the game. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said recently: “The National Park Service is America’s storyteller, and we know that there are very, very important parts of our story that have yet to be told.” Jewell was speaking in support of the Park initiative to recognize the Stonewall Inn in New York City as the country’s first national monument to honor the LGBT rights movement.

Here in southwest Colorado, the Raven Narratives are succeeding because of the inclusive, open-minded mission, crafted by Yoder and Syverson: to connect us with each other and the places where we live and play through the ancient art of storytelling.


Sarah Syverson and Tom Yoder

The productions, the pair explained from the stage, are just as much about the audience as they are about the performers. When we lean in and listen, we open up as a community. We avail ourselves to differing points of view. We grow.

When my kids were younger, I stuck a handwritten note on the fridge.  It said: “Listening is the most powerful thing you can do.” It stayed there for years (Teenage boys especially need reminding that it’s not all about them.)

Syverson introduced the evenings’ program by citing Story Corps, which promotes listening as an act of love. Watch fantastic video here.

With this kind of cradling support, how could a public-speaking crawler not stand up and walk?

Listen to my story.


Raven Narrators gather before the Sunflower Theater


Introducing ColoradoOutsider Women

I’ve lived in a lot of places, yet nowhere have I been more impressed and challenged by fellow females than here in southwestern Colorado.

COOThis is not to say that women in Maine, Iowa, Utah, and elsewhere are not impressive. But when it comes to women of humble and outdoors-y athleticism, this area has an overabundance of them. (It should be noted that Colorado has the lowest rate of obesity in the nation. You can read more about the importance of fitness and getting out here.)

I’m learning there are various varieties of fit females:

  • There’s the PataGucci set. Mountain chic, they look ready to go with perfectly-fitting outfits, perfectly-styled hair. They do not have dirt under their perfectly painted nails. Are they really ready to go?


  • There are those with dirt under their nails. They might also wear Patagonia, but they probably bought it at the thrift shop or found it left behind at Purgatory. And they probably wear it for it’s functionality while rock climbing, mountain biking, or trail running.

There are national-caliber athletes and insanely fit grandmothers in the midst. Many women I’ve met would be exceptional athletes anywhere else in the world. Here, they fit in as amazingly unexceptional.

Anne Rapp (L) with Linda Mannix

Anne Rapp (L) with Linda Mannix

Some local women are fit because of what they do for work – like Anne Rapp, owner of Rapp Corral, who manages dozens of horses and leads day rides and pack trips. Like Dominique Edgerly, who skis, rafts, and rides horses for a living.

Some women have more sedentary day jobs, but incorporate athleticism into their days as automatically as they drink coffee. I know librarians who are rock climbers and triathletes.

Somewhere else, girls might be special for clearing trail, fixing fence, cutting down trees, riding, hiking, hauling a trailer. Here, it’s just normal. They look at a river and say things like, “nice run-off” and guess at the cfs (water flow as measured in cubic feet per second).

Beginning soon, ColoradoOutsider will profile women of southwestern Colorado. You’ll read about Regular Janes in the neighborhood. Otherwise known as women who rock!

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