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Listening Through Nature

Welcome to the PARK podcast, where dialogue across difference is vital to community wellness. I’m Dr. Lia Howard, your host in the space where open dialogue, the free exchange of ideas, and civil and robust expression of divergent views is valued. Here, we will explore the research, the practical applications, and the benefits of effective, ethical, and civil dialogue in a diverse world. We hope to model respectful conversation that accurately and authentically frames contentious issues hoping to reach an ideologically diverse audience.

Turtles at James G. Kaskey Memorial Park
Turtles at James G. Kaskey Memorial Park

(Edited transcript)

Dr. Lia Howard: Welcome to the first episode of the PARK, the first of a series of conversations about the power of listening, both as a necessary part of civil dialogue, as well as a skill that can be activated through many different modalities. The PARK is based on the metaphor of a public park, the Commons, a public space where people of many different backgrounds can come together on an equal basis. With a name like the PARK, it seemed appropriate to focus our first conversation on listening through nature.

We are joined today by three representatives from Nature Rx, a new initiative at Penn that focuses on green space, nature, and sustainability to help cultivate individual and community wellness. I’d like to welcome our guests, Chloe Cerwinka, Landscape Planner with Facilities and Real Estate Services, Moriah Hall, Associate Director in the Masters of Public Health Program and Center for Public Health Initiatives, and Elizabeth Main, Sustainability Coordinator with Penn Sustainability. All three of my guests today are part of an exciting program at Penn called Nature Rx.

As you know, at the SNF Paideia program, we believe that individual and community wellness are connected and in the importance of listening across difference. Nature provides an intriguing way to explore those themes and so I’m thrilled to have you all with us today to tell us more about Nature Rx at Penn. I’d like to start by asking Chloe, inherent in the title of Nature Rx is this idea that nature is healing. What about nature is healing? And how is listening part of the healing?

Chloe Cerwinka: Yeah. Well, Lia, thank you so much for having us today. I’m happy to be here. But I’ll just start by saying that nature is all around us. It often gets taken for granted and thought of as a nice to have. But it really is essential.

Most of us probably don’t think that much about its healing qualities, but when we go outside into nature, we often tend to feel better. I’ve had that experience so many times where I’ve gone for a walk on a tree lined street or through a park, and it really clears my head. I think nature really gets us out of our head space and gives us perspective by reminding us of the vast and intricate world that exists outside of our control.

The cycles of the seasons changing around us, breathing in fresh air, that in and of itself is calming. You can walk the same route every day and see something different every time if you start to pay attention to things large and small. Noticing an insect pollinating a plant, feeling the wind on our skin, watching the clouds move, listening to birds singing. Whatever little detail it may be, I think we can find comfort in that constancy and resiliency of nature.

So I have a listening to nature story. I remember walking through College Green and hearing songbirds sending a series of warning calls. So these are like urgent loud calls that sound like, look out. And I thought, I wonder if there’s a hawk nearby. Sure enough, I looked up, and saw a red tailed hawk perched on a tree limb just above me. So these songbirds were protecting their nestlings from becoming a meal for this predator.

And I felt like, wow, I totally understand bird language. And it’s things like that when you start to pay attention to the sounds you hear in nature, you may start to learn what they mean. And that can connect to you even more to the natural world around you. And feeling like we’re a part of something bigger can really bring a sense of solace.

And then one other thing I wanted to mention was this inspiring art project, Call and Response, that was created last spring by an artist Melissa McGill. And she put out a call for one minute videos of bird song and received 100 responses from all over the world. And you can experience all of these little moments in nature on her website callandresponseproject.org. Especially during winter, when, you know, it’s pretty cold and snowy, it may be harder to get outside. This project is such a great reminder of the interconnectedness of people and nature and reminds us that spring is near.

Dr. Lia Howard: Chloe, thank you for all of those wonderful comments and for those wonderful things you had to say around connection and belonging and pointing us to art projects. Moriah, please feel free to elaborate on anything that Chloe has shared or give us some additional insight into perhaps what the research is saying about nature and healing.

Moriah Hall: Yes, absolutely. And thank you again for having us on, and thank you to Chloe for always just painting the most incredible pictures of how powerful time in nature can be. I always learn so much from listening to Chloe myself.

I mean, I’m coming more from the public health side of things. And having a full career in public health, it wasn’t always at the top of my mind to be thinking about how powerful a tool nature can be from a public health standpoint, something that maybe we’ve taken for granted even in our everyday lives and not fully paid attention to those moments, similar to what Chloe was just describing where we are, in fact, having a positive effect from being in nature and then just not really having the language or science to explain that. And so there have been folks looking into this in the scientific community, and really showing that being in nature and time spent in nature is good for your overall health and well-being.

And it can have an impact on everything from your cognitive ability and concentration, improving your mood or overall happiness, helping to reduce stress is a really big one. I think a lot of people are feeling that especially right now in the pandemic. And there has been quite a bit at this point published about some of these things.

So without rattling off some of those studies, which I don’t think is the most exciting thing for me to do, I can just say that even in the scientific community and public health, we’re really paying attention to this. And at the national level, this is also being considered in health promotion strategies. Time spent in nature can be very powerful and positive for our health.

So thinking about the group that we’ve assembled, our team, having folks from sustainability and kind of coming from more of the landscape nature sustainability side and then also having partnerships across the health realms, that’s where I really just think has set the stage for having our Nature Rx Penn program. And we’ve really benefited from having people representing all these different angles because it’s helped us to create a common language around the health benefits and nature.

Dr. Lia Howard: Right. Thank you so much for sharing that and for previewing the partnership aspect of Nature Rx. And Elizabeth, that we’d love to hear more about that. Can you tell us about how Nature Rx came to be? How did you listen to the needs of the Penn community needs stated and perhaps even unstated to bring this wonderful program to Penn?

Elizabeth Main: Absolutely. And just to echo Chloe and Moriah, thanks so much for having us. We’re really excited to talk to you all. So a few years ago, Chloe actually learned of the concept from a very successful program model at Cornell University.

And she was able to connect with their director, Don Rakow, to learn more about Nature Rx at Cornell. And then in the spring of 2019, the Your Big Idea competition was launched. So just want to give a shout out to Jennifer Pinto-Martin, the Executive Director of the Center for Public Health Initiatives, and at the time, Chair of the Faculty Senate, along with Benoit Dubé, Penn’s first Chief Wellness Officer.

So this competition was designed as a way to engage the broader Penn community to think creatively about wellness on campus. And out of over 400 ideas submitted, Nature Rx was selected as a semifinalist, and eventually as one of three winners. So after Nature Rx won, we started brainstorming the different folks and organizations who we wanted to invite to our kickoff meeting to really help us shape what the program would look like at Penn specifically.

So as Moriah was mentioning, lots of partnerships formed. Folks from CAPS, campus health, human resources, academic departments like Urban Studies and the Graduate School of Education, and then also a lot of non Penn folks like the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, Friends of Schuylkill River Park and the nearby Woodlands. So we had this great kickoff meeting in late January of 2020.

We were really ramping up these partnerships and getting going on programming when COVID hit, and we were all sent home. So we really had to shift our thinking to how we can encourage time in nature, even if we’re not all together on the same campus. So I think this really plays into your question about the needs of the community, needs stated, and maybe even unstated.

It’s no secret that we’re all very stressed, whether it’s students, staff, or faculty. And while Nature Rx is absolutely not a substitute for counseling or other forms of professional help for depression or anxiety, we did want to promote it as a free and impactful way to feel relief and improve your health and well-being. This was true before COVID, and it became heightened during COVID when we all found ourselves facing new stressors and new challenges like Moriah hinted at earlier.

And also Nature Rx aligns with the medical understanding we have that outdoor spaces are generally safer than indoor ones in terms of the likelihood of spreading the virus. I know here in Philadelphia over the spring, summer, and fall of 2020, we saw tons of people heading outside in numbers that we’ve never seen before for running, cycling, hiking, a lot of outdoor fitness classes when gyms were closed. So I think all in all, the pandemic has really shown us, like Chloe mentioned, how critical access to nature and the outdoors is for our health. And so we, as a Nature Rx team, are doing our best to find ways to encourage members of the Penn community to safely spend time in nature, wherever that may be.

Dr. Lia Howard: This is wonderful. Thank you for all these extra pieces and windows into the layers of partnership, and the many things you’re doing. Chloe, we’d love to hear a little bit more about how Nature Rx functions and what you do. And then, what’s your vision for the program as it rolls out to a wider swath of Penn’s campus?

Chloe Cerwinka: Sure. So I work as Penn’s Landscape Planner, which means I steward our West Philly campus’s 100 acres of open space through sustainable planning, research, policy, and design. And Penn’s urban campus is an official arboretum that includes over 6,200 trees, over 240 species of trees and shrubs, over 10 specialty gardens, five parks, over an acre of green roofs, so many more things spread across campus. And the campus supports at least 84 species of birds, including a pair of kestrels that have been nesting on campus for at least the last few years, using Penn Park as their hunting ground.

Gold finch, Penn Park. Photo Credit: Joe Durrance


So one way I can steward the campus landscape is by drawing people into that nature, getting them to take advantage of the nature that surrounds them, and to realize that they don’t have to leave the city, let alone campus, to experience nature. So that’s kind of the number one goal of Nature Rx is to get people outside. And really, you can meet them where they are. You don’t have to be nature obsessed like I am.

Spending as little as five to 10 minutes outside has been shown to improve mental health and well-being like Moriah and Elizabeth have been saying. And you can do whatever activity you want to, whatever brings you joy, whether that’s taking a walk, sitting under a tree, tossing a Frisbee, watching the seasons change, gardening, whatever it is. The options are pretty endless, and can be tailored to anyone’s individual interests.

And if you’re not sure where to go, you can use the Nature Rx map that we have on our website, and get directions to any green space on or around campus. And so then the other aspect is giving out nature prescriptions, which recommend a certain dosage of time and nature. So really, these are meant to act as a reminder or a gentle nudge to just go take a break outside. And anyone can hand these out to a friend or a colleague, anyone they think could use some fresh air, which is really all of us.

And I’ll just add, like Elizabeth mentioned, we were hit pretty hard by launching this program right before many of us started working remotely during COVID and really had to shift our focus. So we haven’t done as much yet as we want to, but we have really big dreams for Nature Rx at Penn. So there is a big network of campus Nature Rx folks across the country who we’re connected with that Cornell actually coordinated and runs. And there’s so much opportunity at Penn, and so much interest across broad disciplines at Penn and within the surrounding community.

So we’re hopeful that we can get administrative support for a staff person to run this program. And we know that it could have a huge impact on the Penn community as a whole, and it could help Penn meet so many goals around sustainability, community inclusion, and wellness. And there are many faculty already interested in these topics, and we’d love to build Nature Rx into their curriculum and take advantage of what they’re already doing.

So we envision student nature ambassadors who could let people know about all of the opportunities to get out into nature on campus and get them engaged with nature. Elizabeth already runs the 30×30 challenge every April. So this is the idea to get people outside for 30 minutes a day, 30 days of the month, and we want to work more closely with our Penn partners like Kaskey Park, the BioPond, and the Morris Arboretum, which are incredible natural spaces that are both already doing great work. And so how can we incorporate our programming with all of the richness that’s already happening at Penn, take advantage of this low hanging fruit, and then build from there, using the campus more as a living lab, installing a Nest Cam for our campus kestrels.

There’s just so many opportunities with nature programming. And once we’re back on campus, leading nature walks to the Penn Park Farm and Orchard, where people could volunteer for a work day or taste some fresh fruit, hosting more tree tours, birds scavenger hunts, encouraging participation in the City Nature Challenge, and we want to work with our partners to measure success of the program so we can see how we can positively impact the Penn community’s health and wellness over time. And really, once people get excited about nature, they become stewards for nature. So it’s completely a win-win scenario.

Penn Park Orchard Workday (photo taken pre-pandemic) Photo Credit: Facilities and Real Estate Services

Dr. Lia Howard: The more I hear about this, the more I am just overwhelmed by the amazing partnerships you have and the ideas within this great idea that we keep hearing good things about. Moriah, a Penn Today article featuring Nature Rx in April 2020 had Jennifer Pinto-Martin saying– she’s a professor in the School of Nursing and Executive Director of the Center for Public Health Initiatives. And she said, “we have science that shows that being an open space in nature reduces cortisol levels and slows your breathing down,” end quote. How is the stress brought on by the pandemic and our intense political moment provided an extra important opportunity for wellness through Nature Rx? How can listening to nature heal?

Moriah Hall: Yeah. And again, just such a big thanks to Jennifer Pinto-Martin for being a supporter of this effort since the very beginning. What she’s basically alluding to is we have physiological data that has shown how people’s bodies react to being in nature, reducing stress, the talk about cortisol levels, and then truly slowing your breathing down and helping to calm. And I think for a lot of us, and especially in the pandemic, being outside away from the screens we’re all on or being sedentary can sometimes offer immediate relief.

It’s almost kind of like a meditative state, honestly, if you really give yourself a little bit of space and breathing room outside where you’re not there with any agenda. And depending on what you’re up to right now, so much of our days are still really scheduled. We don’t have a chance to step away as naturally. And that’s where thinking intuitively about giving yourself a little bit of space and time outside is can just be so healing.

And obviously a lot of us live in the city in Philadelphia here. So sometimes going outside, it’s not always nature sounds that you hear because there’s different things in our environment, cars, and all kinds of noise happening. But we’re also fortunate– and Chloe talked a little bit about even just on the campus, which is an urban campus, there are always little rest bits of nature in a lot of places even in the city.

So being intentional about going outside and really not with earbuds in and not with having an agenda of, I’m going to do this outside, but just being there to be there, I think can really be healing. And it can just give you really, like I said, that meditative state of you’re just being for a moment. You’re present. And you’re just taking that in and letting yourself have a little bit of space.

And it doesn’t have to be an hour. It can be eight minutes, whatever you have. It can just really be an important reset for you. And though I always love to talk about the Nature Rx prescriptions so to speak as a nudge, just like we’ve been kind of saying throughout this talk today is sometimes we need like a physical or virtual nudge to actually get us outside away from all the chaos in our lives.

So having something really concrete that reminds you to take that space is why there’s been evidence behind these prescription programs for nature because it’s just that added layer of something as a reminder to push you out, to get outside, and to take a little pause instead of just having the idea in your head only. So that’s really the idea behind having our prescription element to Nature Rx programs. And nature prescription programs have been implemented in a lot of spaces beyond just university settings. So there are national initiatives for this, city level initiatives for this, so it’s definitely something people are thinking about. And it can just be so restorative and healing to take that time and space for yourself.

Dr. Lia Howard: Moriah, thank you. Thank you for that intentionality and those reminders of the prescription pad. That’s so fascinating. Elizabeth, just to pick up a little bit on some of the things that Moriah just shared, in these busy digital times where we work from Zoom, we spend so much more time in our homes. What do we need to be doing to better glean the benefits of listening to nature and healing?

Elizabeth Main: Yeah, so building off of what both Moriah and Chloe have said, I think we really need to find more excuses to get outside. Like Chloe mentioned, it’s all about meeting people where they are. You don’t have to be obsessed with birds or insects or plants to get outside, though we also do love those people who are ecological nerds.

Prior to COVID, I would so easily spend at least a half hour outside walking to and from meetings on opposite ends of campus pretty much every day. And when we are doing our meeting scheduling, we would build travel time into that to ensure that we had time to physically get from meeting to meeting. But now with everything happening digitally, one meeting ends at 1:59 PM, the other it begins right at 2:00 PM, and we barely have enough time to run to the kitchen to refill our water glass.

So this is exactly what the Sustainability Office’s 30×30 challenge that Chloe mentioned earlier is really all about. So during the month of April, we encourage the Penn community to spend at least 30 minutes outside in nature for all 30 days of April. And last year’s challenge and this year’s challenge are really more important than ever, given the increasing amount of time we’re spending indoors.

So back to finding more excuses to get outside, once the weather gets nicer, try to find any excuse you can to take your activities outside. So reading a book outside instead of on your couch, eating a meal outdoors, biking or walking somewhere if you can instead of driving, taking your yoga or your fitness routine or your meditation outside, taking a scheduled call outside, but keep your video on mute so your co-workers don’t get too jealous or distracted. Basically, just thinking about all of your daily indoor activities and routines and considering how they might be able to pivot to happen out of doors.

Or like Moriah said, just go outside with no agenda and kind of see what comes of it. But I do think that having more excuses to get outside, having those prescription pads, they’re all ways that we can be more intentional about the amount of time that we are spending away from our screens.

Dr. Lia Howard: I can’t wait to take that challenge, the 30×30 challenge. That’s awesome. Thank you. A final question for all three of you, and I want to start with Chloe if I can. What are your favorite parks in Philly? Where do you go to listen to nature? Where do you go to unwind and to heal?

Chloe Cerwinka: Sure. Yeah, well, my favorite park in the city is Kaskey Park, the BioPond, which, if people don’t know, is a little gem on Penn’s campus that just completely transports you to a charming historic botanic garden that has a small waterfall, a little pond, mature trees, flowering shrubs, and so many birds. But that’s followed closely behind by the Wissahickon, which is my local park that’s closest to my home, which I’m just always shocked that this spectacular green space exists within the city. And it is just a 10 minute walk from where I live.

Kaskey Garden Walk, Photo Credit: Facilities and Real Estate Services


But I also have to give a shout out to my tiny little backyard, which I have jammed full of native perennial shrubs and trees. And this pandemic has really helped me realize that I can see incredible birds literally right in my backyard. And so when it’s too cold or icy or I only have a few minutes, I can just look out into my backyard and feel nature from the comfort of my own home.

Dr. Lia Howard: Amazing. Moriah, how about you?

Moriah Hall: Yes, so I’m glad that we got a shout out for Kaskey Park/the BioPond. That is absolutely my favorite place for nature on campus. My office is in the building right there on the park, so it’s such an amazing little escape for me when I’m working on campus. And I’m over closer to the medical side of campus, so it’s just such a treasure and the fish and all the wildlife and all the greenery.

It’s just incredible and it feels so insulated from the city. It’s just it’s such a gem. So another one of my favorite spaces near campus in West Philly is The Woodlands Cemetery, which is, in fact, a cemetery, but it is absolutely beautiful and has a lot of historic monuments and really interesting things going on.

But the green space is amazing. It has a little trail around the perimeter, and it has a little community garden, and it’s just such a treasure. So I love going there by myself or with my dog and just being able to relax. And I think it’s just absolutely gorgeous.

But I will also give a little shout out to my outdoor space in my city life, which is we have a roof deck on top of our house. And I’m also a major plant mom, mostly indoor plants, but even just having the indoor plants really can go a long way for your sanity sometimes when you’re inside. But being able to go up on the roof and just stare at the sky and the clouds really has done so much for me when we’ve been kind of stuck at home, or just having a few minutes to unwind. So I’m very grateful to have that space as well because sometimes it’s not feasible or realistic to get anywhere further. So those are probably my favorites. I could go on and on because there are some real treasures in Philadelphia, but those are my top ones.

Dr. Lia Howard: How about you, Elizabeth?

Elizabeth Main: On campus, I would have to say that my favorite place is Penn Park. It’s really close to my and Chloe’s office or what used to be our office. And the summer is absolutely the best time for fruits from the Penn Park Orchard and to go see the newly expanded Penn Park Farm, which is a wonderful growing space to walk around and really feel connected to the Earth and all that it provides.

I also love the Shakespeare Garden on campus. It’s a lesser known little small garden in front of Fisher Fine Arts, and it has plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s writings so it’s a really cool space. It’s so close to College Green, but just a very different vibe obviously than kind of the hustle and bustle of College Green.

And I also love Clark Park, which is also pretty close to campus in West Philly. In addition to going to the park to listen to the traditional sounds of nature, like bird singing and the wind rustling the trees, you also get to hear a lot of lively sounds of the farmer’s market on Saturdays, folks playing instruments, dogs, and children. And it’s just such a community that feels so alive.

And then finally, I’ll say, like Moriah, I’m also an indoor plant mom. And so those plants have really saved me this winter when walking outside to experience nature in the plethora of snow we’ve received is not as appealing. So all of my indoor plant babies also bring me a lot of Nature Rx on tough days.

Dr. Lia Howard: Thank you so much to our guests Chloe Cerwinka, Moriah Hall, and Elizabeth Main for sharing with us about the beauty of our campus home and how we can better engage with it, both for our own personal wellness and the wellness of our community. My stress has been taken away just by hearing them describe these beautiful spaces on our campus and in our city. We are so grateful to you for helping us to get this podcast off to a great start. Thank you.

We look forward to our next dialogue, Listening Through Science, to be released April 13.

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