New York Daily Photo Analytics

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

White Birch Canoe

I am disheartened to read "How the city hurts your brain" from the Boston Globe, January 2, 2009 (see it here). Many nature lovers both in and out of the city have of course long maintained that the city was injurious to mental health while nature was restorative. And city lovers have extolled the benefits of a stimulatory environment rich in culture and the deadening of suburban and rural life.

However, there are now scientific studies which demonstrate that just being in an urban environment impairs our mental functions. The Boston Globe article cites these studies including that of Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. "Just being in an urban environment, they have found, impairs our basic mental processes." "This new research suggests that cities actually dull our thinking, sometimes dramatically so." This is of increasing concern, since the number of people in cities now exceeds that in the country.

And, although stimulation can be a good thing, there can always be too much of a good thing and apparently New York City provides just that:

"The mind is a limited machine,"says Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan and lead author of a new study that measured the cognitive deficits caused by a short urban walk. "And we're beginning to understand the different ways that a city can exceed those limitations."

Perhaps this was the reason that a friend and regular reader of this blog (Mary P) chose to feast her newly functioning eye1 on this lone white birch tree2 last night at dinner. As she described her fascination with the gentle motions of the branches in the wind, my mind traveled. The window was not just a clichéd metaphor, but it provided a literal view of a tree which was for me, in turn, a vehicle to other times and places - my upbringing and frequent travel in New England and the birch forests there.

I reflected on my love of white birch trees, their distinctive bark and the wood, influenced no doubt by my father's occupation as a wood cutter in Maine with his love of fly fishing and birch bark canoes. We had discussed many times the beauty of the white bark. It's gracefulness with delicate branches and slender trunk were never spoken of, but I could see that now, contrasted with the concrete urbanity around it.

I pledge to get out of the city more often - the Boston Globe article jogged what my subconscious mind must already know and desire. But until then, I'm going to take a ride in a birch bark canoe :)

1) Mary P has has recently undergone laser eye surgery (one eye at a time) for her deteriorating eyesight. She is finding the new and vastly improved vision in one eye a new lease on life. Enjoy, Mary.

2) The white birch is relatively rare in New York City. The 10 most common trees are: 1. London plane tree (15.3%) 2. Norway maple (14.1%), 3. Callery pear (10.9%), 4. Honey locust (8.9%), 5. Pin oak (7.5%), 6. Little leaf linden (4.7%), 7. Green ash (3.5%), 8. Red maple (3.5%), 9. Silver maple (3.2%), 10. Ginkgo (2.8%)


Mary P. said...

And all this time I hadn't really noticed this tree! It's a real wonder. Birch has a hard time surviving in the city, and this one seems to be thriving, despite all the hard knocks (and cuts) it has received.

Mary P. said...

BTW - Cataract surgery isn't a form of laser surgery. It (in my case anyway) is the actual removal of the deteriorated lens and its replacement with some kind of plastic-like one. I can't believe what a bright, clear world it is!

Anonymous said...

I love your story today, it brings a beautiful memory back to me.
Thank you for your great blog.

An Honest Man said...

As a personal, non-scientific option, I think it is the over-stimulation of our senses in the urban setting which is the problem. There is no time to sit back and reflect unless we deliberately make it for ourselves - in this case the study of the tree.

WHAT is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?—
No time to stand beneath the boughs,
And stare as long as sheep and cows:

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:

No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began?

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

W.H. Davies

Mary P. said...

Lovely poem, and true. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

The trick is to find a small town that has a lot of cultural stimulation, where you can walk everywhere, and where the scenery feed the soul. Try Sitka, Alaska. Or Yellow Springs, Ohio.

NYfan said...

So sad and so true, this poem!! Thank you, it´s wonderful!!!
Mary P: I wish you all the best. Enjoy it!!
Brian: Well, this "new information" about mental health damaging big cities isn´t that new... But it´s right. So you got to take your time to watch, to listen, to feel and to enjoy the small treasures world and nature can give us. Have a wonderful day all of you!