A more inclusive outdoors
Nature being touted for mental health, but green spaces have racist histories
For Cynthia Philips, it was the sound of bees, willows and crickets and the hum of a metallic Tibetan bowl that helped her overcome some of her anxieties.
Over Memorial Day weekend, Philips, a 64-year-old entrepreneur, drove out to a Black-owned ranch in Crawfordville, Georgia, where she joined dozens of other women for a camping trip. Tents were set up under large, majestic trees and hammocks were strung about. Over two days, the women did yoga, hiked, meditated, wrote in their journals and shared their life stories with one another.
They were there to heal.
Before the trip, recent events — shootings in New York and Texas, a rise in hate crimes, the reversal of abortion rights — were keeping Philips up at night. “What is happening here is so devastating and poisonous,” she said. “I have young Black nieces and nephews to worry about.”
During the pandemic, she also had to sell her business, a gym in Atlanta that she had poured her savings into, which had left her feeling defeated.
At the campsite, Philips participated in what is known as a sound bath — using waves of sounds, produced with tools like metallic bowls or gongs, to meditate. “To be in nature and have those sounds surround me,” she said, “there was a peacefulness and a serenity to it.” It helped her feel connected to the forest, she said, and get past some of her heartbreak.
While ancient philosophers from Aristotle to Siddhartha have long known that the outdoors can be an emotional and mental balm, and scientists have repeatedly documented it, people of color have not had equal access to some of the spaces that could provide mental health benefits. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, they were systematically excluded from outdoor recreational spaces (until the 1940s and 1950s, many state and national parks had signs that read “For Whites Only”) and all but scrubbed from the mythical narrative of the great American outdoors.
Today, there are some signs of change. Over the last three years, the number of Hispanic and Black people participating in outdoor activities (including hiking, jogging, fishing and camping) has increased, according to a 2021 report by the Outdoor Foundation, a nonprofit associated with an outdoor industry trade group. Participation among Asians, however, declined and most outdoor participants remain overwhelmingly white.
Organizations and online forums encouraging communities of color to step outdoors as a way to improve mental health have increasingly sprung up across the country. The Georgia campout, for instance, was organized by Outdoor Journal Tour, a group that also leads one-day hikes around the country. According to Kenya Jackson-Saulters, one of the founders, attendance this year was double that of last year.
Other similar organizations, many of which are often centered on Black, Indigenous and Hispanic communities, like Outdoor Afro and Hike Clerb, have also had a surge of participants in recent years. Tickets for hikes would sell out “within minutes” during the pandemic, said Hike Clerb’s founder, Evelyn Escobar. Because of demand, the group will be opening a New York chapter later this year.
“The growth has truly been astronomical,” Escobar said. “There are so many people around the country who just want to feel a sense of belonging and be able to tap into the healing energy of a collective safe space outside.”
There is a growing body of evidence for the mental health benefits of wilderness and nature-based therapy, often called ecotherapy. The first rigorous science on wilderness healing came from Japan in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Several Japanese researchers collected health data from hikers before and after short excursions into the lush forests of Japan and found that time spent in nature was correlated with reduced blood pressure and cortisol (a stress hormone) levels, better immune function and improved sleep.
Since then, other researchers have found that even smaller doses of nature, from walking down a tree-lined street to having an indoor plant at home, can have health benefits.
Though much of the existing ecotherapy research has not focused on people of color, one of the reasons that experts suggest nature is effective at bolstering mental health is because of its ability to inspire awe. Awe is the sensation of being confronted by something so vast that it forces us to reconsider our understanding of the world, according to researchers Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, who published a paper on the emotion in 2010. While “vastness,” at its most basic level, means physical size and beauty (the ocean or a mountain range), vastness can also refer to less tangible elements, like the depth of talent (watching an incredible musician).
One 2018 study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found that 124 military veterans and youths from underserved communities reported a 21% improvement in PTSD symptoms after whitewater rafting trips.
At a time when people of color have reported increased levels of stress, trauma and anxiety, experts suggest nature experiences might be a crucial coping tool. But getting outdoors is often easier said than done. A 2020 analysis by the Center for American Progress found that Black, Hispanic and Asian communities are three times as likely as white people to live in nature deprived areas, or areas affected by urban sprawl, drilling, mining or logging. That makes getting to the nearest park or outdoor space expensive and time consuming. And, without exposure to nature in the first place, many might not discover the benefits of being outside or the joy it might bring them.
Awe-inspiring natural spaces in the U.S., like national parks, are tarnished with racist histories, according to Tracy Perkins, an assistant professor at Arizona State University who studies social inequality and environmental justice. Many environmental conservation efforts starting in the late 1800s were led by eugenicists, like Madison Grant, to create spaces for white people to get fresh air and exercise in order “to preserve the vitality of white race,” she said.
Additionally, the outdoors can bring up connotations of enslavement and lynching for Black communities and violent displacement for Indigenous people, and many continue to experience discrimination in outdoor recreational spaces.
The birder Christian Cooper’s encounter with a white woman in Manhattan’s Central Park in 2020, for example, or the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia in 2020 while he was said to be out jogging have spotlighted some of the difficulties of being a nonwhite person outdoors.
Seemingly simple activities, like a walk in the park, can unconsciously trigger a fight or flight response for some people, making them hypervigilant for dangers, said Laura Marques Brown, a clinician at Anchored Hope Therapy in Maryland who specializes in nature-based therapy for low-income people of color. “I remind ecotherapists, especially white ones, to consider how walking through dense woods as a Black person might feel.”
Acknowledging the racist history of the outdoors is an important first step toward making people of color feel safer in nature, Marques Brown said. She, for example, begins her one-on-one outdoor sessions by walking clients through the history of the Indigenous land that the clinic is on in an effort to make them feel less alienated in that natural space.
“I tell my clients that when we go outside, we are with generations of family,” she said.