By Mary Rider

Image courtesy Metro Creative Services

There is scientific debate on whether human life began on the savannas or woodlands of Africa. What’s not in contention is presence in either landscape provokes a rapid recovery response for human stress.

Both settings offer open spaces with the right ratio of light to shadow in a calm but not static setting, and enough vegetation to allow surveillance and interpretation of the environment.

The human species is more relaxed when surrounded by these conditions.

Urban environments drain our energy by directing focus on specific tasks (navigating traffic and interacting with strangers), then grab our attention to “Look over there!” when we hear the sound of an ambulance siren or step off the sidewalk.

The forest environment demands very little vigilance, yet it is compelling and ever-changing. Our attention is involuntary and requires no mental effort.

“Soft fascination” describes the way we listen to birds singing, view the trees, smell a flower or observe the clouds overhead.

Humans became an urban species in 2000, when more than 50% of the world’s population lived in cities. By 2030, its predicted 75% of humans will be urbanized. Currently, most Americans spend 95% of their time indoors, yet natural landscapes still have meaning to us and are full of signs that calm and guide our minds and bodies.

In the 1980s, Stephen and Rachel Kaplan, environmental psychologists at University of Michigan, developed the theory of Attention Restoration. They proposed that being in a natural setting increases focus and decreases mental fatigue. They identified the four basic properties of a restorative environment:

• Being Away — a temporary escape from the routine

• Extent — the opportunity to explore without effort

• Fascination — the appeal of the place

• Compatibility — a place that supports a person’s intent and expectations

The forests, meadows, and hiking trails that abound in the San Jacinto Mountains provide the four characteristics of a restorative environment. Henry David Thoreau reminds us of the “soft fascination” offered by proximity to nature. He said, “I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit.”