The Towhee of Notre-Dame

Her thin, elongated feet and delicate toes are mechanisms of terror for the unsuspecting. Her bright, umber brown eyes are still, alert for an identifiable shape, any movement on the nearby ground.

She steps forward. Cocks her head. Watching. A constant day-long dance with only a few pauses to preen, to take care of herself. Throughout it all, except when preening of course, a high-pitched call, coming in single bursts, one at a time, spaced evenly, bill filled with prey or not, fills the air throughout the day Nature’s metronome.

Her presence stilled my own. She reminded me of what matters. Every morning. Every afternoon. Whenever I stepped outside onto the patio, the side walk, the driveway, she and her mate busied themselves with their most important task collecting food for the children.

Walking b

One morning, her search brought her into our home. Through the door, onto the old parquet floor she hopped, walked, hopped. She found remnants of dead creatures, but nothing fresh from what I could see.

Then the search was interrupted.

Cooper watched, pounced, and had her in his mouth for a moment. It was just long enough to induce shock, but nothing physically serious. I rescued her and she stood on the porch, silently, still, her disheveled feathers slowly weaving their way back into place. We watched. Her mate was on the ground nearby chirping calls of encouragement, concern. Then she was off.

With Coops

Experiencing another life. Caring for another life. This is how Nature works if we let her in. We take a moment, sit down, watch, and listen. Our heart rate drops. Our blood pressure goes down. Another life becomes more than. It becomes kin. Our thinking brains, our intellect, our constantly busy frontal lobe takes a rest. Nature finds her proper place in our hearts again. We begin to reconnect with the being within that evolved over 3 million years, in Nature. We leave the indoor beast behind. We are reminded that we are not alone.

Frederick Law Olmsted, the fellow who designed New York’s Central Park, wrote back in 1865 that watching Nature, “employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, thorough the influence of the mind over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system.”

Then there is Beethoven. “How happy I am to be able to walk among the shrubs, the trees, the woods, the grass. And the rocks! For the woods, the trees and the rocks give us the resonance we need.”

Then there is the Towhee.

preening 2

Data, analysis, conclusions, and arguing the finer points have provided us with new knowledge, new understandings. Yet our scientific revolution, perhaps in reaction to the intolerance to any new ideas in the past, has pushed aside the emotional, the spiritual.

As a consequence, understanding how Nature can impact the mind, the heart has been delegated to the world of mysticism, belief. But there is a there there. The research in Korea, Japan, and Europe has proven it. We are not exactly sure how our life away from Nature is causing pathology, but we definitely know what happens when we go back.

Since we are full sensory creatures, much of the healing benefits of Nature come through our senses.


There has been roughly a 200% increase in background noise every 30 years. While we may consciously be able to ignore it, our subconsciousness cannot. Hence, the stress hormone cortisol is constantly flowing through our bodies (influenced by other Nature deficient patterns), causing a multitude of problems for our bodies. For every 5-decibel increase in noise, reading scores for elementary students drop an equivalent of a two month delay (Stansfeld et al. 2005).


Inhaling and smelling terpenes (hydrocarbons released by many plants, especially conifers, sages, etc.) can have huge impacts on physical and mental health. After walks in wild places, subjects have recorded drops in blood pressure, heart rate, cortisol levels, and increases in killer T-cell and feelings of well being and a willingness to help others. The Japanese and Koreans have collected massive amounts of data on this. Qinq Li of Japan is one of the leading researchers. There’s even an International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine that is dedicated to researching the topic.


Basically, the more Nature, the more green, especially if it is expressed in fractal patterns, the healthier we are.

Roger Ulrich (1984) did a now famous study of post-op gall bladder patients. Those in rooms with windows facing trees vs. brick walls had fewer post-operative days in the hospital, less pain meds, and better attitudes.

When the medical records of 40 million people were studied in England, researchers Richard Mitchell and Frank Popham (2008) found a 4-5% drop in cardio related deaths if individuals had easy access to natural spaces.

Frances Kuo and William Sullivan (2001) studied residents in a Chicago housing project and compared those who were exposed to the most green surroundings. The results? Those who lived in greener environments experienced 48% fewer property crimes and 56% fewer violent crimes.

Myopia (nearsightedness) is also related to time spent outdoors. The less time spent outdoors, the higher the rate of myopia.

And so, do Towhees express fractal patterns? Yes. As does the natural environment in which they live. Get outdoors and let your eyes wander.

moth again b

During the recent third Chaparral Symposium in Arcadia, California, we suggested two important components were missing in the traditional approach to quantifying ecosystem services (what Nature provides us), the theme of the symposium. The new book, Valuing Chaparral, which was inspired by the last symposium, was also officially released.

The missing components? The intrinsic value of chaparral (Nature) and how embracing that value through direct, mindful contact provides ecosystem service benefits to us that are far greater than any other. Beyond quantifiable financial benefits (e.g., 4-5% drop in cardio deaths = decreased health care costs), there’s the sense of belonging to the earth. With that belonging comes a willingness to think beyond our self-centered selves, to see all others as equals in the struggle of live. With that awareness, we can begin to love ourselves, forgive, and respect all life. We can begin to treat the systemic pathology that our artificial separation from Nature has caused.

The callous or unconscious exploitation of other lives, Nature, the earth, is a symptom of disconnected, damaged hearts. Imagine the earth filled with people in love with all life.

The basic message: get out of our heads, go into our hearts, and embrace Nature. By doing so, we will not only lead healthier, happier lives and live longer, but nature will become an integral part of who we are. Nature will become our home again, no matter where we live, in a rural community, suburbia, or near the towering presence of Notre-Dame.

Towhee 2b
Wise and Powerful. The California Towhee.

For more on this topic, please pick up a copy of The Nature Fix, by Florence Williams.

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