Today, slogans like “Save the Whales,” “No Nukes” and “Save the Planet” are commonplace. But while such global environmental rallying cries may help spread awareness and further a broad green agenda, they’re not typically seen as means to improved physical and mental well-being.
In fact, however, the links between human health and environmental balance are profound, local advocates maintain.
Where your house is located and what it’s made of can affect your health just as much as eating right and getting sufficient exercise, says Maggie Leslie, program director for the Western North Carolina Green Building Council. The Asheville-based nonprofit offers various services, including educating homebuyers and builders about green building practices and conducting audits of existing homes and potential building sites.
This “green gauge,” she explains, ranks homes on a wide range of criteria, including things like indoor air quality as well as access to goods and services and green space. The rankings help current and potential homeowners see how a dwelling or neighborhood stacks up. “It’s important to a family’s health, and having a more healthy home that’s close to nature means, in most cases, a more healthy family,” says Leslie.
Besides using green materials, being more energy-efficient and having a smaller environmental footprint, homes with high rankings can also help stave off “nature-deficit disorder,” Leslie reports. Coined by author Richard Louv in 2005, the term links negative health impacts with spending less time outdoors. In his book Last Child in the Woods, Louv argues that the rise of the personal computer and endless forms of screen-based entertainment, coupled with the loss of natural surroundings, can lead to behavioral problems, higher stress, depression and obesity.
Simply choosing a house with more light or more trees in the yard, says Leslie, can affect people’s lives in ways they didn’t even realize. These factors, she continues, are as important as how close the home is to school, work or the grocery store.
Whether it’s through physical activity, cultivating a home garden, watching a sunset from your deck or listening to birds in the backyard, contact with nature enhances overall well-being, Leslie maintains. “We’ve had quite a few people say buying a green home impacted how they live in a positive way. A healthier home impacts your subconscious and instills a sense of wanting to live healthier.”
Erosion and health
Riverbank erosion is typically presented as a problem affecting the creatures that live in streams, but there are significant impacts for humans, too.
“Sediment erosion is the No. 1 pollutant in the French Broad watershed,” says Assistant French Broad Riverkeeper Anna Alsobrook of MountainTrue. And besides “smothering aquatic habitats, raising water temperatures, and clogging fish gills,” she continues, clearing land all the way up to the banks “gives toxins an avenue into the river.”
One of those toxins is E. coli, a type of bacterium that lives in the intestines of vertebrates, including humans. But certain strains can cause fever, gastroenteritis, severe abdominal cramps and diarrhea when ingested. E. coli in cow manure adhere to sediment in rainwater and get washed into the river, posing a potential hazard that reduces the physical and mental benefits of spending a day on the water.
One of the regional nonprofit’s latest initiatives aims to stop this chain of events. “Live-staking” involves planting shrubs and vegetation in bare places along the banks. It’s the most cost-effective way to combat erosion, but it must be done in winter, when plants are dormant, Alsobrook explains. The pilot program is being conducted on selected sections of the French Broad.
Volunteers and staffers cruise the river in two-person canoes, stopping at bare spots to stake hardy plants into the bank, where their roots will take hold and contain erosion. “You can learn a lot from being on the river. Cleaning it up, you see how things get into the river and how to mitigate those things,” she says.
Environmental protection can also help folks connect with nature, combat stress and enjoy new adventures, says Bob Gale, staff ecologist and public lands director for the regional nonprofit. Gale leads hikes in Asheville and environs, giving people a chance to enjoy the natural resources that MountainTrue and other local groups help protect.
“Nobody ever comes back from a hike in a bad mood,” says Gale. He’ll lead a lower-elevation interpretive hike in March, a wildflower hike in May and a monarch butterfly hike in the fall. Gale says he doesn’t rush and loves to explain the natural world to the folks he brings into the mountains. People get educated while exploring new areas, enjoying the natural beauty and getting a cardiovascular workout (and an endorphin rush) as their muscles work to propel them along the trail.
Participants, says Gale, say things like “‘I didn’t even know about this area’; ‘I got some exercise’; and ‘I’m coming back.’ There’s no doubt that getting outdoors, period, is good for your health,” he maintains.
Modeling sustainable living
The idea of natural, sustainable living is nothing new in Asheville, but showing others how to do it is a whole step up. Ashevillage Institute, founded in 2007, works to create a viable model for resilient living and demonstrate ways to implement it.
The nonprofit’s website describes its headquarters, the Ashevillage Sanctuary, as “a 1-acre eco-urban demonstration site, living-learning laboratory and guesthouse a few blocks from downtown Asheville.” The property includes three houses and hosts workshops on permaculture and resilient living, as well as educational demonstrations about things like food preservation, organic gardening and homesteading.
“This is a backyard model of what anyone can do — localized systems that not only nurture the land but also ourselves,” says Janell Kapoor, Ashevillage’s founding director. “There’s a recognition of healing the planet, but how do citizens show up in our own backyards and do our part? Probably 40 percent of what’s needed globally can start in our own houses.”
Technology, she notes, promises simpler, easier, happier lives, yet in fact, people often feel more depressed, more stressed and have less time. At Ashevillage, 60 teachers help clients learn to live simply, relying on what the natural environment provides.
The nonprofit’s offerings draw locals and nonlocals alike, says Kapoor. “They come here to experience a lifestyle shift, integrating what they’ve learned here. I’ve seen people transformed from head to toe, healing their mind and their body through natural living.
“We all ultimately want happiness. This can be achieved through changes in our physical environment, the food we eat, and intentional design and skill-building.”
The key, she continues, is “understanding that we’re part of this web of life, and we can consciously build a connective relationship to it. It might simply be healthier food choices, or it could be creating a vision that will last hundreds of years and be part of the larger regenerative design of our landscapes.”