Earth Day 2021

selfie of woman and young son on a mountain top

By Dawn Stoltzfus, Senior Director of Strategic Communications

We’re celebrating Earth Day (April 22nd) this week on Twitter and Facebook by highlighting some of the Institute’s innovative scholars and visionaries who explore connections between nature, healing, and planetary health.

I joined the Institute as Senior Director of Strategic Communications in January, after more than two decades spent knee-deep in public relations and advocacy campaigns around environmental issues, including clean air and water, land conservation, climate change, and environmental justice. This work opened my eyes wide to the many connections between the environment and public health, including air pollution from smokestacks and vehicles, lead paint poisoning in children, the impact of toxics and pesticides, and the way Black, indigenous, and people of color have long borne the greatest burdens of pollution. These same communities often struggle the most for equal access to clean air and water or just to have safe, green places where they can enjoy nature (and improve their health) without fear or discrimination.

I was thrilled to bring this background to the Institute, which has a history of inspiring ideas and promoting research around nature and healing as well as examining how the social determinants of health play an enormous role in people’s well-being.

One of the scholars we’ll highlight this week is Sara Warber, MD, whose research focuses on how holistic health programs and time spent in nature affect well-being. She has authored numerous articles and chapters about holistic medicine, nature-based interventions, and processes of healing. Her current Institute project explores how womxn’s expressive arts illuminate their dreams of nature, health, and a balanced life. On Earth Day, Sara’s giving a talk entitled “Keewaydinoquay of Garden Island: A Story of Hope and Healing” hosted by the Beaver Island Historical Society — you can register online here.

We’ll also share the groundbreaking work of Fred Foote, MD, a retired U.S. Navy physician who works to integrate whole-person care in hospitals and clinics throughout the U.S. Military Health System. One of my favorite quotes from Fred is: “War is a wild thing — its damage is a wild thing… So it needs to be healed by something wild.” Working with NatureSacred, Fred and his team created a woodland garden at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center where service members and their families can find respite amid forest and wildlife, beside a tranquil stream. Researchers are conducting studies to scientifically measure the healing effects of spending time on the “Green Road.”

Institute Visionary Susan Prescott, MD, PhD, leads the global inVIVO network, which focuses on planetary health and how “to restore human health we must restore the health of our society and our relationship with the natural environment ​– with a greater sense of unity, place and purpose.” Susan’s Project Earthrise suggests that to overcome our greatest challenges, we must address our value systems and fundamentally question the way we choose to live on our planet, how we see ourselves, how we treat others, and how we care for our place and our communities. It is named for the 1968 photograph of Earth taken from the moon, which is said to have inspired the original Earth Day in 1970.

The official Earth Day theme this year is “Restore our Earth.” Even as the Institute’s scholars, fellows, and visionaries look at how nature can heal us, we also understand we need to focus more attention on how we can heal nature — with the climate emergency unfolding across the world, before our eyes, and the environmental injustice that leads to poorer outcomes for Black and brown people’s health because of their zip codes and the color of their skin. Nature cannot heal us if it is itself beyond repair.

Over the decades, I witnessed environmental organizations (sometimes slowly) realizing their mission’s connections to public health, even as I grew from a “tree hugging” nature lover to a social justice advocate. Shortly after coming on board at the Institute, I learned the phrase “people, places, and planet” from Susan Prescott. And I observed the many interdisciplinary thought leaders with expertise in whole-person care who were working to help people heal through nature but also wanted to do more to understand how they collaborate and contribute to better planetary health.

Though we face immense challenges, and great urgency to act, I feel optimistic to see so many hearts and minds coming together across disciplines to help people, places, and our planet flourish. I’d sure like to believe that there can be a brighter future for the next generation, and the one after that. I hope you’ll check out some of our Earth Day highlights this week, and feel inspired like I am, because “every day is Earth day.”