We know it intuitively: when we step into the Old Forest at Overton Park, we just feel different. Even though we’re still surrounded by busy streets on all sides, we’ve walked into a place of calm, where we can take a deep breath.
That feeling is based in our biology: humans evolved to spend far more time in nature than we do in this age of screens, cars, and built environments. Spending too much time indoors has led to increases in everything from depression and anxiety to nearsightedness and Vitamin D deficiency.
For many of us, this feeling of relief via nature immersion became clearer than ever during the first year of the COVID pandemic. Day after day of struggle, isolation, loss, and grief took a toll on all of us, and for many, the park felt like the only safe place to escape.
Out of that somber time, Overton Park Conservancy’s NatureZen series was born—a regular reflection on how connecting to the wild things around us could bring us peace and a sense of being part of something bigger and more permanent than ourselves.
As we began to emerge from the worst days of the pandemic and spend time with park visitors, we heard over and over that our community is seeking more ways to deepen their connection to nature. In particular, our conversations with youth representatives of the Center for Transforming Communities told us that time spent in the Old Forest gave them feelings of safety, creativity, and peace, and they sought more ways to find that solace in the park.
Those conversations took place as part of our comprehensive park planning process, and they’ve pointed us toward a future where the Conservancy provides the link between our community and the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of spending time in nature.
A New Focus
A dedication to strengthening understanding and immersion in nature means developing more public programs. We’re thrilled to announce that we have added a new member to the Conservancy team to do just that. Dr. Malle Carrasco-Harris has joined us full-time to develop nature-based programming for both children and adults. Potential initiatives could include partnerships with schools to develop a curriculum incorporating the Old Forest, as well as bringing summer day camps to the park. For adults, regular talks about environmental topics and walks in the woods will deepen understanding and appreciation of the forest. Malle also hopes to create regional and national connections that broaden the impact of Eric Bridges’ research into how we can manage urban forests for resilience in the face of climate impacts.
A Week of Celebration
To kick off this new era for the Conservancy, in October we created NatureZen Week to pilot some programs we hope to repeat in the future and to celebrate nature’s power to heal. Highlights included:
- The debut of our free mindfulness walks series, which brings volunteer guides from all walks of life into the forest to lead quiet, contemplative walks
- A workshop in nature journaling led by artist and educator Taska Sanford, in which local artists were encouraged to record their experiences in nature and focus on curiosity
- A talk by Florence Williams, author of the best-selling book The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, in which she presented research showing that humans exposed to nature show reduced cortisol levels and blood pressure, stronger immune systems, and increased feelings of happiness and well-being
- A scavenger hunt in the Old Forest with students from Carpenter Art Garden, using Taska Sanford’s “Seek OUT!” illustrated cards
- A closing party for the Brooks Museum’s Evanescent” bubble exhibit featuring DJs and food trucks
Each of these events gave us the opportunity to spend time with our neighbors outdoors and to see the nature in our backyard in a brand-new way. We look forward to offering many more such programs in the future under Malle’s leadership!
We’d like to extend a big thanks to our sponsors for NatureZen Week: the Brooks family, Echo Systems Landscaping, Eclectic Eye, Hampline Brewing Co., Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, and the National Environmental Education Foundation.
Immerse yourself in our NatureZen archives at overtonpark.org/naturezen.