Forest Bathing: A Secret to Better Health

20190622_135935A recent New York Times article described results from a study that quantified how much exposure to nature people need to impact their health in a positive way.

The researchers found that people who spent about 120 minutes per week in nature (like a park or a forest) were less stressed and healthier than people who didn’t get outside at all. Spending less time (60-90 minutes) did not have as significant an effect. Even spending more time (5 hours) offered no additional benefits.

From this post’s title, perhaps you thought I was going to describe how to get nekkid and take a bath in the forest. Sorry, “forest bathing” just means immersing yourself in nature.

The study’s results made sense to me. As a species, we evolved in the outdoors. It’s what we’re made for. Spending time by water is also beneficial.

20190622_133733I am happy to report that I spend at least 140 minutes in nature per week. I am lucky to have a huge city park by my home where Buddy the Wonderdog and I walk every day.

I took some photos from my last walk through the park. At 640 acres, the park is large enough that you’d never know you were in the middle of a city while walking its trails. Signs of civilization are few, even from the rocky knob that features a view of Lake Superior.

My photo walk was longer than usual – over an hour. I returned home feeling serene, indeed. Have you had your dose of nature today?


Calendar Girl

WI DNR Calendar

I am happy to announce that two of my poems will be featured in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource’s 2019-2020 Calendar. The DNR holds an annual contest for photos and takes writing submissions for their 16-month Great Waters calendar, which is designed to show the ways that people connect with the state’s lakes and rivers.

My poem, “Stockton Island” graces the month of August 2020. I wrote the piece decades ago after my first stay at Quarry Bay on the island for a summer science program. My second poem, “Lake Superior Auntie” made the December 2020 page. This poem looks back on my career with organizations that are working to understand and preserve lakes Superior and Michigan.

The calendar will be distributed for free beginning August 1 at the Wisconsin State Fair, Wisconsin DNR offices, state and national park visitor centers, and through partner organizations.

The DNR has just posted the calendar on their website, too. If you’re interested in checking out information about the submission process, take a look here. Your work could be in their next one!

How we almost saw Biosphere2

20190619_091811I meandered down to Tucson, Arizona, with one of my sons last week. On the last day of our trip, before we caught our plane back home, we had a few extra hours. We decided to go see Biosphere2, the world-renowned self-enclosed science station run by the University of Arizona that’s about a 45-minute drive outside of town.

Because we would be time-limited, I checked the station’s website to see when their tours run. The text said tours were offered throughout the day on a first-come, first-served basis. Great! We would have time for a tour if we arrived right when their doors opened at 9 a.m.

However, when we got there, the docent said the tours wouldn’t be starting until 10 a.m., which was when we needed to leave to catch our flight. We were disappointed, but decided to pay the entry fee anyway and take a self-guided tour of the grounds.

I remembered hearing about the facility while I was growing up when a team of “terranauts” closed themselves into this giant terrarium for two years to see if humans could live in a man-made environment, with the thought that something similar could be done on some other planet, like mars.

What I didn’t realize from the news stories about the experiment is that Biosphere2 has different enclosures for different environments. There’s a rainforest, an ocean, a desert, and a coastal fog desert. To ensure adequate air exchange, there are event two “lung” buildings that control air volume.

On our self-guided tour, we were able to see the outside of the rainforest building, which is covered in glass panels. Leaves were plastered against the windows, making it look like the plants were just about to burst out of their man-made enclosure.

We were also able to go into the living area that the team used when they were enclosed in the facility. Unfortunately, construction was going on, so we really weren’t able to see much of anything. But there was a cool globe where we could see graphic representations of world populations, Facebook friend links and the like.

The last place we visited was the ocean building. We were able to go inside it and see the exhibits. Unfortunately, the ocean itself is experiencing an algae overgrowth. The water was green, which made it hard to see any fish.

Although we hardly got to see anything, it was still cool. I would like to go back there again under better circumstances and try to get the official tour.


The huge rainforest pavilion, with plants plastered against the glass.

Bellying up to the Water Bar


Friends Pat and Tari visit my Water Bar.

Last week, I had the chance to watertend for my job. What’s that? It’s like being a bartender, but without the alcohol.

I learned my new trade at an open house hosted by the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) in Duluth, Minnesota. The “Tapping into Science” event was the brainchild of June Breneman, a friend of mine and fellow science communicator, with the intent of celebrating the importance of clean water by offering the public a chance to taste regional water at a Water Bar and local craft beer brewed with Lake Superior water. It’s also an opportunity to put water professionals and educators in contact with the public in an approachable setting.

Unlike a real bartender, my preparation was minimal. All I needed to do was read a one-pager on how to tend water and watch a short video. Plus, I had help. I worked with fellow watertender Steve Berger, who serves as chief of staff for NRRI.

Steve and I served three varieties of water from growler jugs. Varietal #1 was from Minneapolis, which gets its water from the Mississippi River. Varietal #2 was from Duluth, which gets its water from Lake Superior. Varietal #3 was from Buhl, a small town on the Iron Range, which gets its water from an aquifer.

NRRI image

Me, watertending. Image courtesy of the Natural Resources Research Institute.

Like a real bar, the atmosphere is intentionally casual, with convivial and open-ended interactions. As the one-pager says, there’s no wrong or right way to do it, so that takes the pressure off right away!

We wore aprons with big blue water drops on them and served the water in compostable plastic cups on a flight board featuring three circles with numbers for the different types of water.

I arrived thirsty, so before the event began, I did my own tasting. #1 had a chemical tang to it with a hint of algae. #2 didn’t taste like anything to me, probably because I live in Duluth and am so used to it. #3 tasted much like #2. I found it interesting how many subtle differences I could taste between the Minneapolis water and the other samples when drinking them sequentially.

Most of our patrons at the water bar wanted to guess which samples came from which locations. It was interesting to see their different interpretations of the tastes. The experience sparked many discussions about the kind of drinking water people grew up with and the sources of the drinking water they now use.

After finishing their flights, patrons walked down the hallway to visit water research displays and to sample beer from three local breweries.

This is a unique way to encourage thought and discussion about water. If you work for a water organization, keep this in mind as a public outreach method. The Water Bar and Public Studio provided materials for the bar. It’s a nonprofit arts organization connected to the Freshwater Society in Minnesota. According to June, the amount organizations pay for the bar materials is negotiable.

Now I have a new skill to list on my resume.

And I have a whole new definition for what constitutes a “dive” bar. 🙂


A flight of water.

Solastalgia: The Psychological Impact of Environmental Change


Leah Prussia, College of St. Scholastica.

Earlier this month, I attended the St. Louis River Summit. This science conference about the largest river that empties into Lake Superior (on the U.S. side) has gradually been incorporating more presentations that aren’t as “sciencey” as usual.

One of them caught my interest. Presented by Leah Prussia with the College of St. Scholastica, it was called “Solstalgia: An Intersection of Shared Knowledge.”

“What is solastalgia?” you may ask. Solastalgia is an English term for the mental or emotional distress that people feel from harmful environmental changes. It’s made up of “solace” and “nostalgia.” People feeling solastalgia no longer receive solace from their environment. Due to changes, they feel nostalgia for the way the place used to be. It’s a relatively new word, coined in 2003.

The changes can be from environmental catastrophes, such as volcanoes or floods, or from human-made changes like development or climate change.


St. Scholastica students gathering stories about people’s experiences with solastalgia.

Prussia, a social work professor, had her students at the Summit to collect people’s stories during lunch. I told them the story of a grove of trees near my home where I used to play with other neighborhood kids. I was devastated when the grove was cleared for a new house.

I remember complaining to the neighbor boy about it while we were on the swing set in my back yard. He said I’d get over it. That was almost fifty years ago!

I’m obviously still not over it if I can remember the pain I felt at the change. Have you ever felt solastalgia?


Wolf Reintroduction on Isle Royale

ISRO wolves MI tech

The last two resident wolves on Isle Royale National Park. Image courtesy of Michigan Technological University.

People keep asking me what I think about the latest efforts to reintroduce wolves on Isle Royale National Park. I suspect their questioning has something to do with the novel I wrote about the topic. (Do ya think?!)

Well, my novel “Eye of the Wolf” was more about the wolves saving themselves than human efforts to save them. But I wrote it because of my interest in the wolves’ real-life plight: the packs on the island were dying out due to long-term inbreeding and disease. This continued until only two wolves, a male and a female father/daughter combo were left.

My past blog posts about the wolves may have also spurred peoples’ questions. So I suppose I should share my thoughts.

I haven’t done so sooner because my interests have moved on to other endangered animals in the region. Nevertheless, I have been following the wolf reintroduction effort just for old time’s sake, and to see how the real story plays out.

Okay, enough caveats. Here we go.

I wish the National Park Service had waited to reintroduce new wolves until the two resident wolves lived out their lives. My fear is that the new, younger wolves will rip apart the old ones. It just seems disrespectful, and it could look bad for the park service. I can see the headlines now: Resident Isle Royale Wolves Slaughtered by New Wolves.

This fall the park service released four wolves on the island that were captured nearby in Minnesota. Their genetic rescue plan is to release at least 15 (and up to 25) more in the next three years. I just don’t think the old wolves stand a chance.

When this concern was voiced at one of the public meetings I attended about the reintroduction, the park biologist dismissed it, saying the resident wolves know the best hiding places because they’ve lived on the island longer than the newcomers. Somehow, that answer wasn’t comforting.

My other concern is that the new wolves, which are from the Grand Portage Ojibwe Reservation, will leave the island this winter if an ice bridge forms, thus wasting all the effort and taxpayer expense of transporting them there. Research has shown that transplanted wolves do try to find their way back home once they’re released.

I understand that the park service wanted to restock the island with wolves that are used to hunting moose, but I question whether having the first ones come from an area so close to the island is a good idea. It might have been better to get wolves from farther away, especially for these initial efforts. I fear another headline that reads something like: Reintroduced Wolves Leave Island for Home on Ice Bridge.

I also feel bad for the transplanted wolves. They are basically kidnapped from their packs and home territories, and dropped someplace strange on an island in the middle of Lake Superior. Is keeping wolves on Isle Royale worth that kind of disruption? I don’t know. It just seems kind of extreme.

Drugging wolves is also dangerous – one wolf slated for the reintroduction died in the process. [Update on November 13: one of the transplanted wolves was reported dead, cause unknown.] Is keeping wolves on Isle Royale worth that risk? The park service and the wolf researchers obviously think so.

Let me just say that although I’m supportive of reintroducing wolves to the island, I’m not optimistic things will work out as planned. Life and Mother Nature seem to find ways to mess up the best-laid human plans.

The story continues….

Isro female wolf 9-26

A female wolf — one of the first reintroduced to the island this fall. National Park Service image.

* * *

Update: In early February 2019, one of the wolves reintroduced to the island (the female pictured above) walked back home to Grand Portage, Minn., on an ice bridge that formed on Lake Superior during cold weather. I hate to say it, but one of the headlines I feared happening has come true!

A Lake Superior Sailing Experience, Part One: Chocolate Milk and Biting Flies


I recently meandered out onto Lake Superior on my first extended sailboat trip across it with some friends. We left Duluth, Minnesota, and headed to Wisconsin’s Apostle Island National Lakeshore, and then traversed the western arm of the lake to Grand Marais Harbor in Minnesota.

Since I am writing this, you know I survived the three-day trip. If fact, I would like to think I thrived, despite turning green with seasickness once (I avoided hurling, though!) and having to wear all my winter gear, plus hand warmers, on the 4th of July.

I learned a lot about sailing, but still have more to know. And I got a firsthand look at conditions on the lake, which is useful for my job, since we fund research projects on Lake Superior.

Two things struck me and my sailing companions. The first was the color of the water. Almost all the way to the Apostles it was the hue of chocolate milk. The large extent and persistence of the coloring was unusual. There were also floating logs to watch out for.

According to a news story I read upon returning home, the condition is due to a series of recent heavy rains that have sent thousands of tons of silt into the lake. Chequamegon Bay, on the other side of the Apostles, is also experiencing heavy sedimentation.

Usually, the chocolate milk dissipates within a few days, but this round of it is lasting longer than usual because we kept having downpours every few days. Most of the sediment comes from the Nemadji River and its red clay banks, along with the St. Louis River.

We also had more than double the amount of usual rainfall for the month of June. Anglers and charter captains are having to travel farther than usual out into the lake to find clear water for fishing.


Stable flies covering jeans during a beach walk. Good thing they can’t bite through denim!

The second notable thing were the flies. Known locally by the name of “ankle-biters” or sand flies, stable flies look like a common housefly but they are meaner because they bite – usually a person’s ankles. I can attest that there are roughly a gazillion of them out on the lake and its shores this summer.

The only thing that saved us from certain insanity on a shore trip to Outer Island was the fact that we were wearing jeans, which they couldn’t bite through.

The flies congregated in seething clusters from our knees down, rarely venturing farther up our legs. Thank goodness they had no interest in our bare arms or we would have had to run screaming back to our dinghy!

According to a story on National Public Radio, researchers have figured out how and why the flies and other biting insects like mosquitos do this. They think these biting bugs target feet and ankles because we are less likely to notice (and therefore kill) them. They hone in on their target by smell, and apparently, the sweat and skin on our ankles smells different from that of the rest of our body.

Besides wearing jeans, we found it helpful to elevate our feet off the ground while we were on the boat. They didn’t seem to be able to find our ankles if they were level with the rest of our legs. Conditions on the boat never got bad enough that we needed to apply repellant, but we were glad we had some along, just in case.

Although the water wasn’t its typical crystal-clear blue, and we had many insect stowaways aboard our sailboat, Lake Superior was still magical. I greatly enjoyed spending time on it, and hope to do so again someday.



A bear got to this beach before we did.

Getting my Blue Mind on: Part 1 of 2

J Nichols ORIGINAL Headshot_c_JeffLipsky_preview

Wallace Nichols

I had Dr. Wallace Nichols, author and marine biologist, captive in my car for forty minutes over the course of two days. Far from kidnapping him, he was in my car willingly because I was his morning chauffeur for a local science conference about the St. Louis River (the one in Minnesota, not the one in Missouri).

Nichols was the conference keynote speaker, talking about concepts described in his book, “Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, in, on, or Under Water can Make you Happier, Healthier, More Connected & Better at What you do.”

As a watery kind of person myself, I relished this opportunity to learn more about the whole Blue Mind thing. Basically, it’s this: Being by or in water can calm people down and make them more creative. This idea is nothing new, it’s just that now it has a champion in the form of a Kevin Costner-esque man with a Ph.D. And it’s a nice side benefit that this man seems very humble and down-to-earth (down-to water?).

Book CoverThis is my rather jumbled account of things I quizzed him about in my car, things he said at the conference, and things I recall from reading his book. I tried to separate all the information out according to when I heard him say it, but it was useless. I guess I’m too holistic for that.

Although Nichols’s ideas may seem rather surfer-dude-ish — like they come from California, which indeed is where he lives — Nichols refers to himself as a Native North American. He grew up on the East Coast, but has lived various places in the Midwest and Southwest while on his eventual way to the West Coast.

In fact, Nichols credits the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore for focusing his love of water and inspiring his career as a sea turtle biologist. He visited the area for ten days when he was in high school.

I wish I would have had time to ask him exactly what happened during his experience to inspire him, but in his speech he said his time in the Apostles led to his realization that water was, “. . . Where you feel like the best version of yourself. You are surrounded by nature, you’re in the elements. You’re where you should be.”

Something he didn’t mention in his speech was that he used to stutter as a child. I would expect that being in the water helped with that. “Just to be quiet in or near the water. To learn a new activity, learn to surf or to swim – those are very often the highlights of our childhood or adulthood,” he said.

His goal at the conference was to encourage the audience to bring science and emotion together in their work. He used a mixture of personal stories and research results to highlight how important water is to people from emotional, psychological and spiritual standpoints.

I read the Blue Mind book a few months ago. What struck me was that Nichols cited many studies, but most of them were associative – there weren’t many you could point to that were specific to how people react in and near the water.

I asked him if he was doing any more specific studies or if he was cooperating with any neuroscientists who were. He said that since his book was published in 2014, other studies have been published, and in his conference speech he described them.

Also, to the audience he said, “We talk a lot about the ecological, the economic and educational benefits of our work. We’re pretty good at quantifying this stuff, these 3 Es. We’re not so good at talking about or even including this emotional connection, the emotional benefits of healthy waterways. I would say, that should be switched to the top of the list. These are the benefits that grab people and bring them into the conversation.

”From a strategic perspective, first let’s not leave them out, and second, let’s prioritize them so that we’re fulfilling a larger movement. The emotional connection supercharges our understanding of ecological, economic and educational benefits of healthy waterways. By the way, emotion is something we can study. It can be as quantitative as you want it to be. It is hard science. Increasingly, organizations are using emotions as a tool to advance their advocacy work.”

Nichols offered this criticism and advice for environmental groups: “The environmental movement has used fear and anger to communicate about their issues. Guilt and shame are other motivators, and lots of facts — until they are confused. We talk about ecosystem services, we talk about the crisis. We blame you. It’s your fault. It’s terrible. The future is bleak. And by the way do you want to join my club? Sound familiar?

“Is that effective? We think it is. But we’ve proven time and time again, not so much. Maybe gratitude is another tool we can use. Love, what about that as a motivator?”

He left the conference attendees with this thought: “Water is life that makes life worth living as well. When we undervalue water, we lose that. When we undervalue anything or anyone, bad things happen. Water is our first medicine, for both physical and mental health. Bring the science of emotion to your conversations, do not ever leave it out.”

If you’d like more information, please check out his book. You can also read this blog post I wrote for my job.

Think about your own life. Are you stressed out? What helps you deal with that? Is it working for you? If not, remember the water. Remember music. Remember nature in general. Get out there. And don’t forget to breathe.


Another conversation I had with Mr. Nichols dealt with floatation tanks. You know, those are the tube tub things you can go in that are filled with warm salt water and silence.

They strike me as sort of scary, but Nichols He recommended them for dealing with stress or to inspire creativity.

A business in my town recently opened a flotation tank. I decided to live on the wild side and give one a try. My appointment is tonight. That’s what Part 2 will be about.

A Bunch of Cool Things I Learned at the World Conference of Science Journalists


About a week ago, I returned from the World Conference of Science Journalists, which was held in San Francisco. Although the coolest thing was seeing that there are so many of us doing science journalism in so many countries (more than 1,300 attended from seventy-three countries) — some of whom are the type who wear DNA double helix earrings — I learned many other interesting things during the five days of sessions.

Here are the highlights:

  • In writing a profile about a scientific woman, remember that, “If you wouldn’t say it about a male scientist, don’t say it about a woman scientist.” This applies to factors like cooking prowess, childcare arrangements, familial relationships, etc. This should go without saying, but apparently, some journalists don’t know this yet!
  • The current anti-science political climate makes our profession more important than ever. (Ron Winslow, National Association of Science Writers).
  • The term “climate disruption” is preferable to the term “climate change.” (John Holdren, Harvard).
  • “I love science because it can improve the human condition. The current absence of trust in science threatens this.” (Susan Desomond-Hellmann, Gates Foundation). She also said that skepticism of science is okay. Denialism is not. Science journalists and scientists need to re-establish confidence by being credible.
  • “Our oceans are our lives.” (Rashid Sumaila, University of British Columbia). Sixty percent of the world population lives within sixty km of the coast. Fifty percent of the oxygen we breathe is generated by the ocean.
  • Most of the extra heat generated by climate change is going into the ocean (93%). (Malin Pinsky, Rugters University). He also said that ocean animals are moving ten times faster than land animals to new areas in response to climate changes.
  • Some solutions to overfishing: use algal oil in animal feed instead of fish oil. Consume lower on the food chain. (Julie Thayer, Farallon Institute).
  • The arctic is a hotspot for ocean acidification. Unfortunately, with climate disruption, it’s also where most of the fish are moving in general. (Rashid Sumaila, University of British Columbia).
  • There’s a relationship between climate disruption and human violence. (Solomon Hsiang, Berkeley). It can take fifteen years for economic recovery to start happening after only twelve hours of a hurricane. Hurricane Maria undid twenty-six years of economic development in Puerto Rico. “The only thing more destructive is a nuclear bomb.”
  • It would only take three hours for the water supply for the reservation near Standing Rock in the Dakotas to be impacted by an oil spill, given the current location of the Dakota Access Pipeline. (Phil McKenna, InsideClimate).
  • UC Berkeley has twenty-nine libraries, and some have interesting specialties. There’s a “no-technology” one (put those phones away!) There’s one where it’s okay to talk. There’s one for meditation. There’s even a “food-is-okay” one.
  • There’s a way to verify carbon dioxide emission levels of different countries. It’s called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory. (Inez Fung, UC Berkeley). The levels of U.S. emissions are lower than those of China and Europe.
  • A lack of wild fish can have harmful impacts on us humans, including slavery and an increase in HIV. See the full story on my work blog, here. (Justin Brashares, UC Berkeley).