TEDxUCLA 2016: Push. Pull. Stretch.

An urban dweller’s guide to rewilding


About Erica

Dr. Erica Wohldmann is a scientist, a passionate environmentalist, and a lover of unfenced country. She earned a joint Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and cognitive science from the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 2006, and is currently an Associate Professor at California State University, Northridge where she teaches classes about the psychology of food choices, best practices in sustainability, ecopsychology, and positive psychology.


I grew up in Missouri, and my sisters and I went camping with our mom almost every weekend in the summers. When mom got tired of baiting our hooks, she’d set us free to roam the woods, totally unsupervised. We just had to be back for dinner.

We’d sift through rocks, looking for fossils, climb trees, make up games… we never got bored. If we fought — I mean, when we fought — we had to work it out. When we got hurt, we had to help each other.

What I didn’t know then was that Mom wasn’t just giving herself a break from us heathens, as she called us, which I now know means “one who inhabits uncultivated land” or “those who dwell in the wild.” She was also teaching us the secret to greater happiness and health.

I’m a cognitive psychologist and I wake up every day excited to try to figure out why we do the things we do. Recently I’d become fixated on questions about nature. Why does it feel so good to lay on the beach, to sit in the sand, or under the shade of a tree, or to stand barefoot in California native grass?

One reason is that we modern humans are not well adapted for the environments we’ve created. Biology doesn’t change as quickly as technology, and our fast-paced lives leads to stress and poor coping skills. Diet-related illnesses like heart disease and diabetes are among the leading causes of death. One in ten Americans aged 12 and over take anti-depressants. For women in their 40s and 50s, that number is one in four.

We are not the only ones suffering. We’re eating away at our life support system at an unprecedented rate, clearing and degrading land, polluting water, eliminating biodiversity, killing the microbes and fungi in the soil — the Earth’s microbiome — with agricultural chemicals and other toxins. Scientists are just now beginning to discover that life in the soil is as important to our survival as the heart that beats inside us.

To the Earth, we’re death by a thousand cuts.

These are topics that I teach about in my classes, and as you can imagine, class gets kind of heavy at times. Fortunately, I’m a pathological optimist. Even my blood type is B-positive. I believe we can change the course of our future, and that change starts with, as my mom would say, being a haven. To rediscovering our inner wild child.

Wild may not be comfortable for everyone. But rewilding can help us recognize the importance of caring for the natural land as an extension of ourselves. Nature fosters compassion and connection, and research supports this. Studies have shown that spending time outdoors increases our expressions of kindness and generosity. It also improves learning, memory, attention, creativity. and even reduces anxiety. In one study, participants who walked through a park for just 20 minutes reported significantly lower rates of stress and a more positive mood than those who walked through a city center for the same amount of time.

But it doesn’t just make us feel good. Nature literally heals us. When patients can look out at trees instead of other buildings from their hospital room window, they require fewer pain medications and post-operative recovery is faster. The science is clear. We are physically and mentally healthier and happier when we allow ourselves to experience nature.

So what does it mean to rewild? Well a couple of summers ago I tried to figure that out. I went off to live in the wild. I took a sabbatical and for six months I traveled in Butter — that’s my VW bus — through 16 states, living the life of a contemporary nomadic hunter and gatherer chasing the rain. I ate my way across America’s most beautiful and inspiring landscapes. I had only one rule: I would spend no money on food.

When I left the city I knew like a handful of edible plants and a few mushrooms, so I took a milk crate full of books. But I was kind of counting on some genetics which to turn on, you know, when I moved into the forest, like the “find food” gene? I mean after all, we evolved to find food. Our ancestors gave us color vision so that we could detect edible fruits and foliage and we’re born knowing how to find it, right?

Well unfortunately, finding food wasn’t a piece of cake. Until I discovered cake trees, acorns revolutionized my life. Our mighty oaks produce these fatty protein-rich nuts that can be turned into breads and pastries and then topped with fruit and berry compote, nature’s frosting.

I thought I was gonna have time to read books and write and maybe learn how to whittle, but most of my time was spent finding food. Day after day after day I scoured the forest floor and decayed tree stumps looking for ferocious fungi. I learned how to make flour out of nuts and seeds for pancakes. And I even learned how to brew beer on the campfire. Yeah, with a little skill, you can even forage booze in the wild.

I felt vulnerable sometimes. Like one night, when a wolf was pacing back and forth in the trees near my campsite, I could see its eyes in my flashlight. And I had some bear encounters, some close ones. But I wasn’t really scared so much as I was in awe.

In fact, I lived in a perpetual state of spontaneous joy, a mental state that psychologists like me call flow. We achieve flow when we’re completely absorbed in what we’re doing. But most of the time in regular life, we never have that chance because we’re always multitasking.

When I lived in the forest I had only one task: find food. Time felt expanded, even meaningless, just a spectrum of light and dark, dawn and dusk. In those six months I learned the meaning of oneness, that we are part of a living and breathing ecological network of mutuality.

Coming back to Los Angeles was shocking. I didn’t feel homeless. I had a home. I felt placeless. I knew that I needed to learn how to live as a forest-dweller in the urban wild. And this is my offering to you today: five lessons that I learned when I lived in the forest. I like to think of it as sort of a “how-to” guide to rewilding for us city slickers.

First, we were born loving the wild. American biologist E.O. Wilson coined the term for this, it’s biophilia, which means “love for life.” Unlike skin and eye color, biophilia is a genetic trait that’s not obvious from the outside. You can’t see it, you feel it. But we don’t give ourselves enough opportunities to feel it. The average American spends 90 percent of their lives indoors. Our children watch roughly 30 hours of television per week. That’s a full-time job.

Activities that isolate us from the natural world hinder our ability to express our genetic disposition to love it. We’ve forgotten our love for life, and the consequences that’s had on our health, and the health of this planet, are clear. The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s apathy. Thankfully, spending time outdoors reinforces our biophilia. It helps us remember it. And that means it’s never too late to fall back in love with life.

Second: plants make great BFFs. If I pass a friend on the street, I stop to say hello. I talk to dogs. I talk to birds, even bugs. So why not talk to plants? When I lived in the forest I would often ask, “Are you a friend or a foe?” It would have been way easier to learn how to ID plants and find food if they answered back. But what talking to plants did for me was make me more aware of my surroundings. Now I can’t even leave my house without seeing food or medicine growing in the sidewalk cracks or behind my house or on the freeway while I’m driving. Some people see billboards, I see elderberry trees. Plus, learning about the medicinal qualities of my plant friends has taught me how to care for my body. And when I’m in the wild, I never feel lonely. I always have my friends there. In fact, I feel really nurtured and supported, like mama’s got my back.

Third: the more you give, the more you get. Living in the forest deepened my appreciation and understanding of the relationship between giving and receiving. When I harvest a plant for food or medicine, I always make an offering in return. Maybe I dump a little water on the plant or I spread some of its seeds. I always say thank you. When I was harvesting salmonberries up in Bella Coola, Canada, with my indigenous Nuxalk friends, a 12-year-old girl taught me a new trick. She said, “Don’t forget to give back some of your hair.” She was taught the importance of giving back, in this case some of her own body, in exchange for the plant’s body.

We love giving. We have holidays devoted to giving. We give Christmas presents and birthday presents to our family and friends, even sweaters to our dogs. But what are we giving to the life that feeds us? To the microbes in the soil, and to the birds and the butterflies and the bees that make our peaches possible? What are we giving to them? Pesticides, herbicides, monocrops instead of diverse, nutrient-rich diets? Are we being stewards of the natural world, or merely consumers of the resources? It’s part of the cycle of life. I often wonder how long we think we can just keep taking.

Fourth: weeds, it’s what’s for dinner. Life is sacred. And eating has the power to remind us of that. I grew up fascinated with religion and spirituality, but eating a starchy bland wafer never left me feeling closer to God. Like many people, I go to church. But for me, church is the forest and I also take communion. Every time I harvest a plant and place it on my tongue, I’m literally uniting Earth body source with my body. And in a time when people are searching out for deeper connections, I say go foraging. Take communion with your BFF. Foraging offers us an opportunity to create ritual and ceremony in our daily lives. But wait, there’s more. Every time we take a walk, we stroll right past nutritious and delicious free food. Drought-tolerant weeds like mallow, amaranth, lamb’s quarter, dandelion. I want dandelion to be the new kale. You can eat the roots, the greens, the flowers, plus you get free wishes. And if your wish is to get more dandelions, it’s definitely coming true.

Finally, fifth: love getting dirty. When I lived in the forest, staying clean was a little tricky. I just got used to being dirty. I mean think ice cold splash bath. Right? Dirt gets a bad rap anyway. It’s arguably cleaner and healthier for us than the soaps and lotions that most of us are using. Some antibacterial products even contain endocrine disruptors or cause antibiotic resistance and contaminate our water. Dirt, on the other hand, is really good for us. It causes our brains to produce serotonin, it’s natural anti-depressants, plus early exposure to some of the microbes in the soil helps build stronger, more disease-resistant immune systems. So rub your hands in it, puts your feet in it, rub it on your face. Love getting dirty.

I promise that if you incorporate these five lessons into your life, you’ll be happier and healthier. What are you waiting for? Nature’s here.

If you need a dose of courage, there are people everywhere who can teach you about how to ID and use locally available plants for food and medicine. Or if you live in Los Angeles, come for a walk with me. It’s a little bit like exercise and grocery shopping and meditation all at the same time.

Plus, finding your inner wild child can help you fall back in love with life. And we protect what we love. Thank you. (applause)