All posts by Ed Brown

An Apple a Day Revisited

It was a completely unexpected outcome.  Researchers expected that patients would be more content.  They thought they might sleep better.  But nobody expected that redesigning a hospital room would cause people to ask for less pain medication.

The story was in the New York Times last week (In Redesigned Room, Hospital Patients May Feel Better Already –  University Medical Center of Princeton NJ needed a new hospital, and decided to try to design a new hospital room from the ground up.  After extensive interviews with patients, nursing staff and many others, the new room was created, tested and eventually incorporated in the new building.  People love it, staff love it: All the rooms are single patient, have large windows looking out, a couch for visitors, even (why didn’t they think of this a century ago???) a continuous handrail from bed to toilet.

The unsurprising surprise was that people in these new rooms get better faster:

But the real eye-opener was this: Patients also asked for 30 percent less pain medication. Reduced pain has a cascade effect, hastening recovery and rehabilitation, leading to shorter stays and diminishing not just costs but also the chances for accidents and infections.

There are probably many reasons for this result.  One is certainly the window.

This  will not surprise anyone who has read  Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv.  Louv’s thesis, backed up by extensive research that he cites throughout, is that we human beings are hard-wired to live in the natural world.  We are happier and healthier when we’re outside in God’s creation, but even when we can’t be outside in creation, we are better if we can just see it.

That’s not a surprise, is it?  I took some effort in my own book, When Heaven and Nature Sing, to show that our uniqueness as human beings comes in part from our special hybrid nature.  We are created by God to live in two worlds at the same time.  We’re spirit creatures (“a little lower than the heavenly beings”, Psalm 8:5) who live in the physical world.

We are not spirit beings who inhabit bodies. Nor are we bodies that have attained self-awareness as an extension of our brain’s organic cognitive functions. We are a spiritual/physical unity, ‘incarnate creatures’ (Tolkien’s term) or perhaps better, ‘embodied selves’. [When Heaven and Nature Sing (Kindle Locations 1109-1111)]

Hence the “apple a day” proverb of our title.  Our ancestors knew what we are fast forgetting.  Simple things from the world of nature – an apple a day – lead inevitably to health, to happiness, to rest.

The other important feature in the hospital room might well be the couch.  An accommodation for visitors and family members, with the expectation that they might even want to spend the night.  What a revolutionary idea.

I wonder if that fact that we need to invent things like couches in hospital rooms is simply an indication of how far we’ve moved from where we ought to be.  Wendell Berry has an entire essay on the topic of health that is worth your time to click over and read.  Here’s a taste of how he ties God, love, community and health into one impossible-to-untangle package:

I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world. summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.

I believe that health is wholeness. For many years I have returned again and again to the work of the English agriculturist Sir Albert Howard, who said, in The Soil and Health, that “the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal, and man [is] one great subject.”

…I believe that the community-in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures-is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms. [Berry, Health is Membership, 1994]

The significance of all of this should be obvious.  One of the reasons we have an “environmental crisis” is because we have deceived ourselves into thinking that we’re not like the other creatures.  That somehow, with our great intellects and amazing creative abilities we can transcend our creatureliness.  That we don’t need apples and that we can heal ourselves with machines and with chemicals.


We can’t.

We don’t have feet of clay – we have feet of flesh and bone.  We need to eat, we need to sleep, we need to be out in God’s world.  We need the joys and the frustrations of family and friends and community.  And when we’re sick we need that more than ever!

That’s why people who can be in a carefully designed hospital room and look out at God’s sky, God’s trees and God’s birds, holding the hand of someone they love need 30% less pain medication.

Now if we could get those patients to spend time outside in creation before their hospital visit, maybe we would have 30% less people going to the hospital in the first place.

That might be worth a try!

So next time you find yourself headed for the hospital, just say, “I’ll take a room with a window, please.”

In Praise Of Porches

World's longest porch (they claim) - Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island MI (Flickr CC License)

This is one of my favorite columns, even five years later.  And quite appropriate for this long holiday weekend. Enjoy! (Originally published July 24, 2009)


I ‘ve had several opportunities this summer to enjoy some quiet moments on porches.  Not too long ago, I sampled my brother – -in-law’s porch in Bethesda, Maryland, not far from Washington DC.  The day was just right – not too hot, not cold, not very humid.  The porch furniture was just right – lovely couches that allowed me to sit up or lie back,  tall glass of sweet-tea close to the elbow.  The surround-sound soundtrack gave me birds, lawnmowers, airplanes, and an occasional car wandering down the street on the outdoor channel, while the murmur of voices reminded me of family members busy at various tasks inside the house.  Light patterns shifted with alternating clouds and sun, punctuated by an occasional summer rain shower that left almost as soon as it came.

It was a perfect place and a perfect time for reading – and I made the most of it. Continue reading

Fire in the Engine Room! A Parable for Our Time

Most of us have long forgotten the Carnival Splendor debacle, almost four years ago, now.  I bet those passengers haven’t forgotten, though, and neither should we forget the powerful lesson from this incident.  (Published Nov 12, 2010)

The spectacular, ill-fated Carnival Splendor

The word “ordeal” was what caught my attention first.  It was a news story about the Carnival Splendor, one of the largest cruise ships in the world, disabled off the coast of California early this week.  Ordeal?  Amid all that luxury?  This must be journalistic overstatement.

Little by little, the details started to emerge as the ship was towed back to San Diego, then came a flood of reports yesterday after the ship reached port.  Smoky corridors.  Blocked up toilets.  Stench filled hallways.  Interior rooms with no light or ventilation.  And two hour waits to be served hot dog salad and Spam.  (It is a strange footnote to this entire episode that the only thing the cruise line has disputed is that Spam was served to the passengers.  What’s the big deal about Spam among all of the other hardships?  But I digress…) Continue reading

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood – but we missed it

Aldrin on the moon (NASA photo)
Aldrin on the moon (NASA photo)

First published on July 20, 2009, the anniversary of the first moon landing.  5 years since I wrote, 45 years now since the event, the lessons are still relevant, I think:

Today marks 40 years since Neil Armstrong and ‘Buzz’ Aldrin stepped out of the Eagle Lunar Lander and walked on the moon.  It was a day of history – many of those my age remember it well.  The event culminated a decade of technical effort and nationalistic fervor – the ‘space race’ was one important aspect of politics in the 1960′s, a period of time  remembered more for other events (wars and assassinations come to mind).

Politics and possibly misguided nationalism aside, there is no question that the achievement was real and historically significant.  ‘Unprecedented’ hardly covers it.  For the first time a human being had escaped the gravity and atmosphere of our home planet and set foot on solid ground ‘in space’.

What we did is clear enough.  But what did it mean?  What does it mean today? Continue reading

Old Literature – but surprisingly relevant

Our environmental problems aren’t quite as new as we sometimes think they are.  Here, some lessons from an old, old poem:  (Originally published Jan 7, 2009)

A good friend, who doesn’t think himself an intellectual but who in fact is one of the best-read people in my life, sent me two different pieces over the last couple of months, both of which qualify as being old, if not ancient.  But which both speak volumes to our present environmental predicament:

Today, a poem that is at least 150 years old:

God’s Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

“the grandeur of God”

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge |&| shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Continue reading

What’s in a calling?

Can you be “called” to environmental work?  It took me almost 10 years working in the creation care movement to discover a person who should have been one of my first heroes, Sigurd Olsen, and who was, he believed, “called” from missions to care for God’s creation.  Maybe he’s new to you, too?  [Originally published Feb 9, 2009]

I recently spent almost two weeks in the Library of Congress, discovering some new heros to add to my collection. One of the names that kept appearing was that of Sigurd Olson. Previously unknown to me (and I suspect to many others today), he was a genuine hero of the wilderness movement in the early 20th Century. Among his writings are Singing Wilderness and Listening Point, both written in the first half of the last century. Continue reading