A few years back, Stephanie Foo found herself burned out and anxious about the state of the world. So she decided to return to the one thing that always gave her peace: nature. But finding nature in New York City is … actually, not as hard as you think. In conversation with The Cut’s Jazmín Aguilera, Stephanie describes how becoming a park steward helped her ease her climate anxiety. Then she spends time with a horticultural therapist who uses gardening to heal.
To hear more about why you should really consider digging around in the dirt awhile, listen below, and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can also find the full transcript below.
So I have this friend Stephanie Foo who is also a California transplant. We met when we both worked at this show Snap Judgment in Oakland. Eventually, she moved to New York to work as a producer at This American Life, and I followed a couple years later to work at the New York Times. So when I’m feeling homesick and out of touch I call her up and we commiserate, but a lot of the time we’re just petty …
Jazmín: I think you were the first person I texted when I first moved to New York and I went grocery shopping and they gave me like 15 plastic bags for maybe four items. I was just like, this is ridiculous.
Stephanie: Yeah seriously it’s one of my biggest pet peeves. They use so many plastic bags and I’m like, “I don’t need a bag for my Coke, dude!”
It’s not always petty… and sometimes we do talk about the bigger things that bother us: the culture divide, and the New York City hustle mentality that started out so exciting but quickly ground us down.
Stephanie: So we actually worked in the same office in Oakland. And I always felt like I was the hardest worker there.
Jazmín: You were.
Stephanie: Thank you. And then I moved to New York and I was like, Oh no, literally everyone here is also staying until 10:00 PM every night.
Jazmín: Yeah. It’s a whole culture here. You could stand out with that stuff in California, but here it’s the standard.
Stephanie: And then you feel pressure to work even harder, because you see everybody else do it.
Jazmín: Yeah. Because, how could you be the Hermione of the group if everybody else is doing it at the same time.
Stephanie: All of a sudden you’re Ron?!
We both worked a lot in CA. But at least there we could relax a little bit. You know, recharge sometimes.
Jazmín: Where were your favorite places to recharge?
Stephanie: I mean, obviously the Redwood Forest. My favorite-favorite is the drive down the 1 between San Francisco and Santa Cruz, all down the coast where there are these incredible bluffs and the ocean is beating up against these cliffs full of succulents. And I also love to go to my friend’s parents’ house in Santa Cruz, which is full of citrus and avocado orchards. What about you?
Jazmín: I grew up in Santa Cruz, so it’s always going to be the beach hands down. Start to finish, just a walk along the cliffs of the beach is the way to go for me. It’s a way of life. I dunno. There’s just something really calming about it.
Jazmín: Not to be a California exceptionalist, but when I talk to East Coast people and they tell me about going to see nature, they’re always talking about Vermont or upstate, places I have to go to. You have to get in the car to get to it.
Jazmín: But in California I can just look out my window.
Stephanie: It was just there.
Jazmín: It’s everywhere. It’s part of life. It’s not as compartmentalized.
Stephanie: I didn’t realize it until I left, but I felt like nature was this grounding force that always reminded me of who I was and what was important. And not having that was a huge problem for me. From the moment I moved to New York, the separation from nature, first of all, made me super depressed. I couldn’t see any nature, just a small patch of sky in between skyscrapers. And so I just kind of made my peace with that. And instead spent all my time grinding in this miserable little windowless office.
Jazmín: I remember that office.
Stephanie: Yeah it was not cute, right?
Jazmín: Yeah. It was a little depressing. I’m not going to lie. It was a little depressing.
Stephanie: And that had its consequences, because in 2018, after two years of reporting on the Trump news cycle, all of that came to a head and I had a nervous breakdown. Part of that was because I had lost all hope for the future. Global warming, racism, all of it. I just felt totally helpless. And I started crying everyday on my way to work, because I felt like I didn’t know how to mourn so much destruction and loss and sadness, and I was completely burned out. And I hadjust been diagnosed with complex PTSD.
Jazmín: Yeah, let’s just throw that on top right there.
Stephanie: It was a horrible time. It was a fucking lot. And so I kind of lost my mind and I quit my job.
Jazmín: It’s not a good place to be.
Jazmín: But you did find some way out of that, didn’t you?
Stephanie: Yeah. I wanted to get back to nature, to my original form of grounding in therapy. But I couldn’t just move back to California, because I married a New Yorker. [In a New York accent] I’m part of a New York family now. It’s a whole thing.
And so I realized I needed to connect with the sparse nature in New York in any way that I could. Even if it was crappy and small, I needed to somehow have some sort of relationship with it.
Jazmín: I can just picture you around one of those little tree beds on the sidewalk, just sitting there looking.
Stephanie: You’re not that far off. I mean, that is pretty much exactly. I was FunEmployed and so I started just walking around Bed Stuy and I would be looking at these little tree beds and in cracks between the sidewalk and just looking at little weeds and flowers poking up. Just focusing on them. And I got this plant identification app called Picture This, and I started finding out the names of everything.
Jazmín: Can I stop you here really quick? Not to be an asshole, but like, why? Why did you want to know the names of these? Like what, what did it do for you to know what these things were called?
Stephanie: When you actually get to know the names of things, they become more of actual individuals within a community because you’ve invested in it. You could just be like, That’s my old neighbor with the curly hair, or you could be like, That’s Jake. And once it becomes Jake, it’s humanized, it’s deeper. It’s more emotional. You have this connection to it. It really made me feel like we were more of a community that I wasn’t separate from these plants that I loved.
Stephanie: I realized that historically so many of these plans that I was seeing have been what have healed generations of humans. We have relied on them. They are helpful to us. In spring in Prospect Park, for example, everywhere you look you can see wild garlic. It’s everywhere and it’s delicious.
Jazmín: So I could just pull it out of the ground and then put it in a pot and just grow my own garlic, like right now, just chilling.
Stephanie: Yeah. I mean it’s more wild. Garlic is more like chives, but yeah. I would just yank it all up and chop it all up and put it in an omelet or a stir fry or whatever. Every spring, I do this now. And it’s one of the first things that comes up. Everything’s all miserable in February or March. You’re tired of the winter, it’s lasted forever. All of a sudden, you can just yank up something that’s really green and fresh and vibrant and pungent. And it kind of makes things a little bit better.
So around this time I started reading this incredible book by the Native American botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer called Braiding Sweetgrass. And she writes a lot about reciprocity. And I realized that it wasn’t just enough for me to take — like I was taking blackberries and mushrooms and I wasn’t giving anything back. It was just consuming.
Stephanie: And she wrote, “We have to put our hands in the earth to make ourselves whole again, a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, and gives us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.” And so I was like, Yeah, all right, I’m going to return the gift.
I decided I wanted to thank the earth by doing more weeding. I started reading about invasive plants in New York and New York is just absolutely besieged by invasive plants. I mean, it’s a city of immigrants, and all of us immigrants, we all brought our own crap along with us that is killing the native plants here. So that’s what any good neighbor would do. You make a mess in the in your shared backyard or whatever, clean it up.
Jazmín: So you just walked into the park and started pulling shit out of the ground?
Jazmín: And no one stopped you. For some reason I have this idea that you can’t fuck with parks. They have to be maintained by officials.
Stephanie: I mean, yeah. Some like random, old, Asian ladies doing their morning walks would come up to me and be like, “what are you doing?” And I was like, “I’m not sure.” I tried to pull English Ivy off of some trees, and I knew that English Ivy could actually kill trees. So I started pulling it down with my bare hands, not knowing that it’s covered in these irritating oils. And I got a rash on my hands.
Jazmín: Oh no.
Stephanie: And then I just realized, like, I think I need a nature sensei to help me with this. So I got in touch with the Forest Park Trust, and I just asked them, “Can you guys teach me how to help you?” And they introduced me to the Super Steward Program, which is this New York City Parks Department program that basically trains people to save our city’s youngest and most vulnerable trees, so everything from street trees to trees in the parks and forests and wetlands. And they gave me all of this botany training, and they gave me this little certificate where I can work in the city under an official capacity and nobody can bother me.
Jazmín: Certified steward!
Stephanie: Certified steward. exactly.
Stephanie: So when I was paired up with my first gardener sensei Irena, she gave me some pretty back-breaking work to do right off the bat, which was pulling up Porcelain Berry, which is this brutal invasive vine that pulls down and kills young trees. And it is a huge-ass pain to get the roots out of the ground for this goddamn plant. So I was getting disgustingly sweaty just trying to heave it up out of the ground. But also I made this giant pile of it, and I felt really good about myself saving all these little baby trees. I was like, There you go. A little baby tree. You’re welcome. I saved your life.
Jazmín: There’s something very satisfying about working really hard in dirt.
Jazmín: Did you ever do science camp?
Stephanie: Of course. I Did “banana slug!” I don’t know if you guys sang that song, but we did.
Jazmín: One of my first stories in science camp was we were walking with all the girls in my cabin and they were getting really weirded out about getting dirty. And the camp counselor got very frustrated with that. And he’s like, “This is the cleanest earth that you will ever find.” And to make a point, he forced all of us to put a little bit of dirt somewhere on our body. So I cupped my hands and picked up the biggest scoop of dirt-mud that I could possibly find. And I splashed it on my face as if I was washing my face with mud.
Stephanie: Hmm, of course you did. That is so you, that is like 1000% you.
Jazmín: It absolutely is. I want that for adults, you know?
Stephanie: Super Steward Training is fully science camp for adults in New York city. That’s what it is, like 3 hours of science camp.
Jazmín: That’s how they need to rebrand.
Stephanie: Honestly, Super Steward is not the greatest name. I think that they could do a lot better with that,
Jazmín: What would you call it?
Stephanie: Like “Plant Heroes” or something. “Plant Friends”
Jazmín: Plant Moms and Dads.
Jazmín: Plant Parenthood. Oh my God.
Both: PLANT PARENTHOOD!
Stephanie: I love it. Oh my God. Yes.
Jazmín: That’s it. Ship it.
Jazmín: Ok so, again, not to be an asshole, but you were basically pulling weeds.
Jazmín: But you had this transformation of soul. So what’s the juice there?
Stephanie: One thing I was really surprised by was falling in love with New York all over again. I really achieved the goal that I set out to, which was loving New York as a home rather than just a place I was living.
One thing that was actually really shocking was going back to California and not knowing the plants there nearly as well now as I know the plants in New York and feeling like, Oh my God, I miss, you know…
Jazmín: You miss New York!
Stephanie: I missed my plants. And I felt like I really bonded and… I know this will sound crazy to most New Yorkers, but I really feel like I have a relationship with a lot of those plants now. I feel like they rely on me, and these trees are going to outlive me. Like I’m building a legacy for the future. It feels good!
Jazmín: You started this whole thing because of this tension and this disconnection from New York and this anxiety about climate change and just the world at large. Why does such a micro-scale thing make you feel better? You must know on some level that this is a grain of sand.
Stephanie: I guess it is a drop, but it feels significant to me. Because each tree in New York City is really significant actually. I can see the impact that I have when you’re out there and you can see the trees that you’ve supported growing. One London Plane tree near me, it intercepts 6,100 gallons of stormwater, which keeps things from flooding, and it removes four pounds of pollutants and 10,500 tons of carbon dioxide from the air each year.
So the trees that we save are significant in terms of keeping the air that we breathe clean, and in keeping our ecosystem balanced. If a thousand other people in New York city were doing what I was doing there would be real significant change.
Jazmín: It sounds like you’ve been able to find some measure of peace doing this stuff. And I yearn for that. I haven’t been able to find that here.
Stephanie: What’s been stopping you though. Why haven’t you gone into nature here?
Jazmín: I don’t know. I guess you have to make time to go into that. And that’s just not something that I think about actively like that. When it’s not in front of your face, you don’t really think about it until you realize that you’re craving something. It’s like a phantom limb or something.
Stephanie: Yeah exactly. There’s such a culture here of hustle, and when you’re done hustling, just party. Hustle, party, hustle, party,
Jazmín: Work hard, play hard.
Stephanie: Maybe make some time to eat something.
Stephanie: In New York, you have to make a real intention and decision to go to a green space and engage with it. Right? It’s hard.
Stephanie: And a lot of time you do have to realign your life in order to make space for that. I completely sympathize with you. It’s not easy to do. So I’m kind of useless between the hours of nine and 11 anyway, like even when I went to the office, I never really did much during those hours anyway. So really early in the morning, like eight in the morning, I’ll go out there and I’ll take some vines off of trees for a couple of hours before I start work.
Jazmín: That actually sounds really nice, because you know how they say you should work out before you do anything else with your day, because you’ll feel charged, energetic? I wonder if that’s the same. You go out there, you spend some time in nature, you break a sweat, or not, you just spend some time there and then you’re grounded.
Jazmín: Turn your brain off, put your hands in the soil, and then your brain will be relaxed enough that when you get back, you can actually do better work.
Stephanie: Right or not even think about it in relation to work at all.
Jazmín: Yeah. That’s better. I mean, yeah.
Stephanie: Yeah. It’s a good way to start your day off right.
Jazmín: I wonder if that means that maybe I should just go with you. Should I just go to Prospect Park and pull some weeds with you?
Stephanie: Oh, absolutely. You should come with me. I’ve been thinking of getting a whole crew together, or going out and inviting people to do it with me every weekend.
Jazmín: I just look over at you and I wonder like if this is the better way of being, if this is what’s going to save everyone’s mental health, you know?
Stephanie: I want to be like, “Oh no, there’s many different ways to live a life,” but I also want to be like full propaganda mode “Yes it is.”
Stephanie: So am I convincing you to come out with me one day
Jazmín: I would really love to do that.
I didn’t end up going. But I have a good reason! I got COVID. Don’t worry about me, I’m okay. Instead Stephanie found someone to talk to about nature that’s a million times better than me. That’s after the break
Stephanie: So, I’m not the only person who found nature to be great for my mental health. This is far from a new idea. In fact, I learned that there’s an actual job that helps people find solace in nature. This is Maggie Riche, and she’s a horticultural therapist. A big part of her job is reducing stress in her clients by teaching them to garden. And she says in some ways the dirt itself does a lot of that work for her.
Maggie Riche: There’s a bacteria in the soil that when you work with it and you breathe it in it actually positively affects your mental state. Similar to Prozac, it’s been compared to. Mycobacterium vaccae.
Stephanie: From eating it? From smelling it?
Maggie: Just from smelling it.
Stephanie: Maggie also told me about a bunch of studies that have shown that going into nature reduces cortisol levels, heart rates, blood pressure. People heal faster when they have a picture of the outdoors in their hospital rooms.
So, easiest job ever, right?
You’d think so, until you keep in mind the populations Maggie works with. She’s worked at a school for at-risk kids struggling to graduate. She’s worked at Rikers Island, a jail so infamously violent that New York City is closing it. And now, Maggie works at Mercy Home, which provides services for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
Historically, institutions for people with developmental disabilities have not been very joyful places…not that different from prisons, actually. One of the most inhumane things about these institutions’ designs was that they were often built far away from urban areas. The reasoning was that fresh air would be good for residents, but instead, residents just became isolated from their communities. And this separation also stigmatized people with developmental disabilities, made them seem freakish, or shameful — separate from society, and as eugenicists said, even a burden to it. These belief systems justified horrible practices, like sterilizing thousands of residents without their consent.
Some of those stereotypes and stigmas have stuck around, even if treatments have now improved. In contrast, today, Mercy Home exists in 12 warm houses all across Brooklyn and Queens. I went to one home in South Brooklyn to talk to an avid gardener who, for the sake of this piece, wants to be called Angel.
Angel is 31, has long braids, trendy glasses, and an omnipresent smile. She lives in a little two-story on a quiet block that looks no different than the houses around it. She lives with three other women with developmental and intellectual disabilities. There’s a sweet photo in the entryway with all four of them wearing matching brown sweaters. Two around-the-clock caretakers help them out. Angel’s lived here for three years, and loves to grow vegetables with Maggie.
Before she came here, Angel lived with her mother, who helped care for her because Angel had a really hard time completing simple tasks.
Angel: I was frustrated all the time.
Angel: She used to be like, “You should clean your room.” I’m like, “man, it’s hard for me.” And she said, “no, try.” When she goes to work I try. I try. I will get frustrated. And I would throw my clothes down like I can’t do it. I’m just done. She comes home, sees everything thrown around. She’s like, “Why is everything thrown?” I’m like, “Because I can’t do it. And the frustration is getting me mad.” And it gets me emotional sometimes. Because when I used to live with my mom, I used to depend on her too much and I still do. I feel like I still want to do that. But it’s not going to work. It’s not going to.
Stephanie: So Angel moved here, where she gets full-time assistance — but she is encouraged to learn to do more things on her own. Learning to put a fitted sheet on by herself was a big step for her. Learning to clean her room. And also, learning to garden with Maggie.
Angel: When I first met Maggie, when I saw her do the garden, I said, “this is really going to be hard. It’s going to be hard planting and going to be hard shoveling.” And we had to do everything and she was like, “Just put your mind to it. you can do it.”
Stephanie: Maggie taught her to weed and plant. They grew peas, scotch bonnets, tomatoes, basil.
Angel :And I did it. And from this day on, every time she comes here, I come out here and I help her do a LOT. Because when I try, I master things that I could never do before. It changed me as a person. I feel capable and more mature, like I could do things kind of on my own instead of depending on other people and my mom. For example, if I get my own apartment or my own house, I could know how to garden by myself and I could learn how to plant, I could learn how to harvest.
Stephanie: Is that your dream?
Angel: Yes, it is. It really is, but it takes baby steps. Everybody told me that it takes baby steps.
Stephanie: And it seems like you’ve made a lot of progress.
Angel: Yes, I did. I’m proud of myself that I made a lot of progress.
Stephanie: As I talk to her on the patio, Angel is surrounded by food that she’s grown: juicy eggplant, kale, herbs. But the garden is still pretty bare, because they just completed a big harvest. They took bags of enormous squash and donated it to a food bank and a center for children.
Angel: They were like, “Thank you. I appreciate it, because I don’t have that much food in the house.” I was like, “any time.”
Stephanie: I talked to a couple of residents about what it was like to donate food, and even people like Jay, who is not that talkative most of the time… I could tell he got really proud when I brought it up.
Jay: It was wonderful, was great.
Stephanie: you are feeding hungry people.
Jay: Yes I am, yep.
Stephanie: that’s pretty powerful pretty great
Jay: Yes yes it is. Yes.
Stephanie: I think being appreciative of the flowers and trees is just half of the joy that nature holds. The other half is being able to share it.
Maggie: HEY HOW IS EVERYONE TODAY? Feeling good? Yes it’s hot.
Stephanie: This is Maggie giving a group of Mercy Home residents a tour of a local garden. And then she pauses….
Maggie: I would like it if everyone could be quiet and just listen. What do we hear? Birds. Cicada.
Stephanie:: I feel like there’s this idea that in order to let nature heal you, you have to go out into the wild on your own and find yourself, like some idealized vision quest. But at the places where Maggie works, plants actually bring people out of their loneliness and into community. Which after this pandemic sounds pretty good right about now.
Jazmín: Now this is the deal-breaker question. Now that you understand and feel more connected to New York nature, do you think it’s better than California nature?
Stephanie: Personally? No, California is the best.
Jazmín: Yup. Yup. California supremacy, California Uber Alles.
Stephanie Foo is a writer and radio producer. You can find her article “How I Curbed my Climate Anxiety” on Curbed.com. Her book, What My Bones Know, is a memoir about healing from Complex PTSD. It comes out in February.