Just being outside is healthy! Scientists Discover a Major Lasting Benefit of Growing Up Outside the City: The childhood experience of green space can actually predict mental health in later life

Using data from 3,585 people collected across four cities in Europe, scientists from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (also called IS Global) report a strong relationship between growing up away from the natural world and mental health in adulthood. Overall, they found a strong correlation between low exposure to nature during childhood and higher levels of of nervousness and feelings of depression in adulthood. Many studies have noted nature’s ability to reduce rumination, a risk factor for mental illness. Spending time in nature, Zijlema says, has been linked with increased self-esteem, quality of life, and physical activity as well as lower body mass index. In this sense, nature itself is beneficial.

Inverse by Emma Betuel, 2019 https://getpocket.com/explore/item/scientists-discover-a-major-lasting-benefit-of-growing-up-outside-the-city


Photo by The-Tor / Getty Images.

The escape of a trip into mountains or a day lying by the beach may feel like an extravagance to city dwellers confined by a traditional work schedule. But exposure to green and blue spaces is far more than just a luxury. For kids, growing up without regular exposure to nature seems to have ripple effects that persist into adulthood, according to research published in International Journal of Environmental Health and Public Health.

Using data from 3,585 people collected across four cities in Europe, scientists from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (also called IS Global) report a strong relationship between growing up away from the natural world and mental health in adulthood. Overall, they found a strong correlation between low exposure to nature during childhood and higher levels of of nervousness and feelings of depression in adulthood. Co-author Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, Ph.D., director of IS Global’s urban planning, environment and health initiative, tells Inverse that the relationship between nature and mental health remained strong, even when he adjusted for confounding factors.

“What we found is that the childhood experience of green space can actually predict mental health in later life,” Nieuwenhuijsen says. “The people that reported more exposure to nature actually have better mental health than those that don’t even after we adjust for exposure at the time of the interview, when they are adults.”

Across people in Barcelona, Spain; Doetinchem, the Netherlands; Kaunas, Lithuania; and Stoke-on-Trent in the UK, the pattern held up, suggesting a deep relationship between nature and mental health that we’re only beginning to understand.

Why is Exposure to Nature So Good for Kids (and Adults)?

Though this study doesn’t show a causative relationship between nature exposure and adult mental health exist, but first author Wilma Zijlema, Ph.D., explains two ways of interpreting the results in the context of other research in the field.

For one thing, many studies have noted nature’s ability to reduce rumination, a risk factor for mental illness. Spending time in nature, Zijlema says, has been linked with increased self-esteem, quality of life, and physical activity as well as lower body mass index. In this sense, nature itself is beneficial.

These findings fold into the “biophilia hypothesis” — the idea that humans intrinsically seek out connections with nature, including exposure to green spaces. An offshoot of this idea is that nature promotes certain developmental changes in the brain, particularly in children, that may not happen when we’re removed from it.

Nieuwenhuijsen presented some evidence for this in a 2018 study showing that exposure to green space correlated with structural changes in the brain and greater working memory in 258 schoolchildren in Spain.

“This is just kind of a hypothesis,” Nieuwenhuijsen explains. “I think the reason for it is, in general, our brains are still wired for when we were still living in the savannahs and jungles with a lot of nature around us. It’s only the last few hundred years that we have moved into cities. Our brains are not really adjusted to that. It creates a kind of stress, and in particular, there’s a lot of brain development happening at young ages.”

The second way to interpret the results, says Nieuwenhuijsen, is to consider not the benefits of nature exposure but the disadvantages of being away from it. Polluted cities, in particular, seem to extract additional tolls on health and may actually impact cognitive development in children. Air pollution has been linked with delays in cognitive development in kids as well as psychosis in adults.

These negative aspects of being removed from nature highlight the “indirect” way that growing up in a city could have lasting effects. In other words, the way we’ve designed our cities is inherently harmful.

“There are also indirect benefits for cognitive development of children, including the mitigation of traffic-related air pollution, reduction of noise, and increased levels of physical activity,” Zijlema says. “We think that through these pathways nature exposure during childhood could lead to benefits that prolong into adulthood.”

How Much Nature Do We Really Need?

Most Americans live either in cities or suburbs. According to a 2018 report from the Pew Research Center, 55 percent of Americans lived in suburban counties and 31 percent lived in urban ones in 2016.

Much as they might like to, most of these people can’t spend the majority of their days working from a log cabin in the mountains. But in order to protect themselves against potential mental health issues, says Zijlema, the more regular exposure to nature they can get, the better.

“We cannot really say how much exposure exactly there should be,” she says. “Children that have poor residential access to nature could certainly benefit from field trips in nature, but it would probably be better if there’s regular exposure at home and school.”

Regular exposure to nature could be a byproduct of living outside of the urban environment — say, in a suburb with easy access to a national park or a beach. But in the long term, a more comprehensive way to combat this issue would require re-evaluating the way we design the places where we spend most of our days. There’s something to be said for walking through a park on the way to school, or dipping our your toes in a pond at the end of the day.

“We hope that city mayors, urban planners, and architects realize how important urban nature is,” says Zijlema, “and that they will ensure that nature is accessible for all children so that they can grow up in a healthy environment that can have long-term benefits for their health.”

Abstract: Exposure to natural outdoor environments (NOE) is associated with health benefits; however, evidence on the impact of NOE exposure during childhood on mental health (MH) and vitality in adulthood is scarce. This study was based on questionnaire data collected from 3585 participants, aged 18–75, in the PHENOTYPE project (2013) in four European cities. Mixed models were used to investigate associations between childhood NOE exposure and (i) MH; (ii) vitality (perceived level of energy and fatigue); and (iii) potential mediation by perceived amount, use, satisfaction, importance of NOE, and residential surrounding greenness, using pooled and city-level data. Adults with low levels of childhood NOE exposure had, when compared to adults with high levels of childhood NOE exposure, significantly worse mental health (coef. −4.13; 95% CI −5.52, −2.74). Childhood NOE exposure was not associated with vitality. Low levels of childhood NOE exposure were associated with lower importance of NOE (OR 0.81; 95% CI 0.66, 0.98) in adulthood. The association with perceived amount of NOE differed between cities. We found no evidence for mediation. Childhood NOE exposure might be associated with mental well-being in adulthood. Further studies are needed to confirm these findings and to identify mechanisms underlying long-term benefits of childhood NOE exposure.

Emma Betuel is a writer based in NYC. Previously, she covered health and biology for WBUR’s Commonhealth blog and The Borgen Project Magazine. 

Pollution: Air From Polluted Highways May Impact Brain Even Before Birth

Volume 90%EMMA BETUEL4.10.2019 6:23 AM

The turbid air of city life already takes its toll on happiness and has been linked to psychological illnesses. But the pollution that lingers in the city isn’t stagnant in urban areas: It snakes out into the suburbs along car-studded highways. There, write scientists in an Environmental Research study released Tuesday, its impacts on kids begin even before birth.






This study deals with a type of air pollution known as PM2.5, which are particles 2.5 microns across (a human hair is about 40 microns across) as well as ozone. In previous research, PM2.5 and ozone have already been linked to decreased lung function and aggressive asthma. The new research links it to delays in cognitive development — specifically in kids who live within spitting distance of New York State’s highways.

Lead author and University of California, Merced epidemiologist Sandie Ha, Ph.D., reports that children raised within 50 and 500 meters of major highways where both pollutants were present were twice as likely to fail at cognitive communication tasks than those who lived 1,000 meters away or more, even after adjusting for socioeconomic factors. Some of those effects of air pollution on kids may even begin before they’re born.

“We thought: These findings are curious,” Ha tells Inverse. “The study took place in an area with low to moderate air pollution level, and we still observed some adverse effects. Thus, studies in area with higher levels of air pollution may be warranted.”

Kids who grew up closer to major highways were more likely to fail cognitive development tests Pixabay 


Ha found this effect by examining questionnaire responses from the Ages and Stages Survey, which asks parents to answer specific questions about their child’s behavior that indicates whether they’ve reached certain age-appropriate levels of communication, motor skills, and problem solving, and from this data it produces a score. Results that are two standard deviations below the average for children in their age group are considered failing marks.

Ha and her colleagues looked at the survey scores from 4,809 kids between 8 and 36 months old in each area, then estimated the PM2.5 and ozone exposure near each child’s home, based on local environmental data They also estimated how much air pollution their mothers were exposed to while they were pregnant. That comparison showed that higher exposure to both ozone and PM2.5 is linked to different effects on cognitive development.

During pregnancy, every every 10-microgram increase in PM2.5 during trimesters one and three increased a child’s risk of failing to achieve age-appropriate scores in any domain between 1.6 and 2.7 percent. After birth, continued exposure was only strongly associated with failing the communications exams, but the kids who lived closer to highways were twice as likely to do so compared to those further away.

Ozone also had pre-birth effects, but the most dramatic effects of ozone exposure seemed to occur after birth. At only 8 months old, kids were 3.3 percent more likely to fail any developmental test for every 10 parts per billion (ppb) increase in ozone exposure. By 24 months, the effects were more dramatic: They were 17.7 percent more likely to fail for each small increase in ozone.


Ha cautions that her results can’t show cause and effect, and the study doesn’t explain why pre-birth effects from air pollution exist. But her results hint at the idea that air pollution exposure wreaks havoc during certain windows of development that can have lasting consequences as kids get older. However, it’s still unclear why.

Ha says earlier studies provide a clue. Air pollution has been linked to inflammation, which can impact brain function during childhood.

“Our study didn’t focus on mechanisms linking air pollution to child development, but the findings are consistent with other studies,” adds Ha. “Research has shown that air pollution exposure can induce oxidative stress and inflammatory mechanisms that can eventually have adverse effects on the brain as well as other organs.”

It remains unclear whether the biggest risk factor is actually the air pollution itself, or another side effect from life near a highway: incessant noise, which has been proposed by other scientists studying air pollution’s effects on cognition. And as Ha suggests, the levels of air pollution that these children were exposed to were actually pretty low — they grew up in upstate New York, far from LA or New York City, where levels of air pollution are even higher. There may be a far more complicated reason why life along the highway seems to take such a high toll.


Background: Residential proximity to major roadways, and prenatal exposures to particulate matter <2.5 μm (PM2.5) and ozone (O3) are linked to poor fetal outcomes but their relationship with childhood development is unclear.

Objectives: We investigated whether proximity to major roadways, or prenatal and early-life exposures to PM2.5 and O3 increase the risk of early developmental delays.

Study design: Prospective cohort.

Settings: New York State excluding New York City.

Participants: 4089 singletons and 1016 twins born between 2008 and 2010.

Exposures: Proximity to major roadway was calculated using road network data from the NY Department of Transportation. Concentrations of PM2.5 and O3 estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency Downscaler models were spatiotemporally linked to each child’s prenatal and early-life addresses incorporating residential history, and locations of maternal work and day-care.

Outcomes: Parents reported their children’s development at ages 8, 12, 18, 24, 30 and 36 months in five domains using the Ages and Stages Questionnaire. Generalized mixed models estimated the relative risk (RR) and 95% CI for failing any developmental domain per 10 units increase in PM2.5 and O3, and for those living <1000 m away from a major roadway compared to those living further. Models adjusted for potential confounders.

Results: Compared to those >1000 m away from a major roadway, those resided 50–100 m [RR: 2.12 (1.00–4.52)] and 100–500 m [RR: 2.07 (1.02–4.22)] away had twice the risk of failing the communication domain. Prenatal exposures to both PM2.5 and ozone during various pregnancy windows had weak but significant associations with failing any developmental domain with effects ranging from 1.6% to 2.7% for a 10 μg/m3 increase in PM2.5 and 0.7%–1.7% for a 10 ppb increase in ozone. Average daily postnatal ozone exposure was positively associated with failing the overall screening by 8 months [3.3% (1.1%–5.5%)], 12 months [17.7% (10.4%–25.5%)], and 30 months [7.6%, (1.3%–14.3%)]. Findings were mixed for postnatal PM2.5 exposures.

Conclusions: In this prospective cohort study, proximity to major roadway and prenatal/early-life exposures to PM2.5 and O3 were associated with developmental delays. While awaiting larger studies with personal air pollution assessment, efforts to minimize air pollution exposures during critical developmental windows may be warranted.


Tree of Dreams

A Colorado author’s “dream trip” to the Amazon rain forest inspired “Tree of Dreams.” For Laura Resau, seeing the landscape and learning about the culture of indigenous people led to plans for artistic collaboration — including one that soon will come to fruition, Aug 15, 2020

Laura Resau is the award-winning author of nine highly acclaimed young adult and children’s novels, including “The Lightning Queen (Scholastic), “What the Moon Saw,” “Red Glass,” and the Notebooks series (Delacorte/Random House). Her new novel, “Tree of Dreams,” was praised as “a moving exploration of friendship, activism, and how chocolate makes everything better” in a starred review from Kirkus.

Resau lives with her husband, son, and beagle in Fort Collins, Colorado. She donates a portion of her royalties to Indigenous rights organizations in Latin America.

The following is an interview with Laura Resau.


Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

What inspired you to write this book?

The short answer? My love for chocolate and trees!

The not-so-short answer? Most of the story is set in a Huaorani (Waorani) community in the Ecuadorian Amazon. I’d already set two books in the Andes of Ecuador, where I’d taken several trips to spend time with Indigenous Kichwa friends and learn about their culture. I was curious to learn more about Indigenous Amazonian communities in the eastern part of the country, so I traveled there to explore possibilities. 

This trip was a dream come true. For decades, I’d been interested in Indigenous people’s rights and their leadership roles in nature conservation. This was one of my areas of focus for my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in cultural anthropology. I was thrilled to finally have the opportunity to spend time in an Indigenous community in the Amazon. 

Laura Resau

My time there gave me a visceral understanding of the threats Indigenous people in the Ecuadorian rain forest are facing. Both their culture and sacred forest are in immediate danger from oil operations, logging, and mineral extraction. But along with dismay, I felt inspired by the brave Indigenous women, children, and men who are joining forces to protect their rain forest— the lungs of our Earth. 

And then there’s the chocolate! I’m lucky to have one of the world’s best bean-to-bar chocolate shops just a few blocks from my home in Fort Collins. I fell under Nuance Chocolate’s spell when they opened, and became utterly enchanted by the process of making craft chocolate. I learned that the origin of cacao was the Amazon rain forest, and that some of the finest, ethically sourced beans come from that region. 

My experiences with chocolate and the rain forest made me think of all the ways we are interconnected with people and nature around the world. This sense of global interconnection was the ultimate inspiration for “Tree of Dreams.”

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole and why did you select it?

This excerpt is from the chapter when 13-year-old chocolate-maker, Coco, and her companions arrive in the remote Amazon rain forest. A month earlier— back in Heartbeat Springs, Colorado— she and her former best friend, Leo, won a prize trip to a cacao co-op in the Ecuadorian rain forest. Accompanying them now are their mothers, Mara and Nieves, as well as Gali— a mysterious, grandfatherly figure who was supposed to plan the itinerary . . . but has proven a bit inept. 

So that’s how they find themselves on their own, deep in the rain forest. Coco has her own secret motivation for this trip— a recurring dream about a mystical ceiba (kapok) tree that promises a treasure within its roots. She’s determined to find the treasure and use it to save her family’s chocolate shop from closing. At the end of this excerpt, we first meet Isa, who will later become Coco’s friend and make her question her true purpose for coming to the Amazon.

Tell us about creating this book: any research and travel you might have done, any other influences on which you drew?

The research was mind-blowing! On the chocolate side of things, I had an excuse to eat a wide variety of exquisite craft chocolate as often as needed for “research.” I toured Nuance chocolate factory, interviewed the generous owners, indulged in many chocolate tastings, visited a sustainable cacao farm, and generally surrounded myself with all things chocolate as I wrote the book. (Did you know that chocolate releases neurotransmitters that make you feel smart, clear-headed, and happy? Chocolate was my go-to solution for any bits of writer’s block . . . and as a result, the writing process for this book was remarkably pleasant.)

“Tree of Dreams” by Laura Resau

On the Amazon rain forest side of things, I took a four-seater plane deep into the remote Amazon rain forest, where I was greeted by families in a Huaorani community who ran their own off-grid ecolodge. We rode downstream in a dugout canoe to the hut where I stayed, right on the stunning Shiripuno River. 

My Huaorani guide, Pegonka, shared his knowledge and skills with me as we walked and canoed through the lush rain forest. (Fortunately, we’re both fluent in Spanish.) He brought me to a sacred ceiba tree and told me stories about the mother ceiba who had fallen many years ago— her trunk became the Amazon river and her branches, its tributaries. 

He explained that he and his community tell each other their dreams every morning so that their dreams can guide them. He told me that when someone dies, their spirit becomes a wild feline— and the most powerful shaman spirits become jaguars. He taught me how to shoot a blowgun, climb tree trunks, call to macaws, clean my spirit under a waterfall . . . and much, much more. 

I felt deeply fortunate to form friendships with Huaorani people of all ages. I connected strongly with several young women and men who were working on their own creative projects that they wanted to turn into published books. We agreed that I would return in a year or two, prepared to assist them with their book projects. 

I felt moved and grateful when my new friend, Obe, said she’d have a 10 foot-long blow gun ready and waiting for me when I returned! I was so excited to see them again and help them bring their projects to fruition . . . but then tragedy struck.

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?

While staying in the Huaorani community, I learned that oil drilling operations were encroaching on nearby forests, and that my new friends’ land was in danger. At the end of my trip, I left their community by canoe instead of plane. After riding downstream for several hours, we encountered a major oil drilling operation. The forests had been brutally razed. It felt gut-wrenching to be in such a bleak, soulless place after experiencing my friends’ sacred, verdant home amid the trees. 

Back home, I did more research on how oil operations affect Indigenous Amazonian communities and their rain forests. I was horrified to learn of the devastating health effects from the inevitable oil spills and pollution. Rates of cancer, illness, and poisonings in humans were sky high in these communities. The surrounding flora, fauna, and rivers were often so contaminated that people had no safe food or water supply.

As I wrote “Tree of Dreams,” I knew that in addition to exploring the mystical aspects of a dreamy trip to the birthplace of cacao, the story would also need to face head-on the harsh damage wrought by the oil industry. Most importantly, I wanted the story to honor the brave struggles of Indigenous people to protect their sacred forest . . . and explore ways to support them in their mission.

When I started arranging for my return trip to the Huaorani community, I was shaken to my core to learn that an oil company had begun seismic oil exploration on my friends’ land. Explosives were buried around their sacred forest. They had to close the ecolodge that they’d worked so hard to develop as a sustainable livelihood. Their home became a danger zone. They were ruthlessly displaced.

My heart broke for them. I felt a renewed commitment to write this book and spread the word about what’s going on in the Amazon . . . with an emphasis on how we are all connected, and how we can join forces to protect our Earth.

What’s your next project?

I felt crushed that I wouldn’t be able to help my Huaorani friends with their own book projects. Being off-grid and displaced, they weren’t able to keep in consistent touch with me. 

During this time, I continued learning more about Indigenous land rights movements in the Amazon. I read about a courageous Kichwa woman from Ecuador named Patricia Gualinga. She had received death threats for her work protecting her people’s sacred forest and helping to lead a powerful Amazonian women’s movement. I loved her ideas on how conservation efforts can combine scientific knowledge with spiritual knowledge in order to truly understand that the entire forest is alive. 

I reached out to Patricia to see if she’d be interested in collaborating on a children’s picture book about her community’s triumph over an invading oil company and her work to protect the sacred forest. I was thrilled when she said yes! This book, called “Stand as Tall as the Trees: How an Amazonian Community Protected the Rain Forest,” is currently scheduled to be published in both English and Spanish in Spring 2022 by Charlesbridge.

Walk us through your writing process: Where and when do you write? What time of day? Do you listen to music, need quiet? 

I usually write in my studio, with two giant spruce trees (home to many squirrels and birds) out the window as company. I also do a lot of brainstorming and outlining in spiral notebooks, which I carry along on my travels and outside in nature. When the weather is warm, I love doing edits and page proofs in my silver, 1950’s canned ham trailer named Peachy— she always inspires me. Most days, I go for a walk along the Poudre River, which also helps my creativity flow.

Sometimes I listen to music playlists or nature soundtracks as I write, but I’m fine with silence, too (especially if it’s summer and the windows are open)! I love when I encounter a song that captures a feeling I’m trying to convey in my story-in-progress. For a manuscript I recently finished (on submission now), I listened to a haunting fiddle version of “America the Beautiful” on repeat for weeks on end. My husband and son were concerned about my sanity . . . but then again, they often are! Such is the life of a writer.

Since I do my best work in the mornings, I save that time for creative writing when possible. I try to honor the sacred aspect of creativity by lighting candles or putting fresh flowers in my studio. Over the years, I’ve learned how to stay committed to my stories and set goals for my manuscripts, while respecting the ebb-and-flow nature of the creative process. There are fruitful times and seed-planting times— I try my best to be grateful and embrace every phase of the journey.


Flown into the heart of the Amazon rain forest, a party of travelers has second thoughts

Laura Resau’s layered work of juvenile literature combines mysticism, hard truths about the destruction of the rain forest and its indigenous people — and chocolate PUBLISHED ON AUG 15, 2020

Laura Resau is the award-winning author of nine highly acclaimed young adult and children’s novels, including “The Lightning Queen (Scholastic), “What the Moon Saw,” “Red Glass,” and the Notebooks series (Delacorte/Random House). Her new novel, “Tree of Dreams,” was praised as “a moving exploration of friendship, activism, and how chocolate makes everything better” in a starred review from Kirkus.

Resau lives with her husband, son, and beagle in Fort Collins, Colorado. She donates a portion of her royalties to Indigenous rights organizations in Latin America.

The following is an excerpt from “Tree of Dreams.”

2020 Colorado Book Award winner for Juvenile Literature.

From above, the Amazon rain forest looks like broccoli. An endless sea of broccoli. Ten minutes into the flight, in all directions are mounds of green florets, each one a treetop. That’s the only way I can wrap my head around how gigantic this place is—comparing it to a side dish on a dinner plate.

Rivers snake through, ribbons of gold lacing through all that green. Here and there is a straight brown line, a road, and brown square clearings and rectangles of gray buildings. “Petroleros,” the pilot shouts over his shoulder, pointing with his chin. Oil drillers. Other than the petroleros, there’s just this broccoli sea beneath us. And the farther in we fly, these naked patches are fewer and farther between.

The pilot is burly and muscled, his chest nearly bursting through his buttoned shirt. Sweat stains the fabric under his arms but he smells only like cologne. In a loud, rough voice, he explains that first the logging companies come and chop down strips of trees to form muddy dirt roads. They make way for the petroleros to set up oil wells and drilling operations. He shakes his head, taps his large fingers on the steering device. “Ten years ago, this was solid jungle, amigos.”

I can’t see his eyes behind the mirrored lenses, but there’s something sad in his voice, in the shrug of his shoulder.

We fly for another half hour over mounds of thick, rich green. I could never get tired of so much green. I’m gulping it down like a cool glass of water on a hot day. It’s as if my soul sighs between swigs.

The first few minutes of the flight felt like a roller coaster, from the stomach-flipping takeoff to the upward swoop to the leveling off in the clouds. But now I’m used to the vibration and engine rumble and the way the wind tugs us here and there. It feels like cruising in a cozy, old car through the sky, comfortable enough that I can focus on the mind-boggling view out the windows.

Meanwhile, Leo doesn’t even touch his Nintendo. And I wonder if he’s feeling like me: 90 percent mesmerized and 10 percent terrified. Because if this jungle has a heart, that’s where we’re headed, deep into the secret, pulsing core.

“Any Internet or phone service out here?” Mom shouts over the engine roar. There’s a waver in her voice, a shrill edge. I know that voice. It’s when she’s trying to sound casual but is actually on the brink of panic. The hippie sunglasses can only do so much.

He shakes his head slowly. “Nada.”

Nada. Nothing. Which means that if something goes wrong, we’re on our own. Absolutely, completely, and in all ways on our own, adrift inside this broccoli sea. All of a sudden the balance flips to 90 percent terrified and 10 percent mesmerized.

Hands shaky, I unwrap a chamomile-honey truffle and nibble nervously.

“Almost there, amigos,” says the pilot. “Just another few bends up the Shiripuno River.”

Soon the plane slows and swoops and circles, and there, ahead, stretches a strip of grass, a long rectangle of shallow green cutting through denser green. Now the plane is lowering, centering, dropping. My stomach drops along with it, as if I’m whooshing down an elevator. I make sure my seatbelt is fastened tight and clutch my hands together in my lap.

There is no airport, no building, not even one made of bamboo and dried leaves. Not a single road in sight, not even gravel or dirt.


We lower, lower, lower, and the pilot flips switches and the engine sounds shift, and then we make a few gentle bounces on the grass strip like a rubber ball slowing to a roll. The brakes engage and we skid to a stop.

I peer through the window. Now that we’re on the ground, the forest no longer looks like broccoli. On all four sides of the airstrip the jungle begins, thickly and greenly. These are no dinky stalks of veggies, but enormous leaves and trees, fit for a land of giants.

“Tree of Dreams” by Laura Resau

The pilot gets out, stretches, then opens the passenger doors for us. Stiffly, I climb out.

And I’m in another world. The air is a blanket of a zillion water droplets, sizzling, steaming, and wrapping around my body. In seconds, I’m sweating, salty rivers gushing down slick skin. Blinking, I grab my hat from my pack. The light is misty but blinding. Sunbeams are zapping around in so many tiny mirror drops.

Leo and the moms are squinting and fumbling for hats, too.

Insects are swarming, but I don’t know where the bug spray is, so I just swat them away. Now that I can see better, I look around from beneath the brim of my hat, turning in a full circle, scanning the jungle for signs of life. And there are plenty—all manner of birds screeching a riot of squawks and caws and chirps and peeps. Bright feathers darting here and there through the green.

But no sign of humans.

My insides are on the wildest amusement park ride ever. One second, my insides are laughing and screaming: I’m in the Amazon! I’m near my treasure! And the next, my gut is falling down a dark pit, crying: We’re all alone! We can’t survive! And the next, I’m reaching for another truffle. Need some endorphins! Now!

In the insulated bag, the chocolate is softening, so I break open another instant cold pack, mashing it with my fingers, then zipper the bag quickly to trap the cool air. With shaky hands, I bite into a nearly melting peanut butter truffle.

The pilot stretches, takes a long sip from his water bottle, then starts climbing back into the cockpit. “Have fun, amigos!”

“Wait!” shrieks Nieves.

He adjusts his large body on the seat, buckles himself in. “Yes, señora?”

“You can’t just leave us here!”

He sighs, offers a sympathetic smile. “Sorry I can’t wait till your hosts meet you, amigos, but I’m behind schedule already. I have a group of petroleros to take to another site before night falls.”

I chew my truffle ferociously.

Nieves widens her eyes, looks at Mom, who is frozen silent. Slowly, Nieves says, “But. We’re. In. The middle. Of nowhere.”

“Just head downriver.” The pilot wipes sweat from his neck with a hankie, points toward the jungle at the edge of the airstrip. “There’s the village, just a few kilometers away.”

“Village?” Nieves asks. “I didn’t see any village from the plane.”

“Well, it’s more like some tiny houses, a few families. They’re expecting you, right?”

Nieves looks at Gali, who’s gazing around as if he’s in a snow globe with freshly shaken snowflakes of wonder floating around him. Hot green jungle snowflakes. He’s in his own world.

Rubbing her temple, Nieves translates for Mom. Now they’re frantically talking in hushed voices. “We have to turn back,” Mom says.

Nieves squints at the misty-bright sky. “Of course we do. We don’t even have a radio or any supplies.” She shoots Gali an icy glare. “What were we thinking, Mara?”

I wipe chocolate from the corners of my mouth. I have no idea what to do. I glance over at Leo.

There’s something protective about the way he’s holding on to Gali’s elbow, steadying him. Gali doesn’t look like a wise old king at the moment, just soggy and woozy. Leo is staring into the jungle. His expression is determined, his jaw fixed in that stubborn way, the way it does when he’s stuck on a hard part in a video game or carving a fragile piece of chocolate.

“Let’s get back in the plane, kids,” Nieves says.

No. No. No. We can’t leave. I can’t go home without my treasure. If I do, soon there will be no home for me at all anymore. And if Gali goes home without fixing things, he’ll die . . . a not-good death,whatever that means.

I stare into the jungle, too, as if the answer lies there. And I see something that makes me catch my breath: a flash of red, yellow, and blue feathers—a parrot flying up from the rounded tip of a tree in the distance, a tree towering above the others, a tree that I know from my dream, from my research, a tree I’d recognize anywhere, even with just the tippety top of it showing. The leaves and flowers have fallen off as they do every dry season, leaving a perfect crown of bare branches.

A ceiba, I’m sure of it. Could this be my dream tree?

“Hold on!” I yell over my shoulder, already running toward the tree. It has to be less than a mile away, and maybe if I just go in a straight line . . .

“Coco!” Mom screams.

I don’t look back, but I’m guessing she’s on my tail.

I try to pick up my pace, but I’m inside the jungle now, and plants are everywhere . . . growing up and down and sideways, sprouting from trunks, dangling from branches. I swipe aside the massive leaves, aiming for a straight line. Which is impossible in this tangle of green.

Here in the shadows, it’s cooler, and the insect sounds are louder now, surrounding me on all sides. Mud squishes beneath my shoes, gives the air a rich, earthy smell. I scan the forest for some kind of path through the ocean of leaves and branches and logs and ferns and vines. The crown of the ceiba is already out of sight, blocked by a layered canopy of other treetops.

I pause, wondering if I should blindly barrel myself in the direction of the ceiba, or give up and go all the way back to Heartbeat Springs and admit defeat.

“Coco!” Mom’s voice comes from behind me.

And then I hear a rustling, see a movement: Someone is peering at me from between palm leaves. I step closer, focus on the human form through the foliage.

It’s a girl, and she looks about my age. She’s wearing a lilac T-shirt and blue shorts, and her hair is long and wavy and tumbling over her shoulders like a dark waterfall. A circular strip of fiber forms a crown around her head. Slung over her shoulder is a bag made of woven fibers. She’s looking at me with curious, cacao brown eyes.

We’re not alone!