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The Whole Earth Breathes: Connections to Explore on World Breathing Day

Educator and National Geographic Explorer Sandra Turner wrote this post.

Leonardo da Vinci was more than a painter. While combing through biographies written about him, I discovered he’s also thought of as a quintessential ecological thinker and polymath who acutely observed similarities between human anatomy and Earth’s natural patterns and processes. It’s no wonder that his classic works of art are still meticulously studied and marveled at even today. His scientific writings in particular have shaped my teaching, including in my course “Just Breathe: Our Human Connection to the Ocean.”

Nadia Huggins, “Transformations No. 1,” 2014. Used with permission

For example, Leonardo writes,

We may say that the Earth has a vital force of growth, and that its flesh is the soil; its bones are the successive strata of the rocks which form the mountains; its cartilage is the porous rock, its blood the veins of the waters. The lake of blood that lies around the heart is the ocean. Its breathing is the increase and decrease of the blood in the pulses, just as in the Earth it is the ebb and flow of the sea.

One way of cultivating an Explorer Mindset is to help our students make similar connections between themselves and the natural world. I use the image above, made by one of my favorite Caribbean photographers, Nadia Huggins, to help my students to visualize these connections. As we see greater evidence of how interconnected the problems of the world have become, to be able to think in terms of relationships and patterns will be critical to understanding and solving global problems.

The sun rises in Port Antonio, Jamaica (Sandra Turner)

A powerful example of the relationship between humans and the natural world lies in the breath — the action of inhaling oxygen produced by the natural world and using it to fuel our lives. In observance of World Breathing Day, April 11, 2022, you can explore relevant resources and activities in my ArcGIS StoryMap “One Breath at a Time,” embedded below, then join me on a journey through the anatomy of our lungs and how they connect us with the entire Earth.

From the moment we arrive at birth, our lungs do an incredible amount of work each day to keep us alive until our last, dying breath. According to the American Lung Association, the surface area of our lungs is roughly equivalent to that of a tennis court, and the airways running through them span 1,500 miles—the distance between Chicago and Las Vegas. At 12 to 15 breaths a minute, every person on Earth takes at least 6 million breaths over the course of a year!

With the help of our diaphragm muscles contracting to expand our lungs, the breath of life is drawn into the body with millions of oxygen-rich molecules produced from trees in our forests and microscopic marine plants in our ocean. The lungs then pass the oxygen on to red blood cells to help the heart deliver energy to the cells of the brain and other vital organs. With the relaxation of the diaphragm, the cycle completes itself as the organ tissue and cells consume the oxygen that flows through the veins and back to the lungs to be exhaled into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. With the lungs as the centerpiece, our bodies are intimately connected to the outside world. This exchange of gases is the cornerstone of the human respiratory system.

With a world population close to 8 billion people and as many as a trillion other species that depend on the same communal atmospheric oxygen, it’s vitally important that we become aware of our intimate connection to the environment and that we advocate for clean air to breathe. The sustainability of all life on this planet will require nothing less.


Sandra Turner is a National Geographic Certified Educator and Explorer who teaches Global Climate Change and Ocean Education. She integrates STEAM focused-projects, physical geography, scientific modeling, ArcGIS mapping applications, and digital storytelling to cultivate curiosity about the natural world in new generations of Explorers.

Sandra will attend Stanford University School of Medicine’s Applied Compassion Training as a 2022 full-tuition scholarship recipient. The training is an 11-month intensive Compassion Ambassador program led by the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Her capstone research will focus on the role that restorative yoga, mindfulness, and compassion may play in facilitating greater human connection to our natural environment and healing from childhood trauma due to toxic stress and climate-related disasters.

She is a Certified MBSR Mindfulness Practitioner and Breath Instructor. Sandra is currently enrolled in YOGA.Ed’s Trauma-Informed Yoga and Mindful Practices for Youth program and is a 2022 candidate for Yale University’s Climate and Health Graduate Certificate.

This post references a project made possible in part by an award from the National Geographic Society’s COVID-19 Remote Learning Emergency Fund for Educators.

Featured image of Jamaica’s Blue Mountain rainforest by Sandra Turner

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