Every month Oprah Winfrey includes a column in her magazine titled, What I Know For Sure. In it she writes about something she knows in her heart and soul to be true. In each of us, there is a folder of these ‘knowings’; we often call wisdom. They come not from being told something is so. No, deeper than that. Instead these badges of growth come from watching and experiencing something ourselves.
The past several years have seen a surge in linking nature to our well-being. Richard Louv created the popular terms Nature Deficit Disorder and VitaminN in his first book, Last Child In The Woods. Louv chronicles the dwindling amount of time children are free to explore and roam through nature and reasons why this is occurring. He also shares research depicting potential hazards that result from declining nature engagement that was a part of many of our everyday lives normal not so long ago.
Wallace J. Nichols, PhD. takes a more specific focus on how nature’s element of water influences our well-being in his book, Blue Mind. Blue Mind is the term he coined to describe; “a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment.” Neuroscience technology has advanced to now allow our minds reactions to be mapped and studied in response to different stimuli using a portable EEG device. Researchers have been able to identify proof of the healing power of being on, in, near or under water with this new technology.
Most recently, journalist Florence Williams, took on the challenge of investigating the health benefits of nature from a global perspective in her book, The Nature Fix. Over the span of four years, Williams traveled around the world interviewing researchers who are studying nature as it relates to health. Some are using the same neuroscience brain tool that Nichols talks about in Blue Mind. Williams herself joins in as a test subject periodically. She weaves in her own personal experiences with nature and is able to explain the complicated science of in a way that most readers will be able to understand. The message is that the loss of spontaneous engagement with nature is being felt worldwide. The implications of this trend, as it relates to the health and well-being of humans are staggering: obesity, increased mental illness, decreased creativity, just to name a few. Those who understand and feel the impact of nature’s loss are scrambling to create innovative ways to preserve and get people to interact with nature: forest bathing, nature retreats, outdoor schools. Scientists are going so far as to try to identify the correct dose humans need of nature, or VitaminN as Louv has called it, William reports.
The big elephant in the room when it comes to nature and its resources is human population growth. Most people want to avoid discussing because of its daunting social, religious and moral implications. Our global human population now stands at almost 7.5 billion people. The United Nations estimates that number will reach ten billion by 2056. Prince Charles pragmatically discusses this conundrum in his book, Harmony, suggesting that religious leaders take a lead in the discussion of our human population growth.
As this number increases our forests are cut for their resources, to build communities and to create more farmland. Our oceans are being stripped of sea life and replaced with waste. Nearly one billion people rely on fish as their primary source of protein and yet scientists warn that by 2050 we may have more plastic in the ocean than fish. The question that has yet to be answered, “is there a tipping point when nature will say no more”? If so, what will that be? Are we already there? The United Nations Environment page regularly shares the good, the bad and the ugly: best practices around the world to fight climate change, climate change implications, and fatal or dire situations. Global population growth is adding to a potential perfect storm along with increased technology, climate controlled environments and other factors impeding on our access and enjoyment of the outdoors.
Those who know from experience the healing power of nature are racing to save and expand this resource for future generations. Creative efforts are being developed to offer the younger generation the opportunity to get to intimately know Mother Nature. Many of young people are buried in technology, or surrounded by cement-filled neighborhoods. If it seems far-fetched that people are not familiar with nature, let me share a few recent scenarios.
I own a garden shop just 30 minutes outside of New York City. Many of my clients are new mothers who have relocated their families to the suburbs. Some of these women have admitted to me that they have never touched dirt. Never touched dirt! Doctors believe playing in dirt can help build our immunity. Okay, so yes, cities do offer other outlets that may not as abundant in the suburbs: music, theater, museums, all of which are also known to promote well-being. But nature holds something special, or at least I believe it does. A unique energy, which I think, we have yet to truly understand and appreciate.
Need more examples? During a train ride from Manhattan’s Grand Central Station to our local train station in Westchester County, I sat across from a foursome of young millennials. It was October. Soon after we emerged from the dark, underground tunnel into daylight we passed blocks of inner city neighborhoods. Hints of nature appeared as well; blue sky, puffy white clouds, an occasional bird.
“Look,” one of the young people said to his friends as he pointed out the window, “the trees are turning color.”
The trees had been displaying foliage for over two weeks.
Recently I went for my annual physical. My appointment was first thing on a Monday morning in February- a traditionally cold, gloomy time of year in New York. The days before, however, had been one unusually warm. An extreme warm spell we have been experiencing increasingly due to global warming.
I commented to the phlebotomy tech, “What a beautiful weekend, huh?” as she wrapped the rubber tourniquet around my arm.
“Yes, we live across the street from a park and my kids were dying to go outside. But, I didn’t want them to get sick so I took them to the mall,” she replied.
I’m not sure whose mouth fell wider, mine or the other phlebotomist in the room. As gently as I could, even though I wanted to scream, Are you kidding, I asked her if she had heard that many health experts believe the benefits of beings outdoors are much greater than the risks for kids. Her colleague chimed in as well. I can only hope those kids are running around outside today.
I don’t have all the answers when it comes to nature and how it affects our health. Are there risks to being in nature? Sure, ticks and mosquito bites transferring diseases, some deadly. Snakes, bears attacks, perhaps if you go deeper into the wild. But, isn’t minimizing risks while enjoying what life has to offer what we do everyday?
What I do know for sure is that nature heals. When I say heal, I don’t mean cure. Healing as defined by the American Holistic Nurses Association is, “A lifelong journey into wholeness, seeking harmony and balance in one’s own life and in family, community, and global relations. Healing involves those physical, mental, social and spiritual processes of recovery, repair, renewal, and transformation that increase wholeness and often (though not invariably) order and coherence. Healing is an emergent process of the whole system bringing together aspects of one’s self and the body, mind, emotion, spirit, and environment at deeper levels of inner knowing, leading toward integration and balance, with each aspect having equal importance and value. Healing can lead to more complex levels of personal understanding and meaning and may be synchronous but not synonymous with curing.”
Nature has been a vital part of my healing from complicated grief and I am not alone in that. I have seen it do wonders on patients and clients without any untoward side effects. Nature can be a place to exercise, play and rebalance from stress. It is our source of nourishment: vegetables, fruit, fresh air, and water. Despite nature’s vital value to us living beings, it is under siege-as evidenced by our ocean polluted with marine debris, an increase in air pollution related diseases and a rise in wildlife extinction. Many young people are not getting the opportunity to get acquainted with nature. How will this affect how they value, restore and protect this resource so many of us have had the luxury to indulge in. My hope is in the people who are passionate about changing some of these issues. While scientists try to depict the proper dose, my recommendation for most of us, the more the better.
To learn more or purchase one of the books mentioned in this blog, please visit the 'Nature Books' page. Tab above.
Do you have a story of how nature has impacted your health or well-being? Please share below in the comments. You may be invited as a guest blogger.