Paul Andersen: Medical science now prescribes Vitamin N
“I want to speak a word for nature.”
Thoreau’s opening line in “Walden” suggests that someone needs to speak up for nature because the subtle voice of nature is heard only by those who have the soul to hear it.
The prophet Elijah heard “the still small voice” in the aftermath of a desert tempest that was symbolic perhaps of emotional trauma. Nature speaks to those who need to listen, and we need to listen now when the biosphere is in peril.
The gentle voices of trees are becoming audible now that medical science is discovering their value beyond lumber products. It may sound airy-fairy, but contact with trees is both healing and rejuvenating to the sensitized.
“To relax in modern life,” reported Time magazine in May, “spend time among trees.” Qing Li, author of “Forest Bathing,” writes: “The key to unlocking the power of the forest is in the five senses. Spending time in nature can restore our mood, give us back our energy and vitality.”
The Japanese are way ahead of the curve. Forest bathing — shinrin yoku — is a medical prescription there for people who succumb to karoshi — “work to death.”
The New York Times on July 12 published “Take a walk in the woods. Doctor’s orders.” The article describes the health benefits of nature, especially for those with chronic stress. The article recognizes that doctors are now prescribing nature as a way to combat stress and improve health.
A forest bathing program in Ottawa, Canada, takes participants into a forest on a slow walk so that the senses can take in what nature so generously offers. We humans evolved at a walking pace, so that’s the speed at which our sensory systems are most receptive to places where nature is untrammeled by man and machines.
Forest bathing guides are trained according to standards set by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, which has certified more than 300 people across North America, among them psychotherapists, nurses and MDs.
Work in the healing arts of nature will surely gain practitioners who will enjoy job security as long as there is stress and as long as there are forests left to bath in. Nature conservation becomes a spinoff for national health benefits.
The New York Times on July 16 published, “Writing prescriptions to play outdoors.” The article advocates giving children unstructured outside play, which can be helpful for children with ADHD and attests to the health effects of green space, nature exposure and physical activity.
Richard Louv’s new book, “Vitamin N,” offers activities for parents, communities and schools. The Times reports: “When he was growing up, he said, it was normal for children to go outside and play. Nowadays, for both children and adults, that time outside is even more essential, he said, because ‘nature experience is particularly good at resting the brain from the burnout of looking at screens all the time.’”
In the work I do with combat veterans through Huts for Vets (http://www.hutsforvets.org), I share what Edward Abbey, the desert scribe, offered as nature guide to his friend Doug Peacock. It was from Peacock that Abbey fashioned the Hayduke character in “The Monkey Wrench Gang.”
Peacock, a Vietnam War veteran, served as a green beret medic. In his book, “Walking It Off,” Peacock wrote, “I was piecing together Montagnard children who had been caught in the crossfire until I began to lose my mind. Standing in the monsoon rain, holding a dead, gunshot baby, I cursed God. I walked out of Vietnam with a bottomless weariness of war and an empty tank.”
Abbey introduced Peacock to the wilderness of the Cabeza Prieta desert in Arizona where Peacock began to regain his humanity. “I knew the best answer … did not lie in conventional therapies but in walking the wild country. … Ed knew the best wisdom came directly from the earth; it runs right up our roots into the spirit. Walk on. The feet will inform the soul.”
Forest bathing is just this — a vital connection with our genesis that soothes, comforts and heals. So go hug a tree and save a forest. It’s good for all of us.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.