We raised our children in wilderness. And my son, who is 24 years old, recently thanked me for it. He backpacked in Alaskan wilderness this summer. He grew up taking backpacking trips with his father and uncles, a tradition they continue.
Research shows that children who get out into nature have less depression, anxiety, and conduct issues and greater attention and compassion. Simply put, nature supports our mental health. Studies find that nature reduces stress hormones and heart rate, calms us and sharpens our performance. People who simply see trees and grass show less violent behavior. When we look at urban scenes, we activate the amygdala in the brain (associated with fear and anxiety), whereas when we look at nature, we activate the anterior cingulate and the insula, associated with empathy and altruism.
People who walk in nature, but not city walkers, have been found to have reduced activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex of the brain, associated with depressive rumination, and nature walkers have been found to have more self-compassion. A 50 minute walk in nature improves attentional skills and short-term memory, while walking along a city street does not.
Clearly, nature is an evidence-based therapy, and one in which we could all be making more use of, as individuals and as a mental health care profession.
I have been hiking the wide open spaces of Arizona and Colorado for the past 25 years. I grew up in another kind of wilderness though, galloping horses barefooted and bareheaded across corn fields, woods, and lakes. When I received a full scholarship to the Virology program at Harvard Medical School, it was difficult, not because of the academics but because Boston felt like a concrete jungle. I wished to be in green jungle. My husband and I honeymooned with a five-month backpacking trip across the mountains, jungles, and seas of South America.
In 2008, I was graced with teaching yoga and meditation at a Nature Retreat Center in Costa Rica. I became aware of the benefits of receiving 24/7 fresh air and oxygen to the brain, and that of quiet, the quiet of nature, frogs and monkey hoots and rain. In this quiet, I learned how much easier it is to hear the body.
Wilderness affords us a glimpse into our connection and belonging to a bigger picture, and our natural world. In this larger world we find our brother and sister two-legged and four-legged, winged and finned sentient beings. We are just visitors here, in the home of our fellow sentient beings. I am thankful for the visit, and tread lightly.
Earlier this summer I found a grove of trees to lay in. I brought a book and although I was not quite through with my study, I suddenly heard/felt a message to go. As I stood, thanking the space, I looked up and saw a large red coyote looking down at me from the hill. It was slightly daunting, for I was alone out there and he was rather close. The coyote, in his usual trickster fashion, took his attention off me and acted like he was pouncing on some prey. I turned to go, but when I spun around, I saw that the coyote was fixated back on me and moving towards me. I began to sing.
I am thankful for my moments with wildlife. These are moments which take my breath away, and moments which give medicine and healing. Medicine is everywhere and in everyone. May we appreciate and steward this earth and her creatures.
“Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons. It is to grow in the open air, and to eat and sleep with the earth.” - Walt Whitman