Earth Day: Nature As Healer

Peter Douglas, LCSW-R April 22, 2021

To overcome the unhealthy habits and patterns that are inhibiting us from living our fullest lives requires a fresh perspective, and often that can be found by going outside. In fact, you could say a relationship with nature is a requisite for improved mental health.

In previous blogs, I focused on the connection we have with others, offering a pandemic relationship survival guide, as well as speaking about how romantic relationships can thrive. This is due in large part to the fact that we at Humantold firmly believe in interconnectivity -- we know each of us affects the other, having seen time and again how connection and emotional wellness can change lives for the better. It is also true that human beings are in a relationship with more than one another; they are also in a relationship with nature.

Nature is the “other” we typically do not spend a lot of time getting to know, which is odd because we largely exist due to its existence. It is the place that not only gave us life, but also the place where we grow, eat, and play. Earth and nature are the only living organism that gives us everything we need. 

With the advent of modern anthropocentrism, we have created a system of beliefs that frames humans as separate from and superior to the nonhuman world. Subsequently, we have pillaged Earth and its resources for our benefit, talking of “natural resources” and “fish stocks” with the assumption the Earth’s fabric holds no value apart from what it provides us. This line of thinking easily leads us to reckless exploitation. 

But why does that matter? Because the reality is, we are not separate from nature or from anything nature created. When we objectify nature, just as when we objectify people, we are no longer in a mutual relationship. Our world shrinks and so does our sense of self. We become trapped in our own minds and feel small, apart, adrift; perhaps even depressed and anxious. Mental health plummets in this place because mental wellness requires connection, and connection cannot happen from an objectified stance. 

Philosopher Martin Buber speaks to this beautifully in his book I and Thou. He says we engage in the world in one of two ways: I-it and I-thou. In the I-it relationship, we collect data, analyze it, classify it, and theorize about it. The object is viewed as a thing to be used or put to some purpose. In the I-thou relationship, we engage with the encountered object in its entirety, not in pieces. The I-thou relationship asks us to attempt to understand the other, to be in a dialogue with the other. And this relationship is not limited to humans. 

Buber writes in regards to a tree, “It can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is now no longer It. I have been seized by the power of exclusiveness… The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no value depending on my mood; but it is bodied over against me and has to do with me, as I with it -- only in a different way. Let no attempt be made to sap the strength from the meaning of the relation: relation is mutual.”

The relation is mutual and that requires a willingness to engage with nature in more than a cursory way. Like how we go about improving other relationships, bring mindfulness to your interaction with nature. What do you notice about a tree on your block, for instance? Not just the bark and the leaves, but the tree itself. Does the tree have some sort of personality? If you slow down and commune with the tree in the way you would with a lover or a friend, what arises? What do you think the tree would say to you if you were to have a conversation with it? Can you be present with yourself and the tree? 

If a tree is not accessible, what about a houseplant? Can you spend time with the plant getting to know it as not just another object but a living being? Fostering a relationship with nature requires the same skills as fostering a relationship with a human: patience, curiosity, and communication.  

Why do that? Because as I alluded to above, a connection to nature offers the possibility to be other than with ourselves and paradoxically to know ourselves more fully. This will make us feel happier and healthier, not only anecdotally but also scientifically.

In 2016, the U.K.’s University of Derby and the Wildlife Trusts conducted an experiment where people interacted with nature every day for 30 days. They smelled flowers and watched birds. The research team, led by the university’s head of psychology, Dr. Miles Richardson, found a “significant increase in people’s health, happiness, connection to nature and active nature behaviours ... not just throughout the challenge, but sustained for months after the challenge had been completed.”

Furthermore, the number of people who reported their health as “excellent” increased by 30%. That is not all that surprising when you consider there is already evidence exposure to nature can reduce hypertension; respiratory tract and cardiovascular illnesses; improve vitality and mood; help with anxiety; and restore mental acuity, Richardson adds.

A field of psychology, eco-psychology, asserts that a connection to nature is necessary for our full health as human beings, and I agree. While Earth and nature are powerful healers for our bodies and minds, I do not want to leave out our souls. What is soul? For one, it is not affiliated with any religion or spiritual path. I like the idea proposed by psychologist and wilderness guide Bill Plotkin who says soul is an aspect of nature. “You might say it’s like a niche,” he says in Tricycle magazine. “A moose has a specific way of belonging to the earth, as does a cottonwood tree, as does a human.” 

Some people reading this may scoff at the idea of soul, which is understandable because it is not something that is valued in Western society. And unfortunately, some groups of people are so oppressed they rarely get the chance to reach beyond survival mode and are unable to even think about their souls, Plotkin reminds us.

He goes on to say:

“Actually, Western society is designed to keep all people from going on the psycho-spiritual journey toward soul. I think if there were even a large minority of people experiencing vision fasts [an experience Plotkin offers], the industrial growth society would collapse overnight. Because most of the mainstream social and vocational roles would not be of interest to people whose creativity is fully activated. Money, security, power -- all these enticements would lose their appeal. Fulfillment is all about participating in the world in a beneficial way, and this alone undermines our capitalist consumer economy. Also, healthy adolescents, adults, and elders are people who experience themselves as members of the more-than-human world.” 

We are members of the more-than-human world, and furthermore, biologist E.O. Wilson says we are predisposed to love nature. Nature is a part of us, and we are a part of it. Many of us remember moments when we felt taken with a connection to the natural world around us. Being amidst its grace and awe, a mysterious and magical power pulled us out of ourselves and our mostly internally preoccupied world. When we are open to this “other than the self” energy, it acts as a grandly interconnected invitation that helps us to have a larger view of ourselves and the world. 

This has happened to me and inspired a poem called “Deep Snow”:

 

A cathedral of Aspen and Firs plays a solemn audience to the 

Twisted 

Graced 

Dance of the deep snow. 

Spinning glimmerings of light and shadow. 

Bold and quieting with its presence. 

Hidden fragile surfaces 

Plummeting you to depths of connection, 

Inviting spirited gyrations, struggle,

And in the end affirming a place among it all. 

 

We have a place among nature, and it is waiting for us, if we are ready. To overcome the unhealthy habits and patterns that are inhibiting us from living our fullest lives requires a fresh perspective, and often that can be found by going outside. In fact, you could say a relationship with nature is a requisite for improved mental health. 

Have you gone outside today? And if not, have you looked at an image of nature or even imagined one? I highly recommend it because relating to nature makes us more whole.

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