Healing in the Natural World

by Guy Dauncey

Growing up in southern England and Wales, we always lived close to the woods, streams, and hills of the nearby countryside. The towns were built to be dense and tight, so it was relatively easy to walk out of the buildings and away from traffic into a land of kingfishers, beech trees, and marsh marigolds. It was “smart growth” before anyone had invented the term.

Shinrin

Today, I live in a clearing with a small, organic nursery in a recovering, second-growth forest, just north of Victoria. On a typical winter day, we see ravens, tree frogs, a Cooper’s hawk, hummingbirds, blue jays, and woodpeckers, as well as worms, spiders, and a host of smaller birds. And, of course, the forest.

Wood-Air Breathing

In the August 6 2005 issue of New Scientist, Joan Maloof, a biology professor at Salisbury University in Maryland, describes how the Japanese have a word to describe the particular air of a forest. They call it “wood-air bathing.” Maloof writes: “Japanese researchers have discovered that when diabetic patients walk through the forest, their blood sugar drops to healthier levels. Entire symposiums have been held on the benefits of wood-air bathing and walking.”

I’m able to enjoy shinrin-yoku all the time, but for those who live in concrete canyons, amidst a soundscape of car alarms and sirens, instead of the croak of frogs and the wind, it has become a distant experience.

Greening the Blues

In Emily White’s article Greening the Blues, published in the October issue of The Ecologist, White writes about depression and the aspiration of drug companies and their medical colleagues to turn it into a clinical illness that should be treated with drugs. The World Health Organization predicts that by 2020, depression will be second only to heart disease as a cause of disability.

White notes that during her career, she was transferred from a downtown Toronto law firm to a government office in Iqaluit, Baffin Island, in the Arctic. Although she took along her stash of SSRIs to treat her depression, with 24 hours of daylight, she started hiking the tundra, taking photos, and exploring the surrounding world. Her anxiety decreased, her mood improved, and she found herself becoming interested in things. According to White, it wasn’t that she was getting more exercise: “It was that the landscape around me was so vibrant and solid that I began to feel that way as well.” In her article, she offers some intriguing evidence for one’s capacity to heal in a natural environment.

Less stressed and anxious

In work with autistic children and people with organic brain diseases, when animals are introduced the subjects have an improved attention span, laugh and talk more, and demonstrate less aggression. When people are shown photos of natural settings, their blood pressure drops, their heart rates fall, their muscles relax, and they report feeling less stressed and anxious. In hospitals, when post-operative patients are given a room with a view of trees, they need fewer painkillers, develop fewer complications, and check themselves out sooner than patients in rooms with an urban view. In a long-term study of the type of wall art typically destroyed by psychiatric patients, while abstract images were often attacked, not once in 15 years had a patient destroyed a picture of a natural scene.

Now, let’s return to Joan Maloof’s work. As a biologist, she has delved into the science of all of this, and notes that researchers in the Sierra Nevada of northern California have found that the air in the forested mountains contains 120 chemical compounds. Some of these compounds derive from bacteria and fungi in the soil, but most come from the trees, which release them from pockets between their leaf cells. They also produce edible monoterpenes (MT), fragrances, which have been shown to both prevent and cure cancer. When we inhale them, they become part of our bodies, and the forest becomes part of us.

Our bodies and souls are part of nature

Having evolved along with nature for five million years or so, our bodies and souls are part of nature. There is something within us that longs for the forest and the stream. Until this last, tiny micro-slice of time, we have always lived in close proximity to the animals, Our cities, suburbs, colleges, and schools should offer many more green spaces, trees, and urban farms. The first remedy for depression should be a zoology lift, not Zoloft.

When we attack nature, by clearcutting forests or paving farmland, we attack ourselves. There is a reason why our health care budget is spinning out of control: we are cutting ourselves off from nature’s drugs, which are natural and free, and handing the responsibility for our health over to the drug companies, which produce anything but free products.

Guy Dauncey is a speaker, author, activist and eco-futurist who works to develop a positive vision of a sustainable future, and to translate that vision into action. He is founder of the BC Sustainable Energy Association, co-founder of the Victoria Car Share Cooperative, and the author or co-author of nine books, including the award-winning Cancer: 101 Solutions to a Preventable Epidemic and The Climate Challenge: 101 Solutions to Global Warming. He is currently completing his tenth book, set in the year 2032, titled Journey to the Future: A Better World Is Possible. He is an Honorary Member of the Planning Institute of BC and a Fellow of the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. His websites are www.earthfuture.com and The Practical Utopian. This article was first published in Common Ground Magazine in December 2005.

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