By Brian Luke Seaward
When the winds blows,
this is my medicine.
When it rains, this is my medicine.
When it hails, this is my medicine.
When the skies clear after a storm,
this is my medicine.
-Native American Prayer
One semester, while serving on the faculty of the American University, I invited a Lakota Sioux elder to my Mind-Body-Spirit Wellness Class as a guest speaker. He began his presentation on spiritual wellbeing with prayer. He gave thanks to Mother Earth, and all the animals, birds, and fish of the world. He gave thanks to the spirit of the water, and the spirit of the wind. Then he gave thanks to the trees. In doing so, he thanked the spirits of the forest: the tall pines, the maples, the birches and the oaks. He thanked them for their sentient presence as guardians of the forests, guardians of our earthly domain.
“The trees are our brothers and sisters,” he said.
“We must treat them, and our entire planet with respect.”
This prayer, this incantation of love and gratitude, lasted nearly 20 minutes. My students were spellbound.
The importance of our connection to nature and all her many splendors is nothing new. It’s ancient wisdom that dates back eons and has resurfaced in our times in novels, movies, and poetry – most recently best epitomized by Robert Frost and Mary Oliver.
Lately, the world of science has begun to investigate and validate the importance of our connection to the natural world as well. In 1984, R. S. Ulrich conducted a study that would become a landmark statement on the healing power of nature. He designed it to determine if post-surgical patients who were assigned to a hospital room with a view of trees and grass would have shortened post-operative stays when compared to patients who had a view of a brick wall. Perhaps not surprisingly, the people who had a view of nature were discharged earlier and had relied on fewer medications than those who didn’t have that view. Additional studies revealed that even photographs of nature scenes that were hung on the walls of a hospital room could produce a restorative healing effect. In their book, YOUR BRAIN ON NATURE, authors Eva Selhub and Alan Logan cite scores of research studies on the remarkable healing power of nature.
Meanwhile, in California at about the same time, psychologists began taking their clients on walks in local parks and forested areas rather than conducting therapy sessions in their office suites. This soon led to the creation of the field of practice now known as eco-therapy (sometimes called deep-psychology) where mental health is noted to improve with repeated exposure to a natural setting. It’s no secret that something remarkable happens when we walk silently through an old growth forest or sit on a sand dune looking at the vast expanse of water and breathing in rhythm with the ocean surf. Our problems, no matter how big, are dwarfed by the enormity of nature and we can gain a new perspective that makes them a bit easier to solve. Nature has a calming effect on the body and the mind.
The people of Japan are no strangers to eco-therapy. There they call it “shinrin-yoku” or forest bathing. The literal translation is: “Let nature enter your spirit through the five senses.” Countless studies on forest bathing remind us of what we already know. Nature can have a calming effect, similar to standard medicine. There is a healing power in nature, in the natural world of which we are so very much a part.
Recently we have learned that there is more going on in forests than just our being able to enjoy the rich scent of pines trees or the brilliant colors of autumn leaves. As described by Holly Worton in her book, IF TREES COULD TALK, trees have a special awareness and ability to communicate that allows them to let neighboring trees know when insects that can cause harm are nearby. Trees also seem have a sense of memory. Some trees even share nutrients through an underground network of fungi. It is not a stretch to consider that as we commune with nature, we tap into this arbor-consciousness for our own wellbeing.
In his best-selling book, LAST CHILD IN THE WILDERNESS, author Richard Louv coined the term, “Nature Deficit Disorder,” as a way to describe people’s disconnection from nature (most prevalent with kids today, but also very noticeable with adults of all ages). In what some people are now calling “Vitamin N,” we have recognized that our conscious connection to nature is vital, if not essential to the health of our mind, body, and spirit. More than just recalibrating our circadian rhythms to sync with the energetic pulse of the planet, Vitamin N speaks to an alignment of consciousness with the energies of nature that includes the planet herself. The practice of Earthing (walking barefoot on grass or beach sand for prolonged periods of time) has become an essential healing modality to restore (entrain) the energetic balance of the human body to the pulse of the planet.
The healing power of nature is more profound than just to decrease levels of cortisol in the body with corresponding boosts given to neuropeptides, dopamine, and serotonin. The health of the human spirit is enhanced as well, particularly when a connection is made to something bigger than ourselves, in what can best be describes as a “spiritual experience.” To swim close to bottle nose dolphins, to feed a hummingbird out of the palm of your hand, or to hug a koala can feel like nothing less than connecting to the divine.
However, there are caveats and boundaries to honor when communing with the natural world. Since the invention of the smartphone selfie, not a year goes by without some person getting rushed and killed by a buffalo in Yellowstone National Park. Despite all the warnings not to feed, touch, or even approach the wildlife, people go ahead anyway. It’s not just buffalo that are bothered by direct human contact. The list includes deer, elk, bears, giraffes, and poisonous snakes – to name a few other animals. While much of this selfie craze can be summed up in the word ego, many other examples speak to a great yearning to connect with nature. Directly! And while the yearning for these experiences is encouraged, common sense is necessary and caution must be taken. The world is not a petting zoo.
Speaking of caution, in this time of human-caused climate change, it would behoove every one of us to nurture a deeper connection to the natural world.
Wanting to see another aspect of nature, I discovered that the best time of year to see the Northern lights in Fairbanks, Alaska is during either the fall or spring equinox. The reason has to do with the specific angle of the Earth’s axis as the planet becomes bathed in solar wind activity. A quick Google search reminded me that regarding temperatures, September is a far better month than March to do photography in Fairbanks, so I embarked on a photo expedition in the fall of 2017. Due to cloud cover, the first night of five didn’t reveal much, but the second night was epic. From midnight to four a.m., a curtain of green and purple lights danced overhead from horizon to horizon. At times, the lights were so bright you would have been able to read a newspaper. I took hundreds of photos, but no image can do justice to what I fully experienced. To say it was a spiritual experience is no exaggeration and once again, I felt one with the world. This is my medicine.
May you find your medicine in nature, in the wind and weather, or in the skies as the words of the Lakota prayer say.
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The image that leads this post is a photograph of the Northern Lights taken by Brian Luke Seaward.
The sources mentioned were:
Louv, R., The Last Child in The Woods. Algonquin books. Chapel Hill. 2005.
Selhub, E. and Logan, A, Your Brain on Nature. Wiley, New York. 2012.
Ulrich, R., View Through a Window May Influence Recovery from Surgery. SCIENCE.1984.
Worton, H., If Trees Could Talk. Tribal Publishing. 2019.
Brian Luke Seaward, Ph.D. is the executive director of the Paramount Wellness Institute located in Boulder, Colorado. He is the author of Stand Like Mountain, Flow Like Water and Stressed Is Desserts Spelled Backward.
He can be reached via his website: http://www.brianlukeseaward.net