Apart from a surprise snowstorm last Tuesday, the weather here in Maine has felt quite spring-like. Robins are out hunting for worms, we have about 11 1/2 hours of daylight, temperatures are in the 50’s, and crocuses are coming up.
And I’ve never been so happy to get outside to enjoy it!
Here in Maine, we’re lucky that we can still go out for strolls and bike rides. Some of the beaches and parks are closed, but we have a lot more opportunities than many people, and I’m grateful for it.
I’m not alone, either. As the author of an MNN.com article notes: “Before coronavirus, I didn't just leave my house on foot and walk around, sort of purposeless, unless I had something that was really troubling me. Now I crave it.”
The walking itself is helpful, but so is simply being outside and having access to nature. One of the side effects of this whole pandemic may be helping to remind people of the importance of the natural world.
This is true for many reasons, but one of the biggest is because nature can help us cope and heal.
All of this has reminded me of one of my favorite childhood stories that involve the solace and healing of nature, The Secret Garden.
For those not as familiar with the story, it’s about a little girl named Mary who unexpectedly ends up in the care of a rich but eccentric gentleman and his invalid son, Colin. Mary discovers a hidden garden and brings Colin into that small special place, and both of them benefit from it.
Mary goes from a sallow-faced and irritable young girl to one with a ready smile and blooming cheeks, but Colin’s improvement is even greater. At first, he was an invalid, barely able to walk because no one, including himself, believed he could. But after spending time in the garden with Mary and their friend Dickon and various animals, he changes dramatically: “He was a tall boy and a handsome one. He was glowing with life and his running had sent splendid color leaping to his face.” (p. 353)
But Mary and Colin weren’t technically ill, so the question is, can gardens and nature truly help people physically heal? This idea has come in and out of vogue, and currently, it seems to be coming back, now based on scientific research.
In reading an article about how hospital gardens have been found to help patients heal, I discovered that:
In some studies, those who have windows looking onto leafy trees healed, on average, a day faster, needed significantly less pain medication and had fewer postsurgical complications than patients who instead saw a brick wall.
Even pictures can help – in a study of heart patients in Sweden, “patients assigned a water and tree scene were less anxious and needed fewer doses of strong pain medicine than those who looked at a darker forest photograph, abstract art or no pictures at all.”
Tree-bordered vistas of fountains or other water features, along with lush, multilayered greenery of mature trees and flowering plants, appealed most.
In addition to the studies, I expect many of us have experienced a sense of restoration from nature. Here are some quotes reflecting that.
In a speech on July 24, 1924, Calvin Coolidge said:
“There is new life in the soil for every man. There is healing in the trees for tired minds and for our overburdened spirits, there is strength in the hills, if only we will lift up our eyes. Remember that nature is your great restorer.”
From Laura Lee Davidson (p. 90 from Sisters of the Earth):
“My holiday is over. In a very few weeks I must go back to the city and take up my work – the same, yet never again to be the same. Here in the quiet of the woods I am trying to take stock of all that this year has done for me.
“It has given me health. I have forgotten all about jerking nerves and aching muscles. I sleep all night like a stone; I eat plain food with relish; I walk and row mile after mile; I work rejoicing in my strength and glad to be alive.”
Tony Talbot wrote:
Piece by piece I re-enter the world.
A new phase,
a new body,
a new voice.
Birds console me by flying,
Trees by growing,
dogs by the warm patch they leave on the sofa,
unknown people merely by performing their motions.
It’s like a slow recovery from a sickness,
this recovery of one’s self.
From Rainer Maria Rilke
“When anxious, uneasy and bad thoughts come, I go to the sea, and the sea drowns them out with its great wide sounds, cleanses me with its noise, and imposes a rhythm upon everything in me that is bewildered and confused.”
I’m sure I could find many other examples of how nature helps us, but the one I want to leave you with is the healing we draw from animals.
One example comes from The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Gilbert, who spent many months hardly able to move while recovering from a mysterious illness. During that time, she had a friend bring her a plant that had a wild snail on it, and the snail became her companion.
“[I eventually recovered enough to return home. I brought the snail back to the woods, but even after months it was] still much in my thoughts. [It] had been the best of companions; it never asked me questions I couldn’t answer, nor did it have expectations I couldn’t fulfill. I had watched it adapt to changed circumstances and persevere. Naturally solitary and slow-paced, it had entertained and taught me, and was beautiful to watch as it glided silently along, leading me through a dark time into a world beyond that of my own species. The snail had been a true mentor; its tiny existence had sustained me.” (pp. 160-161)
The Internet also offers many studies showing the health benefits of having a pet, ranging from lowering blood pressure, preventing asthma, improved functioning of the heart, companionship, and, sometimes, increased exercise.
Simply looking at cute animal photos or videos can help lift our spirits, among other things. Japanese researchers found that after viewing images of baby animals, study participants performed tasks that required focused attention more carefully than those who hadn’t seen the images.
And many of us have been entertained by the endless supply of funny videos online, often of cats, including this one of a cat who’s very unhappy her people are stuck at home with her. At least those are available anywhere you have an internet connection, whether inside or outside, and right now, it seems like we can use all the laughter we can get.
Nature Can Help
Whatever your circumstances, I hope you’re able to find some comfort and solace in the natural world. It might be while walking, watching birds out your window, playing with pets, listening to the sound of the ocean, sitting under a tree, or accessing nature virtually. In this time of crisis, it can help immensely.
And on that note, I’ll leave you with one last quote from John Muir:
Nature is always lovely, invincible, glad,
Whatever is done and suffered by her creatures.
All scars she heals,
whether in rocks or water or sky or hearts.
May you stay safe and healthy.