Sunday, January 26, 2014

Mother Nature's Medicine

Mother Nature is one of the greatest healers the world has ever known. Her work can be found in the pharmacy, the examination table and the recovery room. It fills the aisles of health food stores and grocery chains. More immediately, it dwells in a lonely garden path, within a fragrant orange grove, on a fallen-needle path of pines.

Ironically, Mother Nature is both the purveyor of health and the cause and deliverer of decay. She is constrained by the laws of death, but confirmed as the harbinger of life. She is, so very often, the prescription of Heaven. 

This is not a political truth or an advocate’s plea. It is a reality that most of us have recognized at some point in our lives. And yet, with only a few exceptions, we as Christians clearly draw the distinction between valuing the Creation and worshiping it.

Our sacred history is celebrated mostly in church and temple. Of course it also includes many exceptions – in garden, mountain and grove. But for some reason we become wary of those who take their religion to the wilderness.

So it is with a bit of suspicion or with an inherent hesitation that some of us admit how much we need the natural world for our own peace of mind. We shouldn’t need to feel this way. Admitting that we love to walk in the woods shouldn’t make us feel like we’re admitting a sin.

Take the masculine hobby of hunting as an example. It is filled with men that love being outdoors. It is also filled with men that have learned that it isn’t polite, in mixed company, to brag about their trophies. Neither do you hear these men talk about how much they love the wind in their hair, a beautiful sunset, or the honking of geese. Yet these are all very common feelings of most hunters.

I have felt, on a number of times, like I had to explain my political position at church or in a social gathering after being caught enthusing over a trip into the wild. Just recently I had an influential member of my community come up to me at church with surprise written all over his face. He had just learned how conservative I am on many issues. “Sam,” he said, “all this time I thought you were a tree-hugger.”

Because this sort of thing happens often enough, I have learned to boil my feelings down to a couple of simple points. I seek out nature because of a real curiosity about the created world. But I also seek out nature because of its profound ability to heal.

I recognize that other people do not share my fascination with animals and plants. Try as I might to convey my enthusiasm for beetles, these people only recoil at the sight of long antennae and stout mandibles. These individuals seem to survive happily behind manicured lawns in town.

Yet in spite of differences in our individual preferences, Mother Nature remains one of the greatest healers of all of us. This is just as true for the committed urbanite as it is for an aboriginal shaman. And no matter how blind we are to anything that isn’t man-made we can fix our lives and our relationships more often than we realize if we would just let go of the control we impose upon the world and let the natural rhythms of nature teach us a thing or two.

There are several extreme examples of this in a little book by Diane Ackerman entitled A Slender Thread.  This is a book about the author’s thoughts and phone conversations while volunteering at a suicide prevention center. As this fascinating book unfolds, it becomes clear that psychological health is a fragile thing indeed.

Ackerman shows that one of the best ways to help someone experiencing a deep suicidal depression is to get them out in the natural world. Dealing with these cases on an individual basis becomes very situational, but there is no doubt about the benefits of the real world.  

This can be frustrating to many people used to our world of quick fixes – to a world that has come to rely on modern medicine and a pharmaceutical solutions. Unfortunately mental and emotional angst is not always so easily cured and sometimes Mother Nature is a tremendous help.

On one occasion a woman, that Ackerman refers to as Louise, calls and admits that her life is in ruins and she is ready to end the suffering. Ackerman listens to her problems, coaches her and then listens some more. She tries appealing to Louise’s need to care for her teenage daughter. This doesn’t work. Then she asks the woman if she happens to be outside. As it turns out, she is.

“Look up,” she tells Louise, who laughs just a little at the beautiful cloudy sky. The conversation then turns to other natural things. Louise mentions a tree. “What kind is it,” asks Ackerman.

“It’s a gingko, it has fan-shaped leaves,” answers Louise. The conversation then turns more directly to botany and the disaster is averted, at least for the time being. For some reason (deeply embedded in human nature) the sky and a tree were capable of grounding this troubled woman.

The most obvious reason for this is that we are natural beings ourselves. It is true that sacred literature teaches us of our unique position in the world. Clearly we are different than other beings. And yet we are still created from the dust of the earth. Physiologically and anatomically we belong to this earth just like the squirrel outside the window or the dogwood blooming in the spring.

And so it should not be a surprise that we respond to the ways of nature. And it shouldn’t surprise us either that our manmade world – a world that takes us away from nature – might just be the cause of many of our ailments.

This was brought home to me a few years ago in a conversation I had with Reese Nelson, Professor of Horticulture at BYU – Idaho. Reese had grown up in the rural town of Grantsville, Utah amid old poplars and sagebrush and had learned to appreciate the rhythms of rural life.

During his graduate work at Idaho State University, he came up with a plan to see if he could measure the benefits of nature on a group of college students in a fairly stressful situation. He decided to create an area on one side of the university’s testing center with an abundance of ornamental plants. Then he arranged for the testing center to randomly assign some of the students taking a math exam to this area.

Reese’s design was straightforward and yet fairly convincing. He was able to show that students taking the exam near the plants were both calmer and scored higher than students that took the exam away from the plants. The differences were not enormous but they were real (and they were conducted on enough students to be scientifically valid).

After thinking about this study I realized that I already believed its basic conclusions. The natural world can calm us down and help us regain peace of mind. One particularly telling example of this happened at the time I lost my job a number of years ago. This was a very stressful time and for years, even after finding other employment, I was anxious much of the time. The experience had left me quite vulnerable and numb, both mentally and emotionally.

Fortunately, I was able to escape to wild places often and this helped a great deal. I also learned that a bracing bath in a cold stream (or in a cold shower) did wonders. The sudden (and uncomfortable) sensation of the frigid water left me wide awake and acutely aware of the moment. During the time of the bath or shower, and for over an hour afterwards, I felt very much alive.

I became convinced over the years that mental, physical and emotional health all require that we interact with the natural world. When we fail to do this, we build instead a wall of unnatural barriers between us and the way we were meant to live.

Consider all the things that fill our lives today that were not part of the world our ancestors lived in – not part, that is, of the world in which we were created. We live in buildings that are kept at constant comfortable temperatures. We only walk a fraction of what we used to. And when we do, it is in shoes that keep us from strengthening our feet. We travel at speeds and at heights that our bodies do not understand completely – not to mention the shock of changing time zones so suddenly.

We eat foods that are saturated with refined sugars and carbohydrates that our ancestors often considered to be rare delicacies. We sit around most of the day in postures that don’t match our bodies’ needs. We breathe a myriad of chemicals that have completely unknown effects on our bodies. And we fill our heads with an almost constant stream of noise and visual stimuli that are quite unnatural. Is it any wonder that so many of us struggle?

The reality is that our many technologies, for all of their conveniences, almost never reach us at a visceral level. And if we never allow the natural world into our lives; then, by definition, we are living unnatural lives. 

My favorite example of the healing power of nature is the classic children’s story The Secret Garden written by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The story is about three children that circumstances bring together in a setting of Victorian gardens.

Mary Lennox is a spoiled and petulant girl who loses both of her parents in a cholera epidemic in India. Because there is nobody left in the household to take care of her, she is sent to England to live at Misselthwaite Manor in the home of her uncle Archibald Craven.

Mary hardly ever sees her uncle who travels a great deal after having lost his wife. And Mary’s sour disposition doesn’t win her many friends in her new home. Even so, Mary becomes captivated by a young boy named Dickon who loves being outside and who has a patient way with animals and plants. When Mary discovers that Dickon feeds and plays with animals, she is so fascinated that she manages to stop being mean and the two children become friends.

After arriving in Misselthwaite, Mary begins hearing cries coming from someplace within the large house. Despite warnings that she is never to venture into unbidden rooms, Mary sneaks around searching for the source of the sounds. As it turns out, the cries have been coming from Mr. Craven’s invalid son Colin, who is confined to his room and almost never leaves his bed.

Colin is a very spoiled boy who insists on getting his own way. He is not expected to live very long and the household has been instructed by Mr. Craven to humor the boy until he dies.

When Colin meets Mary for the first time, he is both frustrated and pleased that she is not afraid of him and will not be intimidated by his domineering ways. The two children become friends and Mary tells Colin of all the wonderful adventures that she is having outside with Dickon.

Eventually Mary tells Colin about a great secret. It is a hidden garden that she has discovered outside the manor. This garden was the former treasure of Colin’s mother, but after her death it had been closed. His wife’s death, in fact, had been such a blow to Mr. Craven that the garden was abandoned and the key was thrown away.

Through the passing years, the outside door to the garden had become hidden in vegetation and nearly forgotten. It was only by chance (and the instincts of a robin) that Mary found the key and the door. Then, together with Dickon and the forbearance of the gardener, the two children set to work rehabilitating the long abandoned wonderland.

When Colin was finally trusted enough to secretly join Mary and Dickon in the garden, his spirits greatly improved and he began to heal. But this was all kept highly confidential among the three children. Finally, at the end of the story, the family learns that Colin has been sneaking outside and has been healed in the secret garden. He can stand up and walk and his complexion is ruddy and full of health. He is no longer expected to die. In fact he stands to inherit Misselthwaite Manor.

My wife, Kathy, and I read this wonderful book together some time ago. And as it happened, we finished it on Easter morning. We couldn’t help but notice the impressive moral implications. The theme of renewal and healing was so obviously and effectively portrayed that the connection between nature and Christianity seemed the most natural thing in the world.

And in fact most of us already believe this to be true. But the relationship between Christianity and nature is a complicated one. We see it tangentially in Christian romantics like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In America’s Christian culture we have the examples of William Bartram, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and John Muir. Each of these nature writers drew heavily from their Christian heritage.

Yet, even as Christianity has been the vantage point from which much of our natural interest derives, we don’t often find the likes of a Saint Francis who was as clearly passionate about the Creation as he was about the Creator. And even though Jesus Himself clearly loved sparrows and the lilies of the field, we find little of this dual appreciation throughout Christian history.

Part of the reason is clear enough. Christianity has a long and complicated history associated with nature religions. In the beginning of the Christian Era, the Roman Empire’s religious diversity included several cults and religious groups that worshipped some aspect of the natural world. Magic and pagan worship such as the Bacchanalia (celebrating the wine god Bacchus) were practiced along with the more popular Olympian deities imported from ancient Greece.

Much of the natural world – including trees, mountains and springs – was worshipped by these non-Christian groups. Yet in spite of this perceived (and undoubtedly real) threat, these early Christians refused to distance themselves from the same natural objects that their pagan rivals worshipped. Springs were particularly important to both groups – with references to springs in the Bible having particular sway among the Christians.

Robert Bartlett points out in his recent history of saints and martyrs that these early Christians often built churches over sacred wells. Bartlett makes the ironic observation that, “despite all this evidence for saints as opponents of and substitutes for the holy springs, the saints left their deepest mark on the landscape through their association with wells and springs.”

This complicated Christian relationship with nature and pagan nature worship continues to our day. The religious scholar Peter Beyer, in an attempt to get a handle on what he considers to be an abstract mix of religious practices, places several groups in the broader category of “Nature Religion”. These groups mostly tend to be critical of Christianity and it is easy to see that there still exists a substantial divide. These groups include modern witchcraft (Wicca), Neo-paganism, aboriginal spirituality, portions of some environmental groups, and even some feminist and New Age groups.

This tension is not going to disappear anytime soon. But, in fact, neither will the Christian love of nature or the very real healing power of the natural world. Our Christian heritage and belief in the importance of the Creation are more venerable and real today than are its rivals.

I think this is abundantly clear not only in our history but also in our literature. The Canadian novelist Lucy Maud Montgomery put it quite simply and elegantly in her classic story Anne of Green Gables. You will recall that Anne was an orphan who came to the town of Avonlea by mistake. Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert had originally asked for a boy that could help with the chores.

Anne was about to be sent back to the orphanage but Matthew had sympathy on her and persuaded Marilla to keep the young (and at times exasperating) girl. Anne loved Avonlea, with its woods, flowers, lakes and meadows. Through the years she became the pride of both Marilla and Matthew. But she always had a special place in her heart for Matthew. And when he died, it nearly broke her heart.

A few days after the funeral, Anne found herself talking with Mrs. Allen, the minister’s wife. She was concerned that she was beginning to enjoy nature again and wondered if this didn’t imply disrespect for Matthew. Mrs. Allen assured Anne that, on the contrary, Matthew would want Anne to continue enjoying the beauties of the natural world. “I am sure,” she told Anne, “we should not shut our hearts against the healing influences that nature offers us.”

Perhaps no better call to nature exists than this simple line form a classic Christian story. The beauty of it stems from its universal truth and applicability – no matter what our heritage and faith may be. Mrs. Allen knew it. Anne knew it. And so do most of the rest of us. God’s creation – fallen and imperfectly understood as it is – can make all of us feel a lot better.

References. Diane Ackerman’s book A Slender Thread, Rediscovering Hope at the Heart of Crisis was published by Random house in 1997. A good reference dealing with the health needs of our ancestors is John Durant’s book The Paleo Manifesto, Ancient Wisdom for Lifelong Health published by Harmony Books in 2013. My copy of The Secret Garden was published by the Folio Society in 2006. Reese Nelson’s work on restorative environments can be found in his dissertation: Mitigating Stress in College Students by Enhancing Testing Center Environments through Passive Interaction with Plants. Idaho State University, 2006. Peter Beyer’s article, Globalization and the Religion of Nature can be found in Nature Religion Today: Paganism in the Modern World (compiled by Pearson, Roberts and Samuel in 1998, and published by Edinburgh University Press). For a summary of the early Christian perception of nature see Chapter 15 of Jim Bartlett’s Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things, Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation (published by Princeton University Press, 2013). Anne’s conversation with Mrs. Allen in Anne of Green Gables is found in Chapter 37 (The Reaper Whose name is Death).

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