The Haw River Paddler
“When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.” John Muir
“Rivers flow not past, but through us: vibrating, tingling and exciting every cell and fiber of our bodies, making them sing and glide”. These words by naturalist and father of the National Parks system, John Muir, were spoken over 100 years before the evolution of a new form of mental health treatment known as Ecopsychology or Ecotherapy. Ecotherapy is an umbrella term used for nature-based methods of physical and psychological healing. The term Ecotherapy was created in order to reinvent psychotherapy and psychiatry as if Nature and the human-nature relationship matters.
Researchers have found that patients suffering from depression generally have a higher level of self-esteem and feel less depressed after a simple walk in the park. You probably have experienced that feeling during a walk on a clear day when there comes a point that a sense of well-being wells up inside of you. You begin to notice the trees and flowers. The sky appears to be more alive as you notice the shape of clouds and their movement across the horizon. Who can forget what it feels like to walk in a gentle spring rain? Everything smells fresh and alive. You tend to forget the stress in your life, and for a brief moment, you enjoy the feelings that you had as a kid while playing in the rain.
Obesity, attention disorders and depression in children are a result of being “plugged in” rather than playing outside according to Richard Louv in his book entitled “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder”. The book brings together a growing body of research indicating that direct exposure to Nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children and adults. Rather than being limited by the programs on a computer, a child has unlimited opportunities outside by using her/his imagination. A ditch of running water can become the Nile River in a child’s mind or a place to catch tadpoles and crayfish. When a kid or an adult presses a key in a computer program, the result is always the same. A ditch can be anything, anytime.
Many authors and poets have written about the state of peace, excitement and sense of well being they experienced in Nature. William Wordsworth’s poetry is famous for his belief that Nature is pervaded with what he called “a motion and a spirit which rolls through all thinking things and all objects of thought”. Others like Muir, Walt Whitman and William Blake were also able to communicate the sense of meaning, harmony and inner joy they found in Nature. Very often Nature inspires an emotional connection through music and the visual arts.
Why does Nature have this therapeutic effect on us? To me it seems obvious. Humans have interacted with Nature for a very long time. It’s only been a couple of hundred years since we exiled ourselves to a life indoors. For us today, being in open spaces is like going home. It gives us a sense of safety and belonging. If we have grown up next to or near a river, being in or on the water just seems natural. You might say, it bathes our souls. It is our way of self-medicating, to de-stress and reconnect to the forces of Nature that provide us sustenance.
Perhaps the main reason why Nature can heal and transform us is because of its calming and mind-quietening effect. It is the mind chatter that overrides our sense of well-being. Being outside in Nature provides us with stimuli that cannot be found inside. The air is fresher. The sounds are softer. Nature is not demanding anything from you. All that is required is to just be who you are.
Mental health treatments usually involve both consulting sessions and medication, both of which often require a trusted professional, possibly medication and money. Ecotherapy, quality time in Nature, only requires your time. Pick an outdoor activity. For me it is paddling on the Haw River or hiking in Alaska. For you it could be hiking on a nearby trail or spending time in a vegetable garden. Where ever your interests lie, get off your rear end and get outside. You won’t find a healed mind inside.