Nature as Therapy

I took a walk along the lake yesterday after getting my 11-year-old part way to school.

It was a drizzly fall morning and the sky was purple-hued and the water silent and still and while I “should have” just turned around and gone home and dusted or swept or baked, I didn’t; I walked on …

Here’s something I realised a couple of weeks ago: there are now days in which I don’t step foot out of my house.

I used to take twice daily walks in order to deliver and fetch my youngest from school, but our routine changed this September when I began providing some before- and after-school childcare for my son’s friend whose mother is a nurse. While it’s entirely debatable whether one 11-year-old boy would have needed a mother to walk him to school, it’s an absolute given that two 11-year-old boys don’t need a mother to walk them to school.

Nope. Now, most days I send the two of them on their way with a wave and a Have a good day!, and the door is shut, and it isn’t opened again until 3:30 when I greet them with Hi! How was your day?

And it didn’t occur to me until yesterday’s walk, when I felt myself breathing deeply for what felt like the first time in days, the air damp and sweet, the raindrops a gentle shiver on my umbrella, that I may have inadvertently made things harder for myself these past couple of months. Not only am I dealing with messy and depressing emotions, not the least of which is having children grow up and become old enough to go off to university (or to walk to school independently), but in the midst of all of it, I’ve allowed myself to forget something vital, something I’ve known for a long time: namely, that nature is healing.

I felt this healing power once before: a long-ago trip to the Rocky Mountains, post-miscarriage, somehow helped me to move past my grief. There’s something ineffable about perceiving your own insignificance while being surrounded by abundant life: walking along a trail and taking in the impossibility of tall spruce perching on craggy slopes; observing saplings taking root in infinitesimal nooks and crannies; feeling the surety that life will simply be — that the trees will continue on just fine without us, thankyouverymuch, that they will remain standing long after I — and any children I happen to be fortunate enough to bear — have passed from this existence. And equally important, or maybe even paramount: knowing just as surely that not all life can be, that seeds are spun that cannot take hold, that saplings wither before their time … and that this is not design or malice but simply chance, and that nature brooks no room for overwrought emotion when contemplating this. It simply is.

I’ve long felt I prefer my nature wild and untamed and — most importantly — out of the realm of personal responsibility. Nature is something that happens naturally, in wild spaces, and thus a backyard, a space which we in suburbia feel pressured to cultivate to Pinterest-worthy perfection, surely does not equal nature. Or if it does, then at the very least it must be well-behaved nature, nature that keeps to its boundaries, nature that’s always wearing its Sunday Best.

This is a notion I’ve long cultivated, and I’ve spun myself a narrative to illustrate my place in all this: I’ve told myself that I am not much of a gardener, that gardening is too much work, and that it’s work I don’t enjoy and don’t have time for. Indeed, I spent much of this past summer inside, shirking the outdoors, trying to escape the sweltering heat and humidity. What could have been medicinal doses of greenery were relegated to mere telescopic snatches through windows, and when I did step outside? It was overwhelming. Unchecked natural nature creeping over and displacing what was supposed to be well-behaved and cultivated nature: uninvited weeds; bullying perennials; a cacophony of overgrown shrubs; a blemished “lawn”; a neglected and accusatory vegetable patch.

But I’m now wondering: what if I tried to rid myself of the notion that yard work and vegetable gardening and perennial beds are only yet-more-work that isn’t-getting-done? What would happen if I led myself outside and let the wondrous living details of this abundant life embrace me? Perhaps I should be spinning the whole thing into a prescription of gardening-as-nature-cum-DIY-psychotherapy.

Thyme growing around and between paving stones; honey locust leaves: diminutive, and to my eyes, charming.
Autumn blaze serviceberry; so very aptly named.

And maybe if I did that, if I took the time to care for — and heal — my own small plot of nature, maybe that small plot of nature might in turn heal me.

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13 thoughts on “Nature as Therapy

  1. For nearly 20 years, I lived in the foothills of Mt. Hood. I could walk to a river, and most of the yards in my neighborhood were more wild than tame. When I first moved to suburbia, I missed the river. It had been my place to go when things were hard. The summer I was deciding whether or not to divorce, I walked to it every day. The winter I became snowbound right before my first Christmas without my kids, I trekked down to it, somehow, and sank into the snow and howled my grief, a sound swallowed up by the rushing water. I don’t miss living on the mountain, but I miss having that kind of a healing place to go to.

    I appreciate the reminder to get out into the world. I always feel better when I do, and yet I don’t make time to do it regularly. Taking care of ourselves should be as much of a “should have” as anything else we might do.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your snowbound-Christmas-without-your-kids story, Rita — I can picture, hear, feel it all, and my heart goes out to you for having had to have gone through stuff like that 😦 .

      Our house in Minnesota backed onto a wooded, scrubby wetland. It wasn’t a nice sort of forest you could easily stroll through, and yet it was so lovely — when I looked out our back windows (kitchen and living room) it was a wall of trees I saw. The kids played out there, swung on a swing set, tobogganed down a small slope. That greenery was the thing I missed the most when we moved here. Our current house is surrounded by other houses and my view from my kitchen and family room is the back of another two-storey house. Yes, we’ve planted trees/shrubs/perennials (we had to take down 20 dead ash trees our first spring here; we thought we were moving into a “mature and treed” neighbourhood and have had to largely start from scratch (sigh)) and although it’s coming along, it’s just not got the same feeling as the “wild” nature I drank in for a decade+ in Minnesota.

      I’ve always envied those people who got to live in or nearby places which seemed to me to be “quintessentially” wild (in particular, mountainous regions like British Columbia or the PNW of the US). (Conversely, I also have a whole lotta envy for the Dutch, whose country is anything BUT wild, yet whose homes and properties are smaller and thus the “work” of making and maintaining a plot of (cultivated) nature is much more manageable. I am clearly fighting a lot of contradictory feelings with all this.) Maybe the thing to keep in mind is that there are wild places nearly everywhere, and where there aren’t, or when it’s not convenient to get to those wild places, perhaps it’s enough or even almost equivalent to create and care for our own, or to take a walk around the neighbourhood and marvel at other people’s gardens. Heck, maybe even caring for a pot plant on a windowsill … ? I wonder — maybe when we find ourselves living in the absence of truly wild places, when we can’t be immersed in “natural” nature — what would happen if we took the time to zoom in, to look closely and block out competing views, to marvel at the depth of colour on a perennial’s flower, or to examine the veins on the leaves of a houseplant … I wonder if that would be enough to give us a healing boost…

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      1. Oh yes, I loved that my kids got to live the first half of their childhood on the mountain. They played in the wild, and it was wonderful. Idyllic, even. I’ve tried to cultivate the same feeling in the wild spaces here in our suburban neighborhood. Because there are some green spaces, and some large wooded areas and creeks within walking distance. But somehow it’s not the same. And I don’t feel safe there the way I did on the mountain. I’m sure that’s all in my head, but that’s how it is.

        I am not sure about your hypothesis, but I think it’s definitely worth testing!

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      2. When you consider what “they” say nowadays — that far too many kids are now growing up nature-deprived — it certainly does sound like your own kids were very fortunate, to have been able to spend their early childhood in such an environment, and with such freedom to explore. I know my older two feel very fortunate to have “grown up” in our particular spot in MN and recall their experiences with great fondness. Our youngest, who was only five when we left MN, identifies very strongly as an American (he’s a dual citizen), and attaches great significance to his “roots” … and yet his “wild” Minnesota experience was actually very limited compared to our older two. Which makes me quite sad sometimes, tbh.

        It’s interesting to hear you say you felt safe on the mountain, yet don’t feel safe in “wild” urban spaces. In 1995 my husband and I took a trip down to Washington and Oregon and went to Mount Rainier National Park. I remember how we had a bit of a laugh about how mild the warnings were (in the brochure we received when we entered the park) about bears and other wildlife. (Whenever you enter a Canadian National Park you are under no illusion that wildlife is anything but DANGEROUS!) So — despite the fact that I LOVE being in the mountains — I’ve always felt a slight edge of fear hovering around the experience. It’s gorgeous, breath-taking, soul-sustaining, healing, yes yes yes … but there is always also a strong sense of relief when I am safely home again after the trip. Conversely, I totally get that you don’t feel entirely safe in wild urban spaces, where (in my mind, at least) the potential exists not for animal predators, but for the human kind 😦 . (Says the person who unfortunately sees danger lurking around every bend…).

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  2. Your post was beautifully written, Marian.

    I’ve spent a lot of this week soaking up the outdoors. Winter will be here soon and while we are enjoying an unseasonably warm fall, we are starting to get frosty mornings and it won’t be long before we are buttoned up and in for the winter. The blue skies and warmer temps have lent me to say often, “Let’s not worry about the homework. Or the dusting. Or the mess. Let’s go out and play.” While it isn’t a perfect solution, the getting outdoors does help my mood tremendously (as my mother used to say…get out and blow the stink off you…) and I know it helps my children as well.

    I am very grateful that while we live in a subdivision with houses out all of our windows, we are only a short walk from a water retention area that is surrounded by woods, prairie, and a small community garden. We are very much still in the city, but that little area of wild does allow me to feel lost in the woods (especially when I happen upon a fox or deer).

    Your post also made me think (or at least your comments to Rita) that I am going to have to try and carve out time for a Michigan trip next summer. We had talked about missing it next year but there is no where I feel more home than on the hot sands and cold water in July. Last year my mom reminded me that I’ve lived in Wisconsin now longer than I ever lived in Michigan, but it doesn’t much matter. Lake Michigan, watching the sun go down, surrounded by big pines and oaks and dunes…that’s home. I feel peaceful there no matter how big the storms in my head.

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    1. Thank you, Kate!

      I LOVE your first paragraph (the first long one, that is). That ability to ignore/delay/see past all the things in a house that constantly need doing, and to instead spend that time with your kids? That’s a HUGE win in my books and something all parents should aspire to (but I confess that I think it’s also a huge win when the ignoring of the dusting doesn’t necessarily lead to the outdoors but to, oh, say, a Harry Potter read-aloud 😉 ). (I should also confess that winter was/is my favourite time to be outdoors with the kids. Because snow is just the BEST 🙂 .)

      I’m glad for you that your house isn’t too far from a little area of wild. Your comment on this has made me reflect on the various homes I’ve lived in and where they were in relation to wild spaces. When we lived in Saskatchewan we were on the very outskirts of the city and I loved being able to look out onto the prairie from the upstairs bedroom window; that “big sky” view always took my breath away. And as I said to Rita, I loved our woods in Minnesota (and initially loved the deer that meandered through our yard, although became somewhat disgruntled when they ate nearly everything I tried planting!). There’s no view from our house here, but we’re only a short walk from the lake, and a very short drive from the outskirts of the city. (It’s mostly farmland around us, but there is “wild” that’s not *all that* far.)

      Wisconsin has some beautiful places too … we used to camp at the Hayward KOA, and although it was a KOA (so not exactly a wilderness experience), I loved the feeling of being in and amongst the towering pines. But I can definitely understand wanting to be somewhere that gives you that feeling of home and peace. I hope you do get to go back to Michigan next summer, Kate 🙂 .

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      1. Oh how I agree with you that snow is the best! That’s actually something I miss about where I grew up in Michigan. We had lake effect so it was always very, very snowy but very rarely COLD. I just can’t get over the temperatures here. Last winter was actually very pleasant so we would sled and ski and snowshoe, but in January & February it definitely feels as if we have more days below zero (Fahrenheit) than above.

        Not that I mean to discredit Wisconsin’s gorgeous nature. We have some beautiful places and I’m very grateful for Jesse’s family place up north too! I’m not nearly as outdoorsy as my dad would have wished (he’s a true outdoorsman) but I do really enjoy being in the woods.

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      2. When we came down here (literally down; my kids got a kick out of telling their friends they were moving “south to Canada”) on our house-hunting trip and our realtor told us we were moving to the “banana belt” of Canada I was horrified. The snow is very hit-and-miss here. We LOVE it when we get it, but we seem to be the only ones who enjoy it. While everyone else is complaining and pulling out their snowblowers (for what is really often an inconsequential and completely shovelable amount!) we just feel a sigh of YES, finally, winter as it’s “supposed” to be. And snow just can’t be beat for its play value…it’s like the best toy ever 😉 . (Which is why I was so annoyed with our previous school principal who kept telling the kids NOT to pick up the snow. Gah!)

        I didn’t think for a moment that you were dissing Wisconsin. Most landscapes are beautiful in their own way; some just speak to us more than others.

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  3. I’m sorry that you’re going through some tough times, and hope that you’re managing to be kind to yourself (and that others around you are also kind to you).
    I’m a great believer in the healing power of outdoors. When I’ve had difficult times myself it’s been my saviour.
    And recently I’ve taken up running again. Not in a big way, just a few miles at a time. And like you say, I’m treating it as a health prescription, as if my doctor had advised me to take some medication that would be good for me. Many times I have to force myself out of the door. But when I come back, whether it’s been a ‘good’ run or a rubbish one, I do feel better for it. Likewise when I go out to garden.
    (and no, I’m not experiencing difficult times now – these days it’s about prevention rather than cure, and I aim to keep it that way).
    Take care, and there will be light at the end.

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    1. Thank you so much, Deborah, for your positive words. I’ve been making a very concerted effort to take the time to take better care of myself — by exercising, by taking a few extra minutes when I’m outdoors to consciously appreciate nature, to ensure that I keep up with healthy eating. And I do — despite everything else going on in the world right now — feel better than I did this summer. I think that the idea that all these things are “preventative”, as well as curative, is a REALLY important thing to keep in mind — thank you for reminding me of that 🙂 .

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  4. Hello again! I am back to reading blogs on my coffee breaks now that I am settled in at a new full-time job. I was unemployed from last June until February, and ironically I seemed to have fewer hours in a day when I was at home more. (My two-year-old daughter may have had something to do with that….)

    However, there was one thing I added to my life last fall that was very helpful: I started taking a “nature walk” almost every weekday after breakfast. A year earlier, the neurologist had told me to take long walks in nature to help heal my concussion, but I’d only taken a few spaced widely apart because I “didn’t have time.” Last fall, I insisted on making time, and it was truly wonderful. I live less than a mile from two large city parks. Although the nearer one has roads passing through it, and in both of them you can hear traffic from almost any place in the park, I was able to have deep and wonderful experiences of being “in nature” appreciating the plants and animals. I lost count of the deer and wild turkeys I saw, sometimes very nearby. Once I saw six turkeys taking what appeared to be an organized hike along the trail!

    I stopped taking these walks in December, when I got sick just as the weather got cold and wet. A few weeks later, driving home along the interstate highway, I reminded myself that the mountainside that rises above the highway just west of my exit is the part of the park closest to home, with the three layers of trails I hiked most often. With the leaves down, you can see the trails. Now, every time I drive by, I look up and think, “I’ve been there!” 🙂 I do the same when riding the express bus to work, which goes through the park.

    Even a walk in the neighborhood seems more nature-filled to me now. I tend to walk on my local errands, so I’m making an effort just to notice the trees and sky and so forth. It helps. A few years ago, I had a forest moment built into my daily routine. I think it’s important to remember that “nature” is not only found in isolation from civilization but is really interlaced with us everywhere.

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    1. Hello ‘Becca! It’s so lovely to hear from you again!

      Congratulations on your new job — that’s fantastic news 🙂 , and I hope it’s going well. (I laughed at your “ironically I seemed to have fewer hours in a day when I was at home more. (My two-year-old daughter may have had something to do with that….) because Oh YES, two-year-olds will have that sort of effect on your day!!)

      I love reading about your nature walks, and couldn’t agree more — it’s SO important to make the time to get out in nature, even if it’s *just* walking through a neighbourhood and truly seeing and appreciating what greenery there is. Ever since January (when I stopped looking after my friend’s son) I’ve been back to my morning walks and although it would be a lie to say my mental health was now 100% (because how can it be with everything that’s going on?!) I can say I absolutely DO feel a difference. We humans just NEED nature in our lives, don’t we?

      Thank you so much for taking the time to leave a comment, and sorry it’s taken me a couple days to respond — it was in the spam queue (probably because of the link back to your site). Hopefully, if you comment again, the system will know to let you through 🙂 .

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