Healing through Nature the Arkeras Way
Birdsong through the window. A stretch of coastline. A walk in the park as night comes on. A simple bouquet on the table. There’s something in nature that touches us deeply. Heals us. Restores us. Returns us to ourselves.
This last year, more than ever, as the world learns to live with so much grief and so much change, we are also learning to calm ourselves, soothe ourselves, anchor ourselves with nature. That the natural world can reach us when nothing else can is not a new truth. It is something ancient, something we have always instinctively known, something we are learning to access again.
At the intersection of the global pandemic and our increasingly digital lives, many of us have heard about the benefits of “forest bathing.” It’s an idea that began in Japan in the 1980s—at a time when indoor lifestyles, new technology, and long office hours were changing the way people lived. Forest bathing became a way to counteract the impact of fluorescent lights, long workdays, and time staring at screens. It caught on quickly and, though “shirin-yoku” or “forest bathing” was a new phrase, the concept itself is as old as humanity.
Rhoda Sloman, Certified Forest Therapy and Nature Mindfulness Guide and Docent at the Bellevue Botanical Gardens in Bellevue, Washington, says “we are historically drawn to trees, the woods, these types of places for home and for safety. And we support each other. Plants give off the oxygen we need and we give off the carbon dioxide they need. It’s such an intricate system that we’re a part of.” She quotes E.O. Wilson’s theory of Biophilia—“human beings have a deep, anthropological connection to nature.”
Sloman likes to remind people that forest bathing, healing, and grounding ourselves in the natural world is something we already know exactly how to do. “Once we let ourselves slow down and take the time to bask in the wonder of nature,” she says, “we see that we already have an innate ability to connect to it. You don’t need to be an expert. You don’t need to identify everything. You don’t need to know the names of every tree, flower, or bird that you encounter. As you knew when you were a child, it’s okay to go outside and just… be.”
Sloman recently completed the ‘Strolls for Well-being’ program at Bloedel Reserve, a 150-acre forest garden on Bainbridge Island in Washington state. This program is based on research that shows that contact with nature speeds recovery and healing, and promotes overall well-being. The program guides participants on a path to truly connect with nature; participants experience the garden through all five senses—as well as through thoughts and feelings. Visitors are invited to embark on a gently guided walking meditation in the form of quotations they can read as they walk through the reserve. “You read these statements,” she says, “and then walk through the garden with a particular theme in mind—possibility, awareness, forgiveness, transition, healing, connection… you take a walk with those words in your mind, and you simply observe. You’re very gently meditating on that theme and letting observations and realizations come to you.” You might, for example, set the intention to focus on connection, and notice the ways the moss relies on the branches, or the ways the trees are separate beings but linked so inextricably. “It’s incredible,” she says, “how much wisdom and clarity come to you because you’re quietly open and allowing it to.”
When asked about how the pandemic seems to be shifting perspectives on being outdoors, she enthusiastically notes that we’re all starting to get used to being in nature, whatever the weather. “Generations of the past were outdoors more,” she says, “and in places like Scandinavia, there’s an understanding that there’s no such thing as ‘bad weather’—you just need to dress appropriately.” She talks about how, when we go camping, we have a deep appreciation for time spent just being outdoors. And we expect that we may be a little hot, a little cold, a little rained on; it’s part of the experience, and part of the beauty. Sloman says she believes it’s possible for us to cultivate a similar sense of openness and appreciation in our everyday lives too, and that it’s something we as a culture and as a world are learning, more and more, how to do.
For Sloman, and all practitioners of nature therapy, it’s clear that connecting to nature is connecting to well-being, and that we can go into every natural encounter with that sense of purpose in mind. But how do we get started? Where do we begin? We’ve put together some simple but impactful ways to incorporate the healing, grounding, and restorative power of nature into your days. Try the ones that pique your curiosity, and the ones that seem like they’ll work best for you and your physical ability.
- Use the natural world to go in search of a memory. You can think of this as a treasure hunt for something special from your own personal or family history. Take a walk around your neighborhood, or just sit on a chair or a park bench outside. What do you smell? What can you touch? What do you see? Does the windblown scent of a lilac bush remind you of your grandmother? Does the shape of an evergreen remind you of a holiday tree, family rituals, connectedness? Do the tangled vines of some nearby blackberries remind you of summer evenings as a child, somewhere you loved vacationing? How many memories can you access? Which sweet, past moments are you surprised to find?
- Practice strengthening your connection to nature even in moments when nature seems far away. If you’re in a medical facility or hospital room that has a window, see if it’s possible to position yourself so that you have a view of what’s happening outside. How does the light change from hour to hour? How does the sky change with the weather, or from day to day? Bring a bouquet of flowers in to be with you, or an evergreen branch, or a potted plant. Use an image of a favorite natural place as the background for your phone screen, or put a photograph on your bedside table for easy viewing. Find a recording of birdsong online and listen, no matter where you are and no matter what the season. You might be surprised at the way these small gestures connect you to something very big, and very healing, and offer real comfort in a challenging time.
- See if you can complete a necessary task outside—something you usually do inside. Maybe it’s a phone call, a meeting, some stretching or exercise, eating a meal, or having a cup of coffee or tea. What does being outside change about this activity? Is this something you’d like to find a way to work into your routine?
- Borrow from Bloedel Reserve’s technique and take a nature walk with a favorite quote in mind, or use one of the quotes listed below. If possible, make it a point to turn off your phone so you can more fully be with yourself, with nature, and with your thoughts. Hold this quote gently with your mind open and a sense of willingness to let thoughts just arise. What information comes to you? What do you see, or sense, or notice? What things reveal themselves? What are you surprised to remember or find?
One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, what if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?
This is it. Normal, daily life...is the most precious thing...
If you feel lost, disappointed, hesitant, or weak, return to yourself, to who you are, here and now...
Be grateful for this moment. This moment is your life.
- Follow your own intuition, patterns, and preferences. Have you always loved connecting to nature through flowers? Trees? A marshland walk in the mornings? By noticing and naming constellations in the evening? The best way, the most nourishing way, the most resonant way to benefit from connecting to nature is in the way that is most natural to you. Create your own process of forest bathing, or reconnecting to the outdoors in whatever way feels accessible and true.
And since you are here on the Arkeras site, we want to acknowledge that there may be an added layer of complexity for you in all of this. In times of stress or challenge or illness, it can seem unimportant, difficult, even counterintuitive to take a walk or smell a flower or turn our heads up to the sky. If you are caregiving for a loved one who is sick, it may even seem like an act of selfishness. But so much recent research shows us that these moments—the difficult seasons of our lives—are the very moments when the benefits of nature are most necessary. Recent studies demonstrate that time in nature causes a significant decrease in stress hormones, contributes to nervous system resiliency, and boosts the immune system, while also having mental health benefits. Our bodies and our spirits have always known: we need this. Nature itself advocates for itself constantly. There is so much wisdom in following this example—in honoring ourselves by giving ourselves the rest and renewal that we need.
How will you touch nature today? Will you go for a walk, will you marvel at a leaf, will you spend an hour at the shore and let the waves touch your feet? Will you watch the colors of sunset out the window as they paint the sky purple and orange and blue? May you discover that when you connect to the strength and wisdom and resilience of nature, those very things broaden and deepen in you.