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Updated: Dec 22, 2023

I am lucky and privileged to be able to write this missive from a warm, dry home. As I type, I am able to glance outside and be subsumed in the lives of maple, birch, honey locust, hackberry, oak, and spruce that exist in the yards on my block. Sometimes I write quietly on my porch, absorbing these surroundings with all my senses. When I’m in this state, I feel a connection to ancestors both ancient and modern. These people, like me, who had their own joys and anxieties, and who found solace in hearing the breeze.

The dappled light – komorebi, as the Japanese call it – working its way through a maze of newly-emergent maple leaves towards my eyes, leaving a luminous green glow for me to enjoy. Smells of spring entice me – the lilacs nearby; the damp petrichor after a rain; violets and lily of the valley mixing with fresh cut grass. The birdsong symphony that radiates to my ears in stereophonic sound. The way the slightest breeze slips through the screen to brush my cheek or arm… This inevitably brings a reverent calm shimmering over me.

Man meditating above pristine mountain lake

This sense of reverent calm isn’t something new to 21st Century life. In fact, we’ve been experiencing anything but calm for the past year plus. It is specifically in times of anxiety like this when we most need to access the healing balm of nature. Humanity has been seeking out the solitude, peace, and calm of nature for the length of our species’ existence. The Roman poet Horace spoke of “strolling peacefully amid the health-giving woods” as a path towards contentment. According to Nikos Salingaros in Biophilia & Healing Environments:

“Hospitals and sanatoria reaching back to ancient Greece were set in natural surroundings, and part of successful medical treatment once typically included time spent in gardens and under trees.”

These grand facilities were oft located on large swaths of land, surrounded with forests and fields. Many sanatoria, focused on tuberculosis patients, were designed specifically to get patients outside for the fresh air and sunshine, and to get as much as light and air possible into their rooms. This focus on nature as a salubrious component to human well-being was integrated into our healing modalities from these ancient times until the early-1940’s when the first hospital plan emerged that featured no windows in patient rooms. Why would we take away windows from sick patients? Turns out, it was in the name of that favored tenet - ‘efficiency’. That desire came to the forefront then and has since overpowered nearly every other element driving human existence to date, except perhaps its silent partner, greed.

Why did this connection between nature and healing hold for millennia? I believe it is because deep in our DNA, this connection is intuitive. We all know, deep down, that there is something about being outside in nature, in the forest, on the water; name your favorite place, that brings us ease both mentally and physically. I also believe that with the rise of scientific theorems and the need to “prove” the answers, we began to lose sight of our more ephemeral, mystical, and reciprocal relationships with nature that many indigenous, and even historic Western cultures, lifted up.

Japanese onsen in a mountain forest

In addition to being intuitive, I also feel that historically this connection was intentional – done with purpose. Our intuition that time spent in nature was good for us drove us to purposefully experience these environments – whether as a preventative, restorative, or as in the case of tuberculosis - a medically-proven recovery method.

One of the early modern examples of a nature connection influencing the shape of healing came to us in 1860 from none other than Florence Nightingale. She kept a diary of things she noticed as she nursed injured soldiers back to health. She cites: “I mention from experience, as quite perceptible in promoting recovery, the being able to see out of a window, instead of looking against a dead wall; the bright color of flowers, the being able to read in bed by the light of a window close to the bed-head. It is generally said that the effect is upon the mind. Perhaps so, but it is not less so upon the body on that account. …”

(Wagenaar, C., de Swaan, A., Verderber, S., Jencks, C., Betsky, A., & Ulrich, R. (2006). The Architecture of Hospitals. NAi Publishers. p.376.)

Florence Nightingale
Florence Nightingale

In 1984, Roger Ulrich studied not injured soldiers, but rather patients recovering from gallbladder surgery. His experiment placed patients in different rooms of the hospital. Some had views of trees and green spaces, others had only views of a brick wall. The results - those patients looking at the green views tended to heal a day quicker, needed less pain meds, and had less issues after surgery than those looking at brick walls. Here, the intentionality of a green connection made a measurable difference in the patient's health.

Another decade on, Clare Cooper Marcus and Marni Barnes completed a 1995 study on the ideal qualities of healing gardens. Their research noticed that people tend to go these spaces for rejuvenation and renewal from mental and emotional anxiety. “One finding, in particular, surprised Cooper Marcus and Barnes. Stressed hospital employees accounted for as many visits to hospital gardens as stressed patients, and interviews confirmed that staffers depend on the greenery.” Again we have an example of intention paired with green space providing a much-needed balm. They also found that “tree-bordered vistas of fountains or other water features, along with lush, multilayered greenery of mature trees and flowering plants, appealed most.” (Scientific American, March 2012)

So, what should we take from these tidbits? Should we follow the metrics or go with our guts? What’s great is with the ongoing research accumulating daily on the benefits to our species of time spent in nature – we can depend on both intuition and proof. What does our heart tell us about how time spent outside, in the embrace of a beautiful woodland, will make us feel? I know what mine tells me – visit your ancestors, you’ll be surprised at how time spent intentionally within the realm of trees might just lead you back to yourself.

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