The Eldest shows Amy a discovery at Tannehill.
In the latest issue of The Atlantic, James Hamblin explores the emerging profession of "ecotherapy". My heart skips and cartwheels to see Richard Louv's name quoted in a mainstream media outlet.
Children with ADHD who regularly play in parks have been found to have milder symptoms than those who spend more time indoors, for example, and therapeutic-camping programs have been found to decrease relapse rates in substance addicts. Such findings generally have more to do with mood and behavior than basic biology—but mood and behavior are intimately tied to physical well-being. Social connection, for instance, is one of the most important factors in human health. And communal green spaces foster that.
These are things we know. Things which explain why the Boy Scouts continues to survive as an organization. Because, let's face it, once the Boy Scouts start "camping" online, the Boy Scouts are finished.
But in this day and age, we don't do what we know as much anymore. Instead, we do what the people down the street are doing. If keeping up with the Jones was hard before, it's almost impossible now that everyone can keep tabs on Facebook.
And then there's the dilemma of expert-worship. I was surprised and excited to learn of medical doctors, like Robert Zarr, who write prescriptions for nature time.
In his office in Washington, D.C., Robert Zarr, a pediatrician, writes prescriptions for parks. He pulls out a prescription pad and scribbles instructions—which park his obese or diabetic or anxious or depressed patient should visit, on which days, and for how long—just as though he were prescribing medication.
Zarr says it’s important to give concrete advice instead of repeating the vague admonitions (Exercise more! Get outside!) that people are used to hearing. “If you came in to me with bacterial pneumonia,” he told me, “I wouldn’t say, ‘You just go to any pharmacy, pick up any antibiotic you’d like, take it for as many days as you’d like, with or without food, and I’ll see you in a month, buddy.’ ” He doesn’t necessarily tell patients what to do at the park, however—just to go.
Zarr is part of a small but growing group of health-care professionals who are essentially medicalizing nature. He relies on a compendium of 382 local parks—the product of meticulous mapping and rating of green spaces, based on accessibility, safety, and amenities—that he helped create for DC Park Rx, a community-health initiative. The Washington program was one of the first in the United States; there are now at least 150 others.
That's awesome. It needs to happen. I hope other doctors learn from it. I am very, very grateful for physicians who take a holistic approach to the care, treatment, and diagnosis of patients.
We climbed up the hill and then picked up rocks to use as chalk.
Karst or slate make excellent hand-drawn trail markings on trees.
But when I think of long-time organizations like Sierra Club or small local garden clubs and naturalist groups or nonprofits like the Druid City Garden Project, I can't help thinking the only new thing about ecotherapy is the word. People have been involved in careers devoted to increasing our exposure and interaction with nature for many, many years. What stands out in the present is the medicalization of what was once natural. The prescription for what is patently obvious.
As a culture, we've outsourced care for decades. Now we are outsourcing common sense as well. Before long, we'll outsource our political conscience to men on TV who bully one another. By long, I mean maybe a few months.
The truth is that kids are more likely to have visited a theme park or Disneyland by their 8th birthday than they are to have camped with their family. The memories we make involve purchases and fancy accoutrements rather than stories and campfires. Maybe what we need most is to heal from exorbitant, expensive, and over-stimulated vacations.
Prophet wants me to look, mama, look!
What makes ecotherapy different from an attempt to “mine nature for its beneficial effects,” Chalquist explained—perhaps sensing that I was eager to begin mining nature for its beneficial effects—“is that we have to give something back.” He tells students that if they want to experience the full value of ecotherapy, they can’t just go touch a tree; they need to come to care about that tree and help preserve it for future generations.
Actually, I found this to be one of the more persuasive arguments for ecotherapy. If the practice leads people to volunteer in an urban garden (as Smith did) or to start a bird-watching club or to fall in love while chained to a redwood, it could legitimately improve their health by giving them a sense of purpose and fostering social connections. The same could be said of so many unconventional therapies (equine, acroyoga, glassblowing) that seem to be beneficial despite the lack of a clear biological mechanism. And even if you don’t “give back,” it’s tough to argue against doctors’ prescribing time in a park, crazy as it may seem that they need to do so. Soil-holding remains optional.
The nature cure is not a cure-all. Think of it more like a foundation- a brick upon which one builds the walls of a sturdy, resilient, awe-inspired self. We don't go to nature to build muscles we can admire in the mirror. Even if we do, what we get is different.
What we get from nature is a sense of awe and reverence. That's why running with headphones through a city street is not likely to be a nature-cure alternative to your treadmill. At which point in the run did you stop and listen to the wind? At which point did you admire a snail slurping across a log? At which point did you leave the clamor and drama of daily life behind?
Maybe it doesn't matter. But one of the reasons that I'm homeschooling my kids is because an unpopular, hidden, and secret part of me believes that it matters. And it matters even more given the way the world is changing. The relationships they build with nature right now will sustain them through the challenges of college and early adulthood. When they can't afford a therapist or a fancy counselor, if they don't make enough money for those options, there will always be some woods into which they may run. A forest into which they can retreat. A haven where the busy bodies of squirrels scamper over branches with acorns and hopefully my kids will look up for one second and discover- as so many have discovered before them- that life is much bigger than this moment's heartbreak. The world is much grander than our bewildering ache.
I had a favorite magnolia who knew everything from my first kiss to the wonder of my first period. My back nested into that hole in her bark perfectly. The shade of a familiar tree offers not only succor by also counsel: the hope that one's strength grows alongside the burls and bruises of time. A place where things continue to change and yet remain mysterious and eternal. A place where you can both lose yourself and find yourself in the space of a single moment.