Amid all the bad news we consume everyday, I was buoyed by a story I stumbled onto about all the good news that gets lost in the shuffle. This tidbit was scrolling at the bottom of the TV screen during my favorite Sunday morning news show: “Canadian doctors prescribe free passes to national parks.”
“Genius!” I thought to myself before a quick google search found a few more headlines about it.
“Nature should be the fourth pillar of health, just as important as diet and exercise and healthy sleep for maintaining a healthy lifestyle,” physician Melissa Lem told CityNews Vancouver after she founded the PaRx Initiative, which partnered with a national parks foundation to sign up physicians to participate in the program.
She went on to list a number of conditions that have resulted in nature prescriptions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, ADHD and depression. Another news report mentioned ophthalmologists who are starting to notice eye problems in kids who spend too much time in front of their screens. They, too, are touting the outdoors as antidote.
“Studies have shown that patients are more likely to follow a physician’s advice to go out in nature if the advice is given in the form of a written prescription,” reported coastmountainnews.com.
The condition of grief wasn’t specifically mentioned, but I can say from first-hand experience that a nature prescription would go a long way on the long and winding road of healing. Fortunately, I live in Madison, where the city’s natural beauty is among its most distinctive and endearing features. I walk, run and bike outside. A lot. It’s one of the top reasons I’ve endured the last 29 winters. I’m from the South. These cold months can be brutal.
While I consider the sun-starved month of January to be the most excruciating time of year, trekking across new-fallen snow can be some of the best medicine around. Pulling my Yaktrax over my boots, throwing on my snow suit, and hiking across a frozen lake with my big yellow Lab is, in a word, sublime. It’s the kind of “me” time I rarely afford myself any other time of the year. It’s where I do my best thinking, or listen to my favorite podcasts—I highly recommend “Healing with David Kessler”—he’s the renowned grief expert (see grief.com) who worked with Elisabeth Kubler Ross to add a sixth stage of grief: healing. Kessler’s ideas have profoundly changed the way I think about grieving. He helped me name the thoughts and feelings spinning around in my head, recognize dysfunctional and unhealthy patterns of behavior, and validate the notion that grief has no expiration date.
I still suck at grief sometimes—when guilt overcomes me; when anger gets the better of me; when sleep eludes me. But nature has been the most consistently effective medicine. Believe me, I’ve tried everything from meditation to pharmaceuticals. Nothing trumps nature. Two years ago my partner and I committed ourselves to hiking Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail, the 1,200-mile trail that follows the state’s remarkable glacial history. Turns out it’s hard to find the kind of time one needs to achieve a goal like this, but the hundred or so miles we’ve completed so far have been healing to both the mind and the body.
As I was doing some more homework on this topic, I stumbled on a body of research on the healing effects of essential oils from trees. They call it “forest medicine.” The Japanese call it “shinrin-yoku” or “forest bathing.” One of my besties has taken up ice bathing. Swears by it. No thanks!
Nature as medicine isn’t really a difficult concept—intellectually we understand the intrinsic value of fresh air. But, to me, the idea of a prescriptive approach to experiencing it holds the importance of it in a whole new light. Speaking of light, I recently began using a light therapy lamp when I’m inside reading and working. It’s hella bright, but I think it’s helping to stabilize my mood during these long stretches of cloudy and cold weather. That and Wordle…
Check out these cool outdoor organizations and event hosts on social media:
And check out these upcoming nature events:
Feb. 4-5: 11th Annual Frozen Assets Festival
Feb. 6-11: Winter Carnival 2023
Feb. 10: MSCR’s Night Experienc