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Nature Awareness as a Therapeutic Modality:
Part 1: The Healing Qualities of Nature

Kirsti A. Dyer, MD, MS, FAAETS


This article on Nature Awareness continues as Part 2: Coping with Loss using Nature.
There is a healing quality to nature, which has been known for centuries be it taking time to smell the roses, meditating on a mountain, lying in a wildflower field, strolling by a meandering stream, or hiking in ancient redwood groves. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, recognized this powerful attribute in his humbling statement:

Nature cures—not the physician.

People instinctively turn to outdoor and nature-loving activities as a way of relaxing and enhancing their well-being. Nature can aid in facilitating self-awareness and promoting healing. For many the outdoors is a source of inspiration, solace, guidance and regeneration.
Time spent outdoors can be restorative and healing. Whether running through a canyon, walking on the sunny beach, hiking through a fern-filled forest, scrambling over rocks along a creek side, watching the last few rays of the setting sun, strolling along a moonlit night, or just sitting breathing fresh clean air, being out in nature is one of the best prescriptions for overall health and encouraging healing.
Above all, do not lose your desire to walk.
Every day I walk myself into a state of well being,
and walk away from every illness.
I have walked myself into my best thoughts,
and I know of no thought so burdensome
that one cannot walk away from it.
Søren Kierkegaard
Nature provides us with a multitude of ordinary, reaffirming and renewing experiences—the sound of the first bird of spring, the sight of the early morning sun, the smell of ocean mist, or the feel of sand in between toes.
One has to be alone, under the sky,
Before everything falls into place and one finds
his or her own place in the midst of it all.
We have to have the humility to realize ourselves as part of nature.
Thomas Merton
Being in nature one becomes aware of the infinite circle of life. There is evidence of decay, destruction and death; there are also examples of rejuvenation, restoration, and renewal. The never-ending cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth can put life and death into perspective and impart a sense of constancy after experiencing a life changing loss or a death.
Yea, I am one with all I see,
With wind and wave, with pine and palm;
Their very elements in me
Are fused to make me what I am.
Through me their common life-stream flows,
And when I yield this human breath,
In leaf and blossom, bud and rose,
Live on I will….
There is no Death.
Robert Service
The many unending cycles of nature provide real-life examples of hope after a loss and of rebirth following death and/or destruction illustrating that loss is part of life. Nature reminds us that time stops for no one. The earth rotates around the sun. The sun sets on one day, only to rise again on a new day. Spring returns after the dark clouds of winter. Sunny days of summer follow the spring rains.

Sad soul, take comfort nor forget,
The sunrise never failed us yet.

Celia Laighton Thaxter
The constancy of the seasons provide some stability when everything else may be crumbling. In the darkest of times, memories of better times—past winters melting into spring can sustain us and provide hope—that happy spring days filled with joy will once again emerge out of the gloom of winter.
Like a crocus in the snow,
I stand knee-deep in Winter
Holding Springtime in my heart.
Joan Walsh Anglund
During the abundant dark days and difficult times that inevitably follow a significant loss, the grieving can utilize the ever-present power of nature for healing. Sometimes just simple words and unassuming imagery can serve as reminders of the strong natural forces around us and evoke the internal forces that exist deep within us. If the bereaved are able to look beyond their grief and become aware of the remarkable earth around us, these inner forces may surface and help provide them with the strength to survive the loss.
In the depths of winter,
I finally realized that deep within me
there lay an Invincible Summer.
Albert Camus
Nature’s Healing Forces
Nature has strong regenerative capabilities to heal damage caused by fire, lightening, flood, earthquakes or blights. Looking closely amidst the ruins of fire or flood affected areas one can find signs of new growth and new life. Nature demonstrates the ability to survive despite strong forces that challenge her.
If you watch how nature deals with adversity,
continually renewing itself,
you can’t help but learn.
Bernie Seigel, MD
In May 1980 Mount St. Helen’s erupted destroying an area 24 square miles. Scientists predicted the region would remain a dead zone for decades to come. Yet, only five years later after this natural devastation, a lupine bloomed at the base of the mountain, as a testimony to the tenacity and the regenerative forces of nature.
Nature is always lovely, invincible, glad,
Whatever is done and suffered by her creatures.
All scars she heals,
whether in rocks or water or sky or hearts.
John Muir
The giant sequoia trees have adapted to withstand fires by becoming fire-resistant. Black scars on the tree trunks serve as reminders those that have survived fire and lightening strikes. Fire is also a part of the sequoia’s life-cycle. Natural fires are needed to open up the forest, thin out the competing species and make way for the new seedlings.

Earth has no sorrow that earth cannot heal.

John Muir
Nature’s healing forces can serve as powerful recuperative images for those who have experienced a death or other significant loss. Images of the rebirth in nature can be useful as symbols for the strong internal forces, bringing hope of surviving the loss. From monumental newsworthy events to ordinary insignificant occurrences, one can witness the incredible destructive power and the amazing healing capabilities of nature and be reminded that:
Nature is the one place where miracles
not only happen,
but they happen all the time.
Thomas Wolfe
Nature as a Therapist

It is such a secret place,
the land of tears.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Nature can become a place of refuge for difficult times. When life stresses start closing in, one can escape to the wilderness physically or mentally. Being in nature helps to clear one’s head of life’s demands and disruptive thoughts. This clarity of thought may lead to finding answers to life’s questions and discovering insights to life problems.

Look deep, deep into nature, and then
You will understand everything better.

Albert Einstein
Raising our conscious awareness and tuning into nature, we can begin to tap into her abundant healing powers. Nature can be utilized as an ever-present trusted therapist to assist in the healing journey, a source of solace, and a close friend who is always ready listen to share our grief and our tears during hard times. Nature can provide a place on can turn to in times of deep sorrow, a place to stretch the legs.
When we need these healing times,
there is nothing better than a good long walk.
It is amazing
how the rhythmic movements
of the feet and legs
are so intimately attached
to cobweb cleaners in the brain.
Anne Wilson Schaef
Many of us find it difficult to see the blue skies beneath the passing gray storm clouds. It is true that if one hopes to see the rainbow, one must first live through the rain. Writer, speaker and author Helen Keller, who faced life being both visually and hearing challenged, shared her optimistic perspective on dealing with dark times:

Keep your face to the sunshine
and you cannot see the shadow.

Helen Keller
In nature one can discover many tangible, examples of powerful, natural imagery. Putting into words, verbally or in writing, the ordinary natural processes of the life cycle gives the grieving symbolism for rebirth and faith in the future. These images can help to instill hope in overcoming adversity and surviving loss.
Expect to have hope rekindled…
The dry seasons in life do not last.
The spring rains will come again.
Sarah Ban Breathnach
Grief descends like a winter snowstorm, covering everything in sight, in a mind-numbing blanket of sorrow. When a life-changing loss occurs, it is as if one has entered an eternal state of winter. Yet, the seasons that change year after year serve as constant reminders that nothing is permanent. After the long winter come the warm days of spring to melt away the enshrouding white blanket of grief. The once white landscape is altered turning into bright fields of multi-hued wildflowers, as the lands and animals awaken from their long winter’s sleep into springtime as if to tell us that:
Grief melts away
Like snow in May,
As if there were no such old thing.
George Herbert
Another effective nature imagery scene for dealing with loss is to envision a mountain of grief that must be climbed. The journey up the mountain begins with one small step, followed by another and another, until somehow, with time, the grieving ascend the mountain and reach the summit. Ultimately, those who reach the top of the mountain of grief do it by taking step after painful step.
What saves us is to take a step,
then another step.
It is always the same step,
but we have to take it.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
In the process fears about the climb, hopes about reaching the end of the journey, at first seemed insurmountable; but they are met and conquered. Coping with loss, it is our own internal grief response which must be faced. Sir Edmund Hillary, who climbed Mount Everest, points out:

It is not the mountains we conquer,
but ourselves.

Sir Edmund Hillary
or a variation on this quote:
You never conquer a mountain.
Mountains can't be conquered;
you conquer yourself
your hopes, your fears.
Jim Whitaker

Healing from Loss & Grief

I drop my head in my so empty hands
abandoning myself to deep dark grief
and know that with the passing time
will come relief.
Norah Leney
During the healing phase of grief, the bereaved need to be reminded by those close to them, of all they have endured, commended for the monumental effort to face the pain from the loss and admired for coping with the intense, internal struggles.
I never knew a night so black
Light failed to follow on its track.
I never knew a storm so gray
it failed to have it’s clearing day.
John Kendrick Bangs
With many losses, the pain never entirely departs, rather it becomes a part of the bereaved, tucked away in a corner somewhere in the deep recesses of the heart. There it remains at a constant low level ache. As one begins the healing process, the pain lessens to a level that he/she can function. Hopefully in time, the loss and the grief are integrated and become barely perceptible. Life begins anew, but it is a life forever changed. The bereaved person has been transformed by the loss—like a caterpillar spinning a cocoon to hibernate during dark times before emerging as a butterfly in the spring. The grieving process usually ends when people realize that they will survive and focus their energy on living.
He'd begun to wake up in the morning
with something besides dread in his heart.
Not exactly happiness,
not eagerness for a new day,
but a kind of urge to be eager,
A longing to be happy.
Jon Hasser
The recovery phase begins slowly piece by piece.
Piece by piece I re-enter the world.
A new phase,
a new body,
a new voice.
Birds console me by flying,
Trees by growing,
dogs by the warm patch they leave on the sofa,
unknown people merely by performing their motions.
It’s like a slow recovery from a sickness,
this recovery of one’s self.
Tony Talbot
Elements of nature can aid in the healing process providing hope where there appears to be none, knowing that the dawn follows the darkness, sunny skies emerge after storms and spring follows winter.
We must live through the dreary winter
If we would value the spring;
And the woods must be cold and silent
Before the robins sing.
The flowers must be buried in darkness
Before they can bud and bloom,
And the sweetest, warmest sunshine
Comes after the storm and gloom.

This article on Nature Awareness continues as Part 2: Coping with Loss Using Nature

Nature can do more than physicians.

Oliver Cromwell

See the Emergency 911 Page for links to immediate resources
if you are feeling helpless, hopeless, overwhelmingly depressed, or suicidal.

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Last update March 8, 2002