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Dec 13

Health & Wellness in Wilderness

Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal, or heaven cannot heal, for the earth as seen in the clean wilds of the mountains is about as divine as anything the heart of man can conceive.

-John Muir, 1872

View from Horse Pasture Trail

Looking south from Horse Pasture Trail

The healing power of nature has long been expounded by writers and poets, early Americans such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and John Muir, eloquently boasted of the restorative qualities of nature-connection while the industrial society and mind-set around them rapidly gained steamed in the 19th century.  Unfortunately, those notions of a healing force in wild nature have historically been relegated to the realm of romanticism and whimsy as an ever more technologically driven society has continued to expand and envelope human consciousness and wreck havoc upon the earth.  While Americans have always had a certain respect for wild nature, as evidenced by the establishment and continued popularity of National Parks, National Forests, State Parks and Wilderness areas, viewing them as important sources of healing (and learning) has never quite held the prominence and prestige that's due.  Until now.

In the last decade, a growing body of literature and professional circles are giving credence to this idea that "nature heals".  Recently, the American Public Health Association (APHA, reputedly "the oldest and most diverse organization of public health professionals in the world") at their 141st Annual Meeting in Boston on November 5th, 2013, adopted 17 new policy statements , including policy #20137, Nature, health and wellness-

To aid in promoting healthy and active lifestyles, encourages land use decisions that prioritize access to natural areas and green spaces for residents of all ages, abilities and income levels. Calls on public health, medical and other health professionals to raise awareness among patients and the public at-large about the health benefits of spending time in nature and of nature-based play and recreation. Also urges such professionals to form partnerships with relevant stakeholders, such as parks departments, school districts and nature centers. Calls for promoting natural landscaping.

This historic policy adoption is a tremendous institutional acknowledgment of the importance of nature connection and its health benefits, for young and old alike, and hopefully will result in more opportunities and inspiration for people to experience the healing wonder and beauty of natural environments in meaningful ways.  Author Richard Louv, often credited with inspiring the international movement to re-connect children with nature, famously coined the term "nature deficit disorder" to describe the negative consequences that have resulted from more and more children having less and less contact with the natural world-- including attention disorders, obesity and depression.  The societal trend away from outdoor recreation was documented in a 2007 study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showing an overall downward trend in nature-based recreation by Americans over the last several decades.  The contemporary disconnection from nature, and prevalence of screen-based gagedtry technology, may be negatively shaping broad environmental attitudes and legitimate concerns and efforts for conservation.  According to Outdoor Nation (a non-profit dedicated to reconnecting youth to nature) the typical young person today spends a staggering 8 hours in front a screen daily, and just minutes outdoors.  The trend in education has also been to increase learning through screens, while more and more of the leading research indicates the importance of learning and exercising in natural environments for health and wellness.  (Read more about the latest research at the Children and Nature Network website.)

The APHA's acknowledgement, along with the growing nature-connection movement that is sprouting up in countries all around the world,  is evidence that the tide is shifting and that we are once again remembering the great importance of quality time in nature, especially for young people.

Red earth in the Silver Peak Wilderness

Red earth in the Silver Peak Wilderness

"The future will belong to the nature-smart, those individuals, families, business and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world, and who balance the virtual with the real." -Richard Louv

While its all too easy to pass time surfing the internet, facebooking, watching TV or playing video games (or doing all those simultaneously on your smart phone while texting) encouraging more folks, young and old alike, to unplug and get outdoors and experience nature might be just the revolution we need in health-care.  Research indicates that time in nature can improve cognition, lower blood pressure, reduce stress and depression and boost empathy, among other benefits.  There's no substitute for being out in the fresh air of a wild area or park.

Students from Rancho Cielo cross the Little Sur River on a Youth in Wilderness outing

Students and staff from Rancho Cielo cross the Little Sur River on a Youth in Wilderness outing

"All children deserve contact with nature as part of their heritage…. The more our children see and know of the natural world around them, the better equipped they will be to face the basic realities of life and realize the noble potential of existence this planet has to offer."  –ANSEL ADAMS, US photographer, 1902-84

A student from Rancho Cielo takes a moment to bask in the greenery

A student from Rancho Cielo takes a moment to bask in the beauty

In Japan, researchers have been studying the health benefits of nature since 2004, collecting data at their 48 designated Forest Therapy trails, where folks go to literally bathe in the healing greenery of the forest.  (Read Outside Magazine's December 2012 article, "The Nature Cure: The Surprising Health Benefits of the Great Outdoors").  After hikes, researchers routinely check people's blood pressure, do hormone analysis and even brain-imaging technology that measure the effects at a molecular level, all in order to continually amass data to support the growing Forest Therapy project.  In the next 10 years, they hope to increase the number of Forest Therapy trails to 100.  The Japanese use the term 'shinrin-yoku' for the practice, which translates as "forest bathing", with the idea being to let nature enter your body through all five senses.  This practice probably catches on more easily in a culture whose philosophy emphasizes the intrinsic relationship between all things in the universe and recognizes the bio-energetic field of the human body, referred to as 'ki' in Japan, 'chi' in China (and elsewhere.)

These advancements in science, that recognize the heath benefits of nature, are promising and give hope that a nature-rich heritage will be there for future generations of earthlings, realizing we cannot forget that from which we came and depend on.  Not only is connecting with nature and wild areas good for our health, it promotes active engagement in the stewardship and protection of wild areas against the continual threats of an ever-expanding, resource-hungry society.  My hope is that more and more people will realize that without fresh air, fertile soil and clean water-- we have nothing-- and more people will work to promote their protection and we can begin to bring things back into balance. A certain reverence and respect comes from spending time in nature, and guides us in our day to day lives.

Students from UCSC having fun atop the Tanbark trail after a day of stewardship

Students from UCSC having fun atop the Tanbark trail after a day of stewardship

Ventana Wilderness Alliance's Youth in Wilderness (YiW) program is doing its part to help introduce area youth to their local wild areas and the health and wellness that can be found there.  Learn more at the YiW page and find out how you can get involved or support our efforts to create a healthy, nature-rich future. Thanks for reading. . . now get outside and bathe in the beauty!        

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