The healing power of nature

Lo, when the sun streams through the wood,
Upon a winter’s morn,
Where’er his silent beams intrude
The murky night is gone.

Henry David Thoreau, The Inward Morning

There is a healing power in nature that many humans recognize intuitively, whether or not we can spin the leaves and soil into poetry like Henry Thoreau, Mary Oliver or Wendell Berry. Some find solace in a quiet fishing trip, others head north to a cabin in the woods. For me, I have a collection of favorite local trails where I return time and again to work out the worries of the day.

Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

Mary Oliver, Wild Geese

If you’ve ever noticed that you feel happier and more relaxed after spending time outdoors, you won’t be surprised to hear that research shows a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression. In fact, “calming nature sounds and even outdoor silence can lower blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which calms the body’s fight-or-flight response.” (Harvard Health Publishing, 2018)

In the growing scientific field of ecotherapy, nature is prescribed as a therapeutic treatment to improve both physical and mental health. The University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing brings together professors and researchers from the School of Nursing, Medical School, College of Veterinary Medicine, College of Pharmacy, School of Public Health, and School of Dentistry to conduct research and develop innovative engagement programs and models of care. They have found that being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, softens feelings of anger, fear, and stress, in addition to reducing the physical manifestations of these feelings – blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones. Other research has shown that children with ADHD are better able to focus their minds when outdoors in nature and retain an increased attention span later, after coming back inside.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

Wendell Berry

Unlike with prescription drugs, nature doesn’t require a precise formula in order to work its magic. You can spend 20-30 minutes in nature three times a week, take a deeper dive into the wild during a multi-day camping trip, or craft a quiet corner in a garden to visit every day. It also matters not whether you immerse yourself in nature alone or with friends and family. The researchers at Harvard noted that people suffering from a serious illness, unemployment, or the death of a loved one experienced the greatest mental boost from spending time outdoors in nature with other people. For a busy parent, taxed by the daily grind of work and home school, on the other hand, a moment of leafy solitude could be just what the doctor ordered.

I want to lie down in dappled leaf-shade,
In quivering shadows of quivering leaves –
be they oak, be they maple,
be they elm or birch,
I want to rest in the play of shadows
over my reclining form,
The massage of shadows
which consoles me in its way.


Whether or not I understand the exact ways in which nature alters the neurons in my brain and the beating of my heart, I can appreciate the way I feel when fresh air hits my face and the busy noise of modern life fades away. I am happier in nature and for me, that is enough.

To learn more about the healing benefits of nature:

To find new outdoor destinations to explore in Washington County: