It is now well evidenced that spending time outdoors can be therapeutic for both our physical and mental health. Over the last five years especially, there has been a tsunami of research about therapeutic outdoor experiences covering everything from walking, to mindfulness, to gardening, to working with animals, to surfing, to Forest Bathing to wilderness travel.
But really, most of us don’t need the research - the only evidence we require is our own personal experience. Anyone who spends time outdoors knows it's therapeutic. No-brainer.
So we know outdoor experiences heal us - whether we trust our own experience or head to the University library to drown in the formal evidence. But why do they heal us? How does it work? What is it about being outdoors that is therapeutic?
This article is the first in a series that offers some ideas to respond to these questions, based on my own professional practice over the years. Some of them are more flaky than others, so please do comment if you can help!
Before we go any further though, let’s be clear about one thing: the reasons why nature heals are complex! And this, in fact, is the first way that being outdoors is therapeutic.
We are complex living beings, living in a web of other complex living beings. Moving inwards, we depend on other webs of complexity living inside us, which maintain our skin, digestion, immunity and many other organs and functions essential for our survival. Deeper still, we enter a web of molecules, atoms and sub-atomic particles. All connected.
Moving outwards, we find the web we depend on for air, water, food, fuel… actually everything - extends out even beyond the atmosphere of our planet. Sunlight ultimately powers everything. Our tides - in fact our own reproductive systems - depend on the gravitational pull of the moon. Our planet is held within liveable limits by the neighbours in its solar system. And on to the stars and planets beyond our own corner of the Universe, to the Universe itself.’We are starlight, we are golden’ (thanks Joni). All connected.
Whichever way you go, it’s webs all the way.
But what is a web? If you imagine that each living being is a knot in the web, then what are the strands? They are the processes which connect all living things together (often themselves made up of other webs of living things and processes). The processes that balance oxygen in the air, that create fresh water through the evaporation of the oceans, that pollinate the plants we eat, which also feed the animals (some of us) eat, that provide carbon dioxide for the trees - which in turn balance oxygen in the air. And so on… and on, and indeed on.
So we are held in webs and these webs are made of processes that connect everything together.
Douglas Adams, the author of the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy wrote about a special device called a Total Perspective Vortex. If you went inside the device, you were given a momentary insight into the infinite connectivity of the Universe. This experience was lethal. Such complexity is too much for the human intellect to comprehend.
But… it is not too much for the human body to comprehend. And this is where I get to the point.
Spending time outdoors in environments where we can more directly experience ourselves as part of the web that sustains us, makes us feel safe. It makes us feel secure, calm and aware that there are systems and processes at work that want us to thrive. For most of us these feelings will be unconscious (we won’t be aware of them) or at least subconscious (we’ll be aware of something but not able to quite pin-point what it is). What we are consciously aware of though, is that we feel better.
The word ‘heal’ has its etymological root in the Old English word (from Germanic origin), Hǣlen. This means ‘whole’ in the sense of ‘to restore to sound health’. So experiencing ourself as part of our vast and infinite ‘whole’ web of life literally restores us to sound health.
Only healing the whole will heal the individual
Finally, we should make a distinction between actually being part of a complex living web - and thinking that we are, or, in fact, are not. Biologically we are part of such a web. If you hold your breath for half an hour you can test this out for yourself. However, psychologically we - in our dominant industrial growth culture at least - persist in believing we are not part of such a web. And we live accordingly, actively and knowingly destroying almost everyone of its processes, to the detriment of all its dependents. Including ourselves.
This is why the healing effect of outdoor experiences is also a profoundly powerful way of encouraging us to live more sustainably. Physical, sensory outdoor experiences work on us, often in ways that we can hardly perceive at the time, so that what we think we are, comes to match what we actually are - living beings dependent on a vast web of other living beings and all the relationships that connect everything together.
Article #2 in the series takes a look at the idea of evolutionary memory.
With special thanks to Dan Simperingham for spotting the title.
Photo: Jeremy Thomas / Unsplash