Immerse Yourself in Nature

September 2, 2009 at 4:25 am | Posted in Dealing with Depression, Dealing with Mania, stress | 3 Comments

Even stark beauty is beauty, and beauty can be found even near a missile range -- here, grasses photographed at White Sands, courtesy of istockphoto.com.

Even stark beauty is beauty, and beauty can be found even near a missile range -- here, grasses photographed at White Sands, courtesy of istockphoto.com.

I’ve been unable to find academic studies about the healing effects of nature on bipolar disorder. It figures; who stands to make money off of a good long hike? (Well, in my case, Smartwool, Patagonia and Mountain Hardware — but at least they’re environmentally friendly companies.) Even so, I believe that nature is deeply healing, and that a lot of my wellness over the last three years has to do with vigorous hiking and rock climbing. Below I’ve listed several reasons to get out into the wild, or to find the wild by the side of the road.

1. The most obvious benefit is exercise. From gardening to hiking to a gentle walk in the park, getting out into nature usually involves a certain amount of movement (though it doesn’t have to — see below). Exercise is the most reliable natural cure for depression, and can be as effective as medication in some cases.

2. It’s possible to leave your self behind, sometimes for extended periods of time. This probably sounds a little odd. After all, one of the most horrible things about depression is its persistence: it’s always there perched in the corner, if not careening around in your skull. However, if you find some aspect of nature that you like — say, a bug or a flower — and you really look at it, observing and enumerating the details, you can lose track of your misery for minutes at a time. It’s possible, with concentration, to project yourself into a bit of nature and feel yourself to be a grasshopper or spiderweb. This is incredibly refreshing and renewing if you’re tired of the sound of your own thoughts.

3. In nature, you can sit quietly and listen, and gradually you will hear the most amazing sounds. Just the varieties of bird and wind sounds can heal you.

4. If you can safely go alone, nature can provide comforting solitude when you might otherwise be lonely. With luck, you can go for hours without hearing another human voice. Sometimes this can be a tremendous relief. Remember, though, that hiking alone in remote areas can be dangerous, since snakebite and falls, for example, can be a real threat.

5. You can take a friend and have an in-depth conversation without the distractions of cell phones, internet, and other people. My cell phone does sometimes ring even when I think I’m well off the grid, but you can always turn off your ringer and really focus on present company. You can also point out lovely features to each other that you might miss on your own.

6. Nature is omnipresent. You can carefully observe a single tree, or even a bit of lawn, and spy miracles. People may think I’m crazy for studying an aphid, but so what? They’re right (though not for the reasons they might think).

A most attractive aphid.

A most attractive aphid.

7. A good, hard hike can sometimes calm hypomania, absorbing just enough of that electric energy to take you back down to safe heights. Also, when you’re hypomanic and colors shine brighter and words leap and flow, nature is more beautiful than ever.

8. You can buy a bird or bug book and look for common wildlife even in urban areas. Believe me, once you pay attention, there are plenty of creatures besides pigeons. In fact, when the pigeons take off in a flock, that’s your moment to search the sky for a hawk.

9. As Hopkins knew, the book of nature can reveal God’s grandeur.

10. If your doctor agrees that you are, to some degree, disabled, you can get free admission to national parks for life. Mental disabilities do count. I plan to hit up my shrink for a letter soon.

A female falcon in flight -- Hopkins' Windhover.

A female falcon in flight -- Hopkins' Windhover.

11. If nature itself isn’t readily available, you can read nature poets. Gerard Manley Hopkins is my favorite. Check out “Pied Beauty,” “The Windhover,” and “That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection” and see if you’re not deeply puzzled, then gradually inspired. Read it aloud. It’s difficult stuff, and perhaps better grasped by the heart than the head, but in the end it rewards study. His poetry is also deeply religious in nature, and often deals with extreme emotional states. (He was certainly depressed, and perhaps bipolar.) If Hopkins isn’t your cup of tea, try Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”, or Shelley’s “To a Skylark.” In truth, just about any Romantic poet will do. I’m stuck for contemporary poets; feel free to leave suggestions in the comments.

So get out there. I’m going to try to this weekend.

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3 Comments »

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  1. By the way, Gary Snyder is one contemporary eco-poet some readers find very worthwhile. Some of my American lit undergrads didn’t much like him because they found his stuff too difficult at first acquaintance, but I enjoyed my brief time with some of his poetry.

  2. Bravo on Hopkins and Wordsworth — it’s hard to go beyond Hopkins for spiritual precision (and those wonderful nature poems!) or Wordsworth for the sheer beauty of some of his lines. Matthew Arnold deserves an honorable mention, too. Poems such as “The Buried Life” have always resonated with me for their honest exploration of inner conflict and confusion.

  3. One of my favorite modern nature poets is Mary Oliver. She has several books of mostly nature poems. I agree with you that getting out in nature is able to change your mood. If I’m feeling down in the afternoon, a walk in the woods can cure me for the rest of the day.


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