by Erin Kirkland
Greek healer and writer Hippocrates, considered by most to be the father of Western medicine, often relied upon the outdoors as a salve for what might ail his fellow man. “Nature cures,” he wrote in one of his many volumes of instruction. “Not the physician.” Hippocrates practiced then-unconventional methods of observation and diagnosis during his life and continued to nurture the concept that the outdoors, with its ongoing sensory power, regardless of season, could be a powerful partner in the healing process.
Many centuries later, a young mother recently diagnosed with breast cancer steps outside her home and breathes deeply, carrying to her core the scent of springtime. A young child, wracked with emotion over the death of his mother, decorates a walking stick at a camp designed to help grieving children and joins other kids on a hike to a placid lake.
Restorative, comfortable, and oh-so beautiful, the outdoors has long brought comfort and delight to humans – in good times and bad. But only in the last decade has the idea of utilizing Hippocrates’ philosophy of nature and medicine become mainstream as physicians, therapists, and patients alike utilize the connection as a form of viable treatment. If you stop to think about it, natural spaces contain all the elements of birth, life, and death, every day.
Take the four seasons, for example. Seeds grow, plants thrive, then die, leaving behind a legacy of progeny and nutrients in the form of dying leaves and seeds within the soil for next year. Or the predator-prey cycle. Even natural disasters like fires, floods, or the eruption of a volcano mean nature must restore itself, sometimes over a great length of time. But it always does. And it can for people, too.
“It kept me sane”
Blair Bozarth is 34, married, and has a busy two-year-old son, Benjamin. In February of 2016, Bozarth was getting ready for work one day and felt a lump in her right breast. Within two days she was immersed in a whirlwind of tests, consultations, and an eventual diagnosis of Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. She was scared, and worried about losing herself in medical terminology, chemotherapy, and impending surgery. The first place she went upon receiving her diagnosis, she said, was outside.
“I spent the entire day in my backyard, making phone calls and crying. Once chemo started, I walked. Every day, for weeks. It kept me sane.” Bozarth also noticed she paid more attention to the little details that nature provides. Like rainstorms. “Walking just after a rain (storm), the smell of wet asphalt. I would leave the windows wide open, and with the sound of raindrops falling heavily on my roof, I literally healed,” she said.
For her husband and son, who had to struggle with an enormous lifestyle change very quickly, time spent together in the forests near their home in Anchorage, Alaska were precious. Once Bozarth completed 16 weeks of chemotherapy, the family went camping in an effort to relax prior to the next phase of treatment; surgery. Bozarth wore her son near her chest as often as she could. They played on the sandy beaches of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, they stayed up late, went fishing, and celebrated effortless moments of joy. By the time Bozarth’s surgery date arrived, she said, they were ready for it.
“I ended up having two surgeries in 10 days, but was able to get outside every day with Ben. My husband put up a shade to keep me out of the sun, and we bought Ben a small collection of water toys to keep him busy,” she said. “It was simple and perfect.”
“A safe place”
For Christi Crowley of Providence Hospice in Portland, Oregon, the coordination of nature and nurture means grieving children have a place to deal with topics most adults don’t like to talk about. Crowley is the coordinator of Camp Erin Portland, an annual summer support system for kids suffering the loss of a loved one. For an entire weekend, children between the ages of 6 and 17 go to camp within the calm sanctuary of a Pacific Northwest forest.
Children who are grieving are at a greater risk for depression, drug use, suicide, and poverty. They also struggle with guilt and feelings of isolation, as if no one else could possibly relate to their feelings. It’s frightening, Crowley says, and the concept of camp allows for a safe space for the grief process to unfold with supportive efforts of staff and volunteers.
“Many of our families don’t know what grief camp is, but they do know the concept of summer camp, and that aura provides an almost instantaneous sense of peace as soon as they step out of the car,” she said.
In its 12th year, Camp Erin Portland served 81 kids in 2016, allowing youngsters the freedom to be children, with bouncy houses, drama classes, hiking, music, scavenger hunts, and campfires – all the elements of camp people recall from their own childhoods. The big difference, Crowley says, is attention to nature’s impactful symbolism on children who know more about dying and death than most.
Hikes reveal examples of seasonal cycles and the role every living thing plays with its own unique beauty. A dead bird along the trail initiates real discussions about living and dying and the ongoing contributions within nature’s real circle of survival; concepts that may seem far beyond the comprehension of a kid, but valuable information for the grieving process. There are no electronics at Camp Erin, and staff and volunteers work hard to engage children through discussions, one-on-one dialogue, and simple activities that encourage interaction.
Jacquelyn Love, a child bereavement counselor for Providence Hospice in Portland, emphasizes Crowley’s concept of safety as the kids move through their weekend.
“Nature doesn’t reject people,” she said. “It feels good, peaceful, and has the ability to open minds.”
Erin Kirkland is managing editor of Outdoor Families Magazine. She is based in Anchorage, Alaska, where she publishes AKontheGO.com, a family travel and outdoor recreation resource.