When I was growing up in the Adirondacks, nature was my playground, and the woods behind our house was a second home. Summers were spent hiking Mount Baker or swimming and fishing in Moody Pond. My mother’s garden – where we picked squash, beans and rhubarb – taught me to understand nature’s lifecycle. In the spring, the smell of lilacs infused the air.
During the winter months, I enjoyed sledding in the front yard, skiing Pisgah Mountain, and (my favorite) skating the frozen pond at the bottom of our hill. Every winter, I would wait anxiously until my father had carefully evaluated the thickness of the ice to determine if it was safe to proceed. Then he would shovel a personal skating rink for me. We would spend hours together on the ice, racing each other, imitating the speed skaters from the Olympics we’d seen in nearby Lake Placid in 1980. I’m sure I wasn’t the only girl of the era to have Olympic dreams.
Growing up, we had only three stations on our black and white TV, which forced me to find my own entertainment. This inevitably led to time spent outdoors. Fortunately for me, both of my parents were at home in nature. They loved camping, hiking, and canoeing. Parents of that era would shoo their children outside first thing on a Saturday morning, understanding at an intuitive level that children need to have a relationship with their natural environment.
Back then, I would seek out my neighbor and best buddy, David. We would hit the woods, exploring the tree fort my sister Allison had built or collecting turtles or toads, whatever caught our eye; we’d stay busy until the sun went down.
My girlfriends and I had a favorite summer tradition of camping out in the backyard. Once it was dark, my jokester father would imitate a bear to give us a little scare and keep us on our toes. On clear spring evenings, Dad would set up his telescope to view the stars in the sky, often pointing out the star for which I was named, Aldebaran, in the constellation Taurus. All these years later, I have found nothing that compares to an Adirondack sky.
I have no doubt that growing up a child of the woods has had an impact on my current work as a physician. Medical studies show that children benefit when they commune with nature. Time in nature allows children unstructured, creative learning opportunities; it teaches them respect for the environment while providing much-needed physical activity. Increasing rates of depression among children and teens have led many in the mental health field to examine environmental factors for clues, including a child’s interaction with nature. Researchers at Cornell have found that access to natural environments appears to protect children from stress. Additionally, for children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, time in nature can minimize their symptoms and provide an alternative to the powerful pharmaceuticals commonly in use.
The concept of nature as a source for healing is not new or original. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, expressed his belief that “nature cures, not the physician.” Galen, the renowned Greek physician and philosopher, agreed, stating: “The physician is only nature’s assistant.” Henry David Thoreau often wrote about the human need for the natural world, claiming that “we need the tonic of wildness.”
In its heyday, my home town of Saranac Lake was a center of healing for patients with tuberculosis. Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau came to the mountains expecting to die; he not only survived but also went on to found The Adirondack Cottage Sanatorium, so that other patients could “take the cure.” Robert Louis Stevenson was probably the most famous patient to come seeking a cure in the crisp mountain air, living in the Baker Cottage, not far from the home where I grew up.
Today, modern medicine is moving back in the direction of using nature and her elements as a source for healing. Hospitals are emphasizing natural settings with skylights, courtyards, and gardens, giving patients opportunities for contemplation and relaxation. Medical studies have found that natural scenes reduce blood pressure and enhance psychological wellbeing. I have seen firsthand the power of nature at work. “Janine,” a patient of mine, suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. During her long and difficult recovery, she found taking her wheelchair to the park and visiting the stables where she kept her horse to be powerful tools for coping with anxiety and pain. Additionally, through the use of visualization techniques emphasizing natural sounds and scenes, she was able to relax, learning to control the muscle cramps that plagued her.
“Janine’s” story is by no means unique. As we continue to understand the importance of the natural world to human health, it is more important than ever to protect our natural spaces. In the tradition of physicians who have come before me, I often find myself recommending time in nature to my patients seeking refuge from their hectic lives.
Aldebra Schroll is a family medicine physician and writer with an interest in holistic health.