I write a lot about the importance of respecting Nature and taking a more “natural” approach to everything in medicine in the 21st century. And it’s quite trendy right now to “get back to Nature.”
But it’s also easier said than done.
The vast majority of people in the U.S. today don’t live in natural wilderness. And the vast majority of people who DO have any direct contact with natural wilderness do so through carefully planned, scheduled outings in areas of managed or semi-managed national parks, state parks and recreation areas, national forests, and the like.
So what does “natural” even mean to modern men and women?
I recently saw a quote that illustrates how we are of two minds about Nature. The natural “know-it-all” states, “Getting lost in the wilderness is a good way to find yourself.” To which the wilderness professional guide responds, “Getting lost in the wilderness is a good way to get yourself killed.”
It’s true, our experience of Nature today isn’t nearly as direct as our prehistoric human ancestors, or even the European settlers in North America during the 17th to 18th centuries, or during the westward expansion of the 18th to 19th centuries.
These early American pioneers who directly encountered the dangers of true wilderness living weren’t sentimental or romantic about their interactions with Nature. They were necessarily pragmatic about it.
In fact, the early English settlers in America experienced Nature as “hostile” and “death-giving.” And this view about the hostility of Nature dates back to the first descriptions in Old English around 900 A.D. (e.g. Beowulf, The Wanderer, The Dream of the Rood).
Nature has a part in healing — body, mind and spirit
During the Enlightenment, the idea of Nature, and the natural state of humans, began to change. Natural philosophers believed Nature worked according to a divine plan. Physical scientists took a more “rational” approach that everything in Nature has an intrinsically logical design.
Then, in America, “Transcendentalists” Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir began to promote the importance of spending time in Nature for the good of the body, mind and spirit. As American philosophers, they also upheld the importance of the “examined life” from ancient Greek philosophy.
The Transcendentalists emphasized the importance of contemplation, reflection, and what today we would call mindfulness and meditation on the “meaning of life.”
The idea of contemplation in, and of, Nature and wilderness, “far from the madding crowd.”
Their early American philosophy, in a country still being carved out from the wild, illustrates the idea of meditation that can be found in the tradition of American arts and letters. Indeed, you don’t have to go to a Buddhist monastery to practice meditation, as I explain with Donald McCown, in our book New World Mindfulness.
By the mid-19th century, Philadelphia neurologist and novelist Silas Weir Mitchell developed the popular “rest cure” or “nature cure.” It simply involved sending patients out to wilderness resorts for rest, recuperation and recovery.
In fact, a version of “rest cure” known as the “west cure” sent young men to the western frontier for rejuvenation. In the late 1800s, a young and sickly Theodore Roosevelt took this advice to go out west for a cure. The experience had a life-long impact on Roosevelt, leading to his connections with the Transcendental environmentalist, John Muir. Of course, Roosevelt’s presidency of “muscular” Americanism included an interest and respect for experiencing Nature, and political action for preserving and conserving wilderness and Nature.
The surprising way to get some benefits of Nature without setting foot outdoors
Some see Ansel Adams — the 20th century artist, photographer and visual communicator — as a philosophical heir to the Transcendentalists. He is known for illustrating that “one picture is worth a thousand words” and gave average citizens a view of Nature they might not otherwise ever see.
Adams meticulously documented Nature and developed new photographic techniques to advance the medium. His work allowed millions around the world — who would not ever climb the face of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, for example — to observe accurate, dramatic depictions of Nature.
Adams (in my view) took up in his photographic work, a romantic view of Nature and wilderness from the earlier 19th century romantic landscape painters. Being in “love” with Nature is more a manifestation of human sensibilities. It is not only about scientific rationality. Romanticists like Adams appeal to the heart, which is just as important as appealing to the head or intellect for motivating human behavior.
These romantic ideas about Nature and wilderness, as well as the science, inspire people today to believe in conservation and preservation. It inspires us to live “naturally” for our health and well-being. It also encourages cultural respect and concern for Nature. Ultimately, it leads us to take socio-political actions to protect the environment.
When spending some free time out in Nature these last weeks before summer’s end, we can thank these early artists, scientists and policymakers for our having access to natural wilderness areas to experience for ourselves.