Nature therapy as old as mankind itself

The Barkeaters, who originally ranged across the Adirondack region and throughout New England, had a widely varied diet that was adjusted according to the season to take advantage of annual migrations and breeding seasons.

Their diets typically included a mix of berries, tubers, fruit and even tree bark, which offered both sustenance and medicine. Meat was available from the fish, fowl and furbearers that frequented the region’s rivers, lakes and streams.

Their local forests hosted whitetail deer, moose, rabbit and beaver. There were also fruits, fungi and similar critters that offered sustenance for medicinal benefits, as well as fur, skins and bone utensils. The vast wild forests of the Northeast provided a healthy environment for humans and wildlife alike.

In the current day, medical experts continue to uncover numerous untapped health benefits in the northern forests. The extent of such offerings extends well beyond herbs and mushrooms, to include a host of medicinal plants and trees. Red spruce, balsam fir and black spruce needles provide a refreshing tea that is particularly rich in vitamin C. Maple syrup is also rich in thiamin, riboflavin and niacin. 

Natural health practitioners continue to uncover the natural medicinal benefits of wild mushrooms such as chaga, and the surprising boost of calcium available in birch sap. In Korea, Japan and Ukraine, birch is regarded as the “tree that is good for the bones.” It is boiled down into a sweet, similar to maple sap, but the birch sap is most often consumed fresh, directly from the tree.

Nature therapy — aka eco-therapy — is an age-old practice of health care that has proven to be effective with those who suffer from depression, anxiety, seasonal affective disorders and similar mental health issues. Although nature therapy is likely as old as mankind, the established mental health community has been hesitant to recognize such practices, even as research studies reveal that nearly three quarters of respondents in a variety of studies have reported they felt less depressed after simply taking a walk in the country.

In another study conducted in 2010, researchers discovered that people who spent a majority of their time in a forest environment, immersed in the natural sights, scents and sounds of nature, had lower levels of cortisol, lower pulse rates and diminished blood pressure readings which are primary indicators of stress and heart disease. 

Go green

The smell of evergreens is a pleasant note to most folks. It is a scent that often transports us to a different place and time. There are very few environments that offer the natural antiseptic quality of a stroll through a balsam forest. Unfortunately, most folks only visit balsam forests to get their Christmas tree.

Balsam pillows were once considered an  important component of taking “the cure” in the

the tuberculosis cure cottages and “sans” that once dotted the landscape of Saranac Lake. The pillows could be found in all the cure cottages, as well as in the local pharmacies.

Balsam needles can also be used to brew up a refreshing tea, which is high in Vitamin C and known to put you in a good mood. 

Come to think about it, have you ever run into a grumpy logger, hiker or forest ranger? When we’re in the woods, we’re usually in a good frame of mind, despite black flies, leaky tents and noisy neighbors. 

The wild woods and waters have a natural way of putting all creatures at ease. It’s easy to understand. Our species evolved, while spending considerably more time in the wild than in a civilized society. 

We continue to suffer under a barrage of unnatural distractions and unnecessary data. Although our self-defense mechanisms allow us to sort it all out, it can be overwhelming at times.

However, in our effort to move forward, it never hurts to consider our past.

The modern form of our species evolved about 200,000 years ago, and most of today’s civilized societies have existed for just a mere fraction of that time. 

Our species existed as hunter-gatherers for the  majority of their time on this planet, and they have only been bound by the principles of civilized man, for less than 4,000 years or so.

If not for human’s historic bond with dogs, which offered protection, hunting, hauling and herding capabilities, mankind may never advanced beyond a “wild” state.

In terms of this development, it is easy to understand mankind’s natural attraction to the wild, and to dogs in particular.

In a sense, human development remained exceptionally wild and natural until the development of the printed word in 800 BC.

Until such time, humans learned almost exclusively by example. For far too long, modern medical practitioners have failed to consider our wild past in their efforts to deal with stress, depression and similar afflictions that were once described as melancholy or the blues.

Too often, the solution to such ills involves a quick fix prescription delivered with the admonition, “Take two pills in the morning, and call me when you need a refill.”

Throughout the history of mankind, across a spectrum of cultures, prophets and wise men have taken to the woods, the waters or the wilderness in their efforts to cure what ailed them. 

Moses went to the mountain, Christ went off to the desert and Brigham Young traveled to the wilds of Utah.

In Australia, aborigines participate in “walkabouts” while native Pacific Islanders set out in massive canoes to test the limits of their physical and mental capabilities and navigational skills.

Native peoples across North and South America participate in similar Vision Quest ceremonies that are conducted in the wild. I often wonder if such practices actually provide them with an answer to their problems or if the journey simply provides them with the opportunity to escape the daily din of their own particular civilization regardless of how advanced or primitive it may be.

Although it is difficult to completely walk or run away from our problems, modern medical practitioners have finally acknowledged the positive physical and psychological effects that can be achieved by getting back to nature. 

It certainly has been a long time coming, but even such small steps signify a huge leap in our willingness to consider the potential health benefits of being immersed in an all-natural world.

While we may never be able to completely run away from our troubles, there is evidence that we can find therapeutic respite from our woes by taking a walk in the woods where the sight, scents, sounds and signs of nature serve to dampen or deflect the damaging affects of our stress and worries.

A January 2016 National Geographic magazine feature story, “This Is Your Brain on Nature” author Florence Williams uncovered the diverse and unique ways people find solace in nature amid their fast-paced, modern lifestyles.

“We evolved in nature. It’s strange we’ve become so disconnected,” she wrote. “Whether it’s a couple of kids scrambling through a snowy forest, a lone hiker taking in the view from a mountain summit, or a slow stroll in quiet corner of a bustling city, there is growing evidence that natural surroundings have stress-relieving effects  that make us us healthier, happier, and smarter.”

Now I understand why my mother chased us out the back door every morning! She was obviously, a very smart woman, and we are all better for it.

Parents must continue to do their own part and chase their kids, and grandkids out as well. There’s plenty of wild entertainment to be found outdoors. It is evident from the mud on your boots, the grass stains on your jeans and the smile on your face.


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