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Entries in nature (2)


Is Nature a Cure for Depression? 

Photo copywrited by Kathy Riepe @ Disorder is a relatively new concept that just might become the next catch phrase in our evolving lexicon. It refers to the physical and mental ailments of people disconnected from nature. Researchers suspect that our brains have difficulty functioning with a lack of natural stimulants, a situation that defines the modern, post- industrial world. Some believe that the human brain is unable to deal with the information-overloaded lifestyle, created by electronic technology.

Consequently, mental health interventionists, in an attempt to trace the roots of depression in our society, suspect that it is a direct result of 21st-century life. To corroborate their suspicion, scientists point to third world countries, where populations are yet untouched by modernity, and where rates of depression are lowest.

In his latest work, author Dr. Andrew Weil addresses the topic of sadness. Titled Spontaneous Happiness, his book was featured recently at Newsweek’s, online magazine, The Daily Beast. In that post, excerpts from the book were quoted to elaborate on the relationship between feeling depressed and being disconnected from nature.

While Dr. Weil is not universally acknowledged as a final authority, his many published works resonate with a significant portion of the public. Some consider him a medical guru; his influence in the mainstream is significant because his books attract media interest. However, on the subject of the healing power of nature, Dr. Weil gets my attention, as well.

Those of us who’ve been gardening for a lifetime, or even just a season, are aware of the feeling of euphoria and of the sense of well being that accompanies time spent outdoors. Circulating and shared among gardeners are anecdotes about the lingering physical and mental benefits of working in sun and fresh air, of immersing our bare hands into rich, warm soil, about admiring butterflies, and listening to the sounds of water, birds, and wind.

To understand the healing and invigorating powers of being both outdoors and away from modern life, one only has to observe the large numbers of people who regularly reconnect with nature to visit, camp out at, and explore national and state parks around the country.

Another aspect of nature that may contribute to one’s well being is the act of experiencing majestic landscape vistas. For many years, when I worked in industry, I would leave town every Friday afternoon in summer, to join my wife, for the weekend, in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York. Just past the midpoint of my trip on Interstate 89, somewhere between the town of Plattsburgh and the village of Schroon Lake, there are a few combined mountain-and-sky vistas that make me gasp - they are that awesome to behold. Even after thirty years of driving the identical route every summer weekend, this scenery continues to emotionally overwhelm me.

The restorative benefits to my body and mind, when reconnecting with the outdoors, begin with my eyes, while I am driving on the highway, admiring the scenery.  By the time I arrived at the cabin, my stress and fatigue have dissipated. The clean, fresh, mountain air, that greets me as I step out of the car, is the ultimate natural remedy for the fatigue of the workweek.

Dr. Weil writes that in addition to the beauty and spiritual sustenance that it supplies, nature is essential to keeping our brains and nervous systems in good working order. Some of the examples he cites include the important contribution to brain health supplied by the sun’s vitamin D, the benefits to our sleep cycle from exposure to bright daylight, the benefits to ocular health derived from continuously observing long distance vistas, and the role that natural sounds play in soothing our emotions.  

In the context of brain health, Dr. Weil is also critical of the technological and information overload that we experience on a daily basis. He maintains that our brains were not created to handle this abundance. They were genetically adapted to help us negotiate a successful course through complex, changing, and often hazardous natural environments.  [Isn't it thrilling to explore the outdoors?]  In the long run, Dr. Weil believes that information surfeit – as he describes  it - will prove to be not only unsatisfying but, also, potentially harmful.

If the quality of mental health in modern, post-industrial society continues to deteriorate, perhaps one day “gardening” and “hiking” will appear on doctors’ prescription pads, as alternative therapies to help sad patients dis- connected from nature. I wonder what it will take to convince a skeptical or cynical medical student that nature can be a healer.



About Nature and Michael Pollan's Grandfather

A long time ago, during weekends at the beach, I had the luxury of reading the entire Sunday edition of the New York Times. The Adirondack Park location, where I vacationed, was run by the State of New York which supplied three qualified life guards to survey the swimmers. Since the beach was relatively small, I knew that my children would be carefully watched and that I could take my eyes off them to read and relax.

The fascinating thing about committing oneself to a hefty Sunday paper is that one usually ends up learning about topics that are, otherwise, irrelevant. From time to time, I would discover articles that held no interest for me, yet I found my eyes riveted to their pages simply because they were so well written. When finished, I would return to the opening paragraph to check out the name of the author. Time after time, the name Michael Pollan appeared. Eventually, I learned that anything this journalist wrote deserved to be read - he was that good.

When I first began to read TNYT, it was a balanced, almost scholarly newspaper that dealt with subjects in an even handed manner; it displayed intellectual integrity. With changing times, its high standards slipped to a point where I no longer enjoyed it. In addition, the focus of its magazine articles, which once had a smattering of international appeal, had become too local. Eventually, there was nothing in that paper to motivate me to buy it. Thus began my hiatus from reading articles by my now favorite journalist.

One weekend in June, in the early 90’s, I received as a Father’s Day gift, a copy of Mr Pollan’s first published book, Second Nature. My children believed that I would enjoy it because it was about gardening. Little did they know how excited I was to re connect with a writer whom I admired.  By now, Mr. Pollan had moved on from the New York Times and was about to begin a career that would not only bring him to national prominence but would also reward him with many professional accolades.

The gift that I had received was a collection of essays on gardening, many of which had originally appeared as magazine articles. Even though the flow of the book was a bit disjointed, and the author’s knowledge about gardening, at that time, was less than authoritative, I was drawn into the text by Mr. Pollan’s writing, his humor and the manner in which he personalized his philosophical yet infectious relationship with nature. In many circles, this book became a must read.

The author begins with the role played by his grandfather in inspiring the young grandson to take an interest in gardening. Eventually it moves on to describe how, as an adult, Mr. Pollan reconnected with nature after he moved his family to the Housatonic Valley in Connecticut.

The grandfather had been a successful New York businessman, who enjoyed gardening and gentleman farming on weekends. Now the stereotype of “successful New York businessman “is diametrically opposed to the stereotype of “weekend gardener” because each conjures up cultural images that are contradictory. Juxtaposed against each other, they created reader fascination. Mr Pollan had unintentionally stumbled upon an effective literary device which contributed to making the narrative, of quality time spent with a grandfather, all the more interesting.

During the years that followed, I noticed how the author adopted as his themes, various layers of nature - related topics. Subsequent books, all best sellers include,  Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (2010); In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008); The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006) and The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (2001).Today, Mr. Pollan is Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, the director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism, and lectures widely on food, nutrition, agriculture, health and the environment. That is quite a feat for someone whose background is English literature and not medicine or science.

Nevertheless, I am going to always admire Mr. Pollan, not for the essence of his first book or the popularity of the later ones, but for the manner in which he described his relationship with his grandfather. In Second Nature, the discerning reader will notice, stealthily woven into the essay, an invisible thread inferring how much this author loved and admired his grandfather. He never states that out rightly. Yet, it is imbued in every word, phrase, sentence and paragraph that he wrote. I found the inferred affection, of grandson for grandfather, to be so touching that this aspect alone made reading the book a memorable experience.