Nature Can Save Us All
Nature, it turns out, may be one of our best hopes for building, and maintaining, civilization
Last week, I tried to think of ways to celebrate my birthday. In what already seems like another reality, I had plans to go to a favorite restaurant with my teenagers, but we scrapped that. Instead, they cooked up a surprisingly edible meal. (I’m sure I will be leaning on their newfound skills in the coming weeks.)
One plan I did stick with was my Monday morning walk with a few friends on the C&O Canal, a National Park Service unit near the Potomac River. We made it a bit more special by adding a picnic breakfast. “No gifts,” I said in my email to them. “No hugs. No food sharing.” We brought our own thermoses of coffee and our own snacks. Although it felt awkward, we succeeded in walking and sitting six feet apart, and we found plenty to commiserate over and laugh about, including the vultures who seemed to be waiting for us.
Outside, in nature, seems to be one of the last safe places left where we can still casually be together. And keeping in mind to stand, walk, or run six feet apart from others, we are all learning to practice what some people are preferring to call physical distancing instead of social distancing. Many experts agree that being outside in nature is one of the best ways to alleviate anxiety and fortify our immune systems. Make no mistake: In addition to facing a dangerous virus, our nation is also now facing a mental health crisis occasioned by stress, anxiety, and social isolation.
To boost her patients’ physical and mental health, Dr. Suzanne Bartlett Hackenmiller has been prescribing time in nature for the past four years. Now, she says, it’s more important than ever. Hackenmiller, an OB-GYN and functional medicine practitioner at Van Diest Medical Center near Des Moines, Iowa, tells her patients that absorbing vitamin D from sunlight strengthens their immune systems, and she points to studies suggesting that people who visit green spaces with trees experience a boost in their immune cells, specifically killer T cells and the proteins and proteases that help them target bacteria and viruses.
Now is the time, she says, to “grab a tree and hold on.”