by Mary P. Guerrera
With more time to putter in the yard during the days of the pandemic, I am discovering new ways to work with my hands (and feet) to care for the small grassy grounds surrounding our family cottage.
Using a good old-fashion reel mower, I walk at an easy pace while hand-pushing the rotating blades to their rhythmic swishing. I am alert to other living beings along the way, and stop instantly if any are noted in my path.
I’m surprised when a tiny frog jumps onto my toe. I watch a bunny nibbling a leaf. I see and hear the springy grasshoppers and winged song birds. On quite days, the sound of the surf as the tide rolls in seems like the sea is breathing.
With my enhanced attention, I notice mole tunnels and vole trails. And of course, the wild flowers, shrubs and trees, all with their unique micro-habitats.
If a neighbor happens by, we chat as I rest. Now in my second summer of planting dahlias, we share our anticipation of blooms and bouquets. Taking a simple, root-like tuber and planting it into the dark earth is a process that engenders patience – tending to the area and waiting as months pass, until a green sprout finally emerges. Even having studied the sciences, I am amazed at how a stunning flower emerges from such a seemingly mysterious process. And now we come to my first dahlia bloom of the season – a beautiful, intricately circular patterning of soft orangey glow. As I stand near admiring the blossom, I notice another being’s presence too. A large praying mantis is perched just above, seeming to honor its beauty — what an awe-inspiring pair!
The mantis, a master of the art of being motionless, teaches us the value of stillness – and the attention and closer observation skills such a practice brings. Indeed, my slowing down and ability to bring more mindfulness into my day-to-day activities has awakened so much more beauty and awe in my life, and reminds me of my interdependent relationship with Nature.
And connecting with our natural, or “other-than-human” world is showing to be beneficial to our health and well-being in many wild and wonderful ways.1,2,3,4. So inviting a bit more stillness, or ‘human-beingness’ rather than ‘human-doingness’ into our lives, will likely open our senses to the beauty and awe around us, and perhaps cultivate more joy and gratitude along the way – as it has for me.
These experiences inspired me to create a new elective for our first- and second-year UConn medical and dental students during the fall of 2020: Nature as Medicine. For our pandemic weary and virtually exhausted students, I thought a shift in environment would be refreshing. The course was thus designed with the following student learning objectives:
- Directly experience & learn practices for Rewilding, esp. Forest Bathing;
- Understand the physical & mental benefits that connecting with Nature has on human health & healing;
- Enhance observational skills, which are fundamental to the practice of medicine & dentistry;
- Learn mindful movement practices known to decrease stress/burnout, e.g. Qi Gong, mindful walking/Labyrinth;
- Deepen their appreciation of the natural world;
- Share their class experiences with course participants.
Offered as a daily, two-hour class, each gathering was held out doors during our schools’ one-week elective time frame. Sessions included experiential activities such as mindful walking, sensory awareness, and gentle movement as we explored the trails of local woodlands and green spaces, masked and physically distanced. We also practiced quite observation by finding a ‘sit spot’ for sitting in stillness for 15-20 minutes. Opening one’s senses, noticing any movement, and nonjudgmentally bringing attention back to the present were key parts of this practice. Our small group of twelve students were invited to share their experiences and reflections during each class via an opening ‘check-in’ and at the close of each session. In addition, some brief readings and web-based resources were offered to stimulate further curiosity and provide evidence for Nature’s benefits, e.g., the scent/exposure to pine terpenes enhances immune system function in humans.3
The results and general feedback were remarkable, with overall enhanced well-being, improved sleep, and less anxiety reported by most all students. The students also experienced first-hand the health benefits and value of human access to safe, green spaces – an important lesson as future advocates for their patients and communities. As such, I am planning to offer the elective again this spring, and look forward to continuing to evolve a Nature-based curriculum. As health professionals and educators seeking innovative ways of bridging both virtual and in-person learning opportunities, I recommend giving the nature-based learning ecosystem a try!
Mary P. Guerrera, M.D. is Professor Emeritus of Family Medicine at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, Farmington, CT where she enjoys teaching medical students and residents.