MENTAL HEALTH

Take Your Broken Heart Into the Wild

When your heart is broken — nature is the balm for your spirit

Author’s photo

This past month I have been taking a lot of walks. In the daytime, in the dark, in the woods, down by the creek, even a mile up the road to the old-timey gas station / bait & tackle shop. It sure was hot that day.

But my heart is broken. And a broken heart needs air. Fresh air. A lot of it.

I live in central North Carolina in a small, backwoods town, where the woods are increasingly becoming more sparse with the influx of housing complexes; the homes lined up like bottles on a store shelf. The road we live on is getting busier by the day as the young people race in and out of the complex built across the street. I can hear the foxes screaming at night, searching for patches of woods deep enough to not see the edge in every direction.

A broken heart also needs the sound of wailing foxes, or the sound of three bald eagles screaming in the sky on their way to the lake.

Here, the deciduous oak forest is dominated by large, shady oak trees, red maples, hickory, sweetgum, and the tallest of them all, the tulip poplar. The underbelly is thick with briar, lycopodium, and Christmas fern. You learn to walk slowly to watch for snakes, carefully to avoid the spider webs, and with your ears tuned to every sound traveling between the trees.

The chickadees and Northern Mockingbirds can nearly always be heard. If you are mindful, and if you are seeking, the forest has gifts that heal and nourish your soul.

author photo — there’s a raccoon in the center of the picture

Walk slowly. Step quietly. Listen. Let each sound stir your curiosity.

If you walk into the forest with a heavy heart and spend even a few moments there, alone, the forest works on you like a rhythmic heartbeat, slowing your own breathing to match the pulse of life teeming around you, until the anxiety, the tension, the worry all shifts into a child-like curiosity.

Try experiencing a heavy heart and curiosity at the same time. It is nearly impossible.

Author’s photo

I learned how to walk through the forest from my father, a nature-loving man prone to long bouts of nature-isolation. Nature was his church, I was told, when all 5 of us kids were shooed out the door on Sunday mornings to walk the half a block to the stone Methodist church, rising like a beacon in the center of our modest neighborhood. I can still see the enormous azaleas, burning in fierce pink glory at Easter and the flower-covered cross atop the hill, shining in the sun. We rolled down that hill and messed up our Sunday best, to my mother’s chagrin.

My father was never there at church — he was in the woods, alone.

I think I get my yearning for time alone in the wild from him. Most people have no concept of being alone, much less really alone, with nothing but the land and sky and all of nature’s wonder around them. This is probably why, we, as humans, have such a hard time healing when we have a broken heart.

This is not to compare the power of the cross to the power of trees, mind you. I think the power of both are one in the same. I have never seen God more clearly than standing at the mouth of the sea, or at the brink of a cliff, measuring the colors of Autumn against the sun.

We have forgotten what it is like to be a part of the very thing that reminds us of just how precious life is — the earth from whence we came. The very biological makeup that flows through us, flows in and through wildlife in a way that is unspoiled, resilient, cautious, and inherently beautiful.

author’s photo — doe in the forest

Without knowing it, I have been practicing the Japanese form of nature therapy called shinrin-yoku, which means “forest bathing.” What my heart knows instinctively, the Japanese have proved in scientific studies, aimed to prove the health benefits of deliberately spending time in nature. Through measures of forest-goers’ cortisol levels, pulse rate, and other biological indices, one study found the following:

The results show that forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments. These results will contribute to the development of a research field dedicated to forest medicine, which may be used as a strategy for preventive medicine.

— The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan

Author photo of Christmas fern (They get their name from the “stocking-like” shape at the base of each leaflet.)

What studies show, I have known my whole life, simply by being a part of a nature-loving family and being immersed in the outdoor activities of the Girl Scouts. Time in a hammock, to me, was time well-spent.

Time by the ocean or in the forest — these are priceless moments, valued far more than the endless hours of my days — emails, notifications, phone calls, stores, cars, noise. Never is this more important to me than when stress reaches unbearable levels or I have been through a traumatic experience.

There is beauty in tears that fall in the forest. There is a cathartic cleansing one simply cannot find while in the confines of man-made walls.

Author’s photo — the creek behind my mother’s home.

The Department of Environmental Health encourages people to spend more time in nature and touts a host of health benefits.

I do not see “heals a broken heart” on the list, but I assure you, as a life-long nature-lover, a self-certified hippie-chick, and a graduate of the Bachelor of Science in environmental science — it should be on the list. Whether my education makes me an expert or the sheer number of traumas my poor heart has been through, the trees have been there for me every time. They prove to me time and again, far more trustworthy than people. Far more forgiving and nourishing and healing.

If you are also weighted by a heart that needs healing, I implore you — take it to the trees. Take it to the ocean. Take it to that open field full of asters and wild sunflowers and bees — and let the balm of nature soothe you into wholeness.

For further reading:

Christina M. Ward is a poet and naturist from North Carolina, where the fireflies are called lightnin’ bugs and ‘possums roam the night hours. Tonight there’s no foxes calling but a barred owl is singing in the night — whooo cooks for youuuu?”
Her first poetry collection, “organic” is a work of nature poetry that is receiving rave reviews.

Thank you for reading.

𝘐 𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘯𝘦𝘥 𝘮𝘺 𝘸𝘳𝘪𝘵𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘱𝘢𝘴𝘴𝘪𝘰𝘯 𝘪𝘯𝘵𝘰 𝘢 𝘧𝘶𝘭𝘭-𝘵𝘪𝘮𝘦 𝘤𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘦𝘳. 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘳𝘰𝘢𝘥 𝘭𝘦𝘴𝘴 𝘵𝘳𝘢𝘷𝘦𝘭𝘦𝘥 𝘪𝘴 𝘮𝘺 𝘫𝘢𝘮.

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