By Kate Vogel
It’s June of 2016 and I’m sitting at the doctor’s office when she asks how I enjoy spending my time. I was there to figure out how to treat my chest pain, which she thought was coming from anxiety (and caffeine, but that’s a different story). I told her that I liked spending time outside and off of social media and before I knew it I left with a “nature” prescription. (Check out this website if you haven’t already heard of Nature Rx! I would recommend watching the videos.)
|This is the labyrinth at Matthaei. Walking on its path
is a good restoration activity that can help clear the
mind. The repetitive curves can be relaxing and a
good way to de-stress.
“Spend more time outside” my doctor said. “Take deep breaths and try to become aware of your surroundings.” I thought it was funny that I was being told to spend more time outside, but I was excited that I now had an excuse—a prescription—to simply sit on the deck or in the grass and disconnect from our fast-paced society for a moment. As access to technology increases, it seems as though prescriptions to spend time in nature are also increasing. For example, Dr. Robert Zarr in Washington, D.C. prescribes spending time in parks to his patients. Zarr asserts that spending time in nature allows us to “help create a healthier, happier society, and to preserve and create more natural places through our next generation of environmental stewards, conservationists, and activists.”
Fast forward and I’m sitting across from Laura Mueller, the Great Lakes Gardens Field tech for Matthaei-Nichols,during my job interview. “Why do you want this job?” she asks. “I just want to be outside. I’ll do anything to have the opportunity to work with nature” I replied.
Now it’s July of 2017, and here I am! I spend most of my time working outside in the Great Lakes Gardens at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. My main job as an intern in the GLG is to make sure that the area is well maintained in order to be attractive to guests, but also to protect native plants! This involves a lot of weeding, trimming, watering, and trail maintenance (and learning). In the GLG I also get to work with the newly planted orchids! Sometimes there are presentations that we can attend through the Nature Academy that offer us an opportunity to learn about different subjects. One of these presentations was “Environmental Connections and Mindfulness,” led by Dr. Martha Travers, who teaches in the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Dr. Travers mentioned in her presentation that she often works with students in the School for Environment and Sustainability, who, she has found, feel anxious about the future of the environment. Students like myself can find it hard to relax in nature if we are thinking about how climate change is going to affect the plans, animals, and oceans that we hold so dear. She said that she tries to help them by encouraging them to focus on the here and now, the peaceful escapes that nature has to offer. Instead of worrying about what-ifs, it is important to appreciate what we have in every moment and to be aware of how our bodies and minds interact with our environments. Instead of being afraid of the future, we have to feel in the moment. Besides, healthier minds make for better ideas on how to protect nature!
As part of the presentation we were asked to find a place to connect with nature. I found myself meditating outside, listening to the bird calls, buzzing bees, and the calming flow of the fountains in the Gateway Garden. Even though I work in the gardens everyday, rarely do I get the chance to simply sit back and be still; to become aware of my surroundings and really listen to what my body is telling me. The sun kissed my cheeks and arms and I greeted the warmth like an old friend. The wind picked up the ends of my braids and I smiled, instead of putting my hair back into place. I took some deep breaths and became one with my surroundings. I didn’t worry about what I was going to work on after lunch, if it was going to rain or not (it did!), or what I was going to do later on. As I sat there I felt the most relaxed and aware that I had in over a month, just because I was listening and feeling, instead of thinking.
|Gateway Garden at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. July 9, 2017|
When you allow yourself to open your senses to nature, you begin to notice new things that you might not have before. It’s really important to allow yourself these mental health breaks in order to de-stress and clear your mind. I think often in our line of work we always feel like everything has to be done right away, which in some ways can be productive, and in other ways is more counterproductive. I think that if we allow ourselves more breaks like this, even in the garden spaces that we work in, it will allow us to be more creative and productive. It will teach us to appreciate the land we are working with instead of dreading the projects we “have” to do right away. By listening to the world around us, it will allow us to slow down and realize that even though there are always going to be things to do, everything is just fine for the time being.
If you allow your mind to open to everything around you, Dr. Travers might say that it will allow you to find yourself. We are the air we breathe, we are the land beneath our feet. Paying homage to the land and stepping back allows us to pay homage to ourselves.
As I reflect on the past year, I realize that nature has helped me feel better. My heart sings songs just like birds do, I smile at the sun just as flowers do, and I dance just like the rain bouncing on the ground. When I am in nature, I’m okay because I’m simply being. Why is nature so healing for me? Because I am nature. We are nature. So next time you feel stressed, take some time to feel the nature around you, and let it heal you, reminding you of your roots and nature’s beautiful cycles. We might not have the answers to everything, but in nature when you are simply being, there are no questions to be asked, there is only nature to be aware of.
Just as my blog post was going to print this morning, a story on “forest bathing” posted on National Public Radio. Check out the story here. The idea of forest bathing, which originated in Japan in the 1990s, is to immerse yourself in nature and slow down to notice things you might not otherwise, like birdsong and other nature sounds, and tactile, olfactory, and sight sensations. Benefits flow from these observations and experiences—a lifting of mood, lower blood pressure, lower stress levels, a boost to the immune system.
Here are some pictures that I’ve taken this year when I let my senses, instead of my thoughts, take over.
Matthaei-Nichols staffer Steve Parrish found this salamander under a log
when we were pulling garlic mustard. Keeping your mind alert reminds
you to pay attention to your surroundings, and not just the task at hand.
|This is a flower in one of the bromeliads in the conservatory at
Matthaei Botanical Gardens.. I had probably walked by this for
two weeks before noticing that bromeliads flowered like this.
|I thought that it was really interesting to see the
prickly pear cactus blooming in front of a destroyed
snapping turtle nest… I had never seen a snapping turtle lay eggs,
nor did I know that cacti bloomed in Michigan.
|Of course, this is a weed, but in
the moment of the picture I
thought it looked beautiful.
It’s important to try and find beauty
in everything to have a more positive outlook.
Kate Vogel, from Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a rising senior studying Program in the Environment and international studies with minors in Spanish and sustainability. Kate works in the Great Lakes Gardens at Matthaei. At school she has a specialization in water policy and conservation, but outside of her studies she specializes in traveling, writing letters, and eating sushi. Kate’s internship is made possible by the Matthaei-Nichols Membership Fund and by individual donors.