The Path to Health Lies in Nature by Sharen McDonald


I have a treat for readers today. My great friend and excellent thinker and writer, Sharen McDonald of Pointe Claire in Quebec has agreed to do a guest blog on Biophilia. This is an excerpt from a lecture Sharen gave at McGill last week.

How often do we exclaim over a magnificent sunset? Why do we request rooms with “an ocean view” on seaside holidays? What causes us to inhale with deep satisfaction upon entering a forest of pine trees? In these incidences and many more, we invariably derive deep comfort from all our senses. During the latter part of the 20th century psychoanalyst Erich Fromm used the term ‘biophilia’ to describe “the passionate love of life and all that is alive.” Biologist E.O. Wilson later popularized the term with the belief that nature nurtures and calms us.

A century earlier, Frederick Law Olmsted, founder of American landscape architecture and designer of Central Park, presciently believed in the power of nature to refresh our minds, and thus restore our entire body to harmony and health. Olmsted realized that increasing urbanization would become problematic for humans unless parks were introduced to cityscapes. Bit by bit, technology did affect our innate bond with nature through buildings and vehicles that were centrally-heated or air-conditioned depending on the season.

In the 1980s, Stephen and Rachel Kaplan proposed their Attention Restorative Theory, noting that viewing nature combatted mental fatigue and psychological distress. In 1984, Roger Ulrich’s “View through a Window” post-op study was hailed as “groundbreaking.” Despite this, and his similar 1993 study in Uppsala, Sweden, few meaningful changes were introduced to hospital design until recently. Alas, windowless rooms existed still.

Now is the time for innovation. Firms such as Human Spaces are promoting biophilic design in workplaces. The impact on hospital settings is immense, witness the Olson Family Garden at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in Missouri. Unsurprisingly, healing gardens benefit not only patients and their families, but also significantly reduce stress-related fatigue for staff. Maggie’s Centres for cancer patients and their families, first introduced in the U.K. in the 1990s, are now popping up across the world. Skylights of blue skies with fluffy clouds are now found in elevator ceilings in The Montreal General Hospital and elsewhere. The City Tree Project offers constructions of moss, each of which may remove pollutants from urban air as effectively as the planting of 275 trees.

Countries and cities worldwide are implementing biophilic strategies to encourage the maintenance of health as well its restoration. In Japan, shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) achieves notable positive health results, not only reducing cortisol levels and the harmful effects of other stress indicators, but also significantly increasing the production of NKC (Natural Killer Cells). (The Nature Fix – Florence Williams) Currently, there are 48 Forest-Therapy Trails in Japan with plans to double this number in a decade. At Alnarp, Sweden, the world’s largest rehabilitation garden offers nature-based treatment for stress-related mental exhaustion. At Chungbuk University in South Korea, one can pursue a degree in forest healing. Saneum Healing Forest is one of 37 such forests in that country. In Singapore’s Changi Airport, you can visit a butterfly garden or nature trail, and their hospital’s ICU was designed with windows 6 feet in height so that every patient may view trees. Finland and Scotland are also on the list of countries making positive strides towards better health through biophilia.

Heading towards the future, there is legitimate concern for children in the fast-paced, stress-inducing 21st century world of technology. Forest kindergartens (Waldkindergartens), so popular in Germany, are now being introduced in other parts of the world. We can look to Chippewa Nature Center’s Pre-School in Michigan, Jaureguiberry Primary Nature School near Montivedeo, Uruguay, and the Hudson Forest School in Hudson, Quebec. These initiatives are encouraging signs of progress, reconnecting young people with nature and establishing a lifelong bond that will enhance their health and their lives.

Irish-Canadian medical biochemist and botanist Diana Beresford-Kroeger, notes, “For every breath you take, thank a tree.” Outside we go!

2 Replies to “The Path to Health Lies in Nature by Sharen McDonald”

  1. Thanks for this Guest Blog, Sharen. It will be of great interest to healthcare leaders who will be in a position to foster support for this trend. Bev Simpson

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