I experienced this firsthand when I couldn’t take the reports of death
and despair any longer and escaped to my yard in the foothills of Virginia’s
Blue Ridge Mountains to observe over 400 broad-winged hawks amassing above
my house. While I watched these graceful birds in flight, groups of monarch
butterflies, riding the winds, joined the birds in their journey south,
reminding me that the seasonal cycles of the natural world go on, undeterred
by the havoc around them.
Experiences like this aren’t just found in faraway wilderness areas or
our national parks, they are right outside, in gardens, urban parks or
that patch of green next to the schoolyard.
Being reminded of the things in life that transcend human atrocities lifted
my spirit, mended my heart, brought comfort to that which seemed inconsolable,
and delivered the hope I needed to face the challenges ahead. The world
is often harsh as the events of Sept. 11 and thereafter have proven. Spending
time surrounded by nature can help soften the blow by delivering an inner
peace, if only for a little while. John Muir aptly described the benefits
derived from spending time with nature as a way to renew mental energy.
THE GEOGRAPHY OF
For proof of nature’s healing power one need only read accounts of how
Americans instinctively flocked to urban gardens, mountain overlooks, forested
trails and ocean shores in the wake of the terrorist attacks, seeking refuge
from an anguish that was all consuming. In those places they found the
solace and spiritual renewal that only nature can bring. The novelist Wallace
Stegner wrote that as human beings we need wild places available to us
as a way of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures. Calling this
sense of connection to the natural world part of the “geography of hope,”
Stegner evoked the eternal rhythms of which we are all a part.
Exposure to the natural world has been shown to be therapeutic by alleviating
stress and promoting health. The medical community has long known about
the healing power of nature, which is why healing gardens are cropping
up in medical centers across the country. Healthcare providers understand
that flowers, trees and running water can create an oasis for those facing
the trauma of a debilitating disease or the loss of a loved one.
As Americans look for spiritual renewal, emotional healing, or time to
reflect on how our country will rebound from this national tragedy, many
are turning to Mother Nature. Wildlife and wild places — whether they are
found in the mesas of the West, the grasslands of the Midwest, the Alleghenies
or Adirondacks of the East, or the park down the street — are part of our
strength as a nation, an indomitable part of our American heritage that
is impervious to those who attempt to destroy our resolve.
Every time we set out seeds for birds we trust to return, watch in awe
as salmon return to their birthplace to spawn, plant a garden, or gaze
at the stunning beauty of monarch butterflies as they migrate as much as
2,000 miles every fall, we affirm our confidence in the future — for these
are acts of faith, the same faith that empowers our country to rise anew
in the wake of tragedy.
President Abraham Lincoln understood the power of that faith in the natural
world, even in the midst of the Civil War, when in 1864 he granted the
Mariposa Sequoia Grove and Yosemite Valley to the state of California for
permanent protection; they are now all part of Yosemite National Park.