By Cleo Lampos
A breeze tinged with spring crispness and the scent of overturned dirt drifted into the room. Ron and I both inhaled the fragrance. After a winter of tutoring this 9-year-old through math problems and reading passages, we both exhaled the frustrations he encountered with Tourette’s syndrome: facial tics, hand jerks, and eye blinking. Every assignment he finished represented a major accomplishment.
“Want to take a break and watch Mr. Lampos plant the garden?” I asked.
Ron and I joined my husband on our urban homestead. He showed Ron how to use his hands and fingers to dig, add compost, drop a seed, cover it, and move to the next spot. The body tics did not impede Ron’s concentration or progress. When his mother arrived, Ron begged to stay. “I like the way that the dirt feels on my hands.” None of us had ever seen such a broad smile on this lad.
Friends Healing Naturally
“Something has happened to Al and Rita Anderson,” I mentioned to my husband as the couple strolled on the other side of the street. “They’ve lost weight, and look, they’re holding hands.” When I asked, Rita explained as she zipped the now too-large sweatshirt. “Al and I have been walking for six months now. In the neighborhood, out on the trails in the forest preserves, in the conservatory on snowy days. Getting outside has changed our bodies and attitudes. Watching the seasons change is inspiring.”
Linda Thomas is a friend who teaches special education. Her learning disabilities class demands long hours and intense planning. She pays a price in burnout and fatigue. Noticing the strain she bore, her husband packed their bags and traveled to Michigan to fish. Instinctively, Linda’s husband knew to position their rowboat in the middle of the lake for the sunrise. A thermos of coffee and donuts kept them anchored as the boat rocked lazily. With each slap of a wave, a bit of Linda’s tension and exhaustion floated away. By lunch they rowed back to the cabin, ate, then walked in the woods. On Monday Linda announced, “Didn’t catch any fish.” But what she caught in mental health proved career saving.
The Power of Nature in Many Settings
Being close to God’s creation provides healing and comfort. Visiting my brother in a nursing home and sitting on a veranda surrounded by hanging plants made me realize how the sunshine with the smells and texture of nature contributed to the residents’ health.
Taking a stroll in the park with a group promotes social interaction and positivity as well. My daughter sponsors her friends in a yearly cancer walk which is a mood booster. This group meets to bike on trails. Their camaraderie on these occasions contributes to renewed vigor for parenting and managing stress. Pals, not pills, are what is needed.
Project Healing Waters taps into this connection with God’s nature to help vets recover from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Teaming with fly fishermen, the vets make their own poles and lures. They go with the fishermen and stand in moving water, and those waters with negative ions can help. According to a study in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers found that the air near moving water, forests, and mountains contains high levels of negative ions, which are thought to potentially reduce depression symptoms. By breathing negative ions, an improvement in energy levels and perceived happiness was noted. These men experience camaraderie, community, self-esteem, and they even catch fish.
Jinny Blom designs for vets therapeutic landscapes that have the power to heal. “The earth does neutralize a lot of human anxiety,” she stated. This principle is echoed in programs that couple PTSD victims with agriculture. Prison inmates who cultivate the ground grow hope and responsibility into their lives. Maybe it is because the color green counters anxiety and depression. Maybe it is the strain of bacterium in the soil, mycobacterium vaccae, which has been found to trigger the release of serotonin that elevates mood and decreases anxiety. Maybe it is watching God make life grow that infuses the person with a sense of well-being. Dirt works.
Ben Thwaite teaches in a residential treatment center for troubled teens. He takes his students outside to photograph the scenery. They began to go on trips to the Badlands and Rocky Mountains. Ben, a photographer, reveled in their work. “It wasn’t just the quality of the photos they were producing, but I started to see that spark emerge in them. These are some of the most struggling kids you’ll find, and they’re redefining what it means to have severe mental health issues and the extreme beauty that can coexist with that pain.” The students’ healing spark was ignited by God’s wonders that they viewed through their lenses.
As an educator, I realized the benefits for students of playing outside. Time in natural settings correlates with fitness levels, healthy bodies, adequate Vitamin D levels, and improved distance vision (which lessens the current trend of nearsightedness among school-age children). Plants and trees emit aromatic compounds called phytoncides that quell the fight-or-flight response when inhaled. The result? Calmer children and kids proclaiming that “the world is mud-lucious and puddle wonderful.”
A Trip to the Ocean
Then there is my own experience with the healing power of God’s creation:
The students in my special education classroom proved challenging, and I needed a summer’s rest. But my son’s addiction to drugs pressed for attention. Skin and bones, he sported a surly sneer at life. With unimaginable anguish, my husband and I drove him to a Christian drug rehab. He refused to hug me goodbye, so I just left. In tears, I drove past the streetwalkers and teens in low-riding jeans. My mind and heart shut down, refusing to feel any more of life’s pain. My husband packed me onto the Amtrak bound to Rhode Island to see my sister.
Some people take in abandoned cats or dogs. My sister, Maralyn, specializes in wounded adults. Every morning she packed for me a cooler, sunscreen, a straw hat, and books. Then she drove to the ocean and sat me on a blanket. All day, by myself. I watched the sea gulls squabble, tracked ships, smelled returning fishing boats, and squinted at rowboats bobbing on the waves.
Families descended like locust swarms. They brought furry dogs that swam in the ocean and then shook water on beach loungers. Parents dug holes that filled with water and splashing toddlers. The scent of sea creatures assailed my nose. Barefooted folks strolled by with clam cakes and funnel doughnuts.
But it was the waves that pulled my emotions from the depths of my soul. My chest tightened with the suffocating air that held my fear. God used the rhythm of the water to bring a steadiness to my breathing. As the tide washed in, my anxiety rose, then swept out to the ocean in a rush. The beat of water absorbed the pain and cleansed my soul.
Stepping into the Garden
My husband and I joined the city’s community garden. Our responsibilities included watering the pantry garden. At first I dreaded the task, but soon I discovered the peacefulness of early mornings filled with monarch butterflies, buzzing bees, and dragonflies. I watched tiny sprouts of green turn into lush lettuce colors. With a watering hose in hand, the music of the earth played around me, bringing a sense of awe.
According to Paul Piff, “Experiences of awe attune people to things larger than themselves. They cause individuals to feel less entitled, less selfish, and to behave in more generous and helping ways.” Scientists claim that regularly experiencing moments of awe can lower levels of inflammatory compounds in the body. Certainly we know the spiritual connection to this physical response.
One morning my husband shared a passage he had been reading from the Old Testament. “Also he [Uzziah] built towers in the desert. He dug many wells, for he had much livestock, both in the lowlands and the plains; he also had farmers and vinedressers in the mountains and in Carmel, for he loved the soil” (2 Chronicles 26:10, New King James Version).
“Imagine that. A king who loved the soil.” My husband shook his head in disbelief. “Do you think he grew everything organically?”
I checked out my husband’s green thumb and enjoyed the fact that he dug in dirt, helped a youngster with challenges to plant seeds and harvest, and thought about the Bible through a gardening lens. The benefits of an urban homestead on the South Side of Chicago far exceeded the weight of harvested vegetables.
Cleo Lampos is author of Cultivating Wildflowers: An Urban Teacher Romance and other novels and is a speaker to senior groups and book clubs.