Healing through nature is about more than just stepping outside. It involves forging a deeper connection. A process, as Ruth Allen describes it, of re-wilding.
Ruth is a qualified therapist, experienced health and wellbeing specialist and champion of the benefits of outdoor therapies. We caught up with her to discuss stripping away the unnecessary, reconnecting with nature and why it’s so important for our mental and physical wellbeing.
A friend asked me recently to unpick what my desire to be outside is about and as I struggled to find the words she offered me this lifebelt ‘it’s like a fish describing water, for you, isn’t it’. The resonance was immediate. Yes, I said. When it’s so much part of you its hard to see where the boundaries lie – where one thing begins and another ends. This is my experience of being outdoors, and it deepens with time. I become more connected, more entwined, more committed. As a foundational act, walking to and from places whether it’s up mountains, into the sea, or along the myriad trails that waymark the wilder places of our planet has defined my life. Time outdoors started for me as a way of simply enjoying my free time but has now become my work and my life passion project. The outdoors for me is a place of becoming and we are all engaged in this process.
Moving outdoors is one of the ways I make meaning of my life. It’s a full-body process of mind and body connection where I rehearse my decisions, process my worries, reflect on my present or my past, imagine the possibilities ahead, all to the tune of physical movement that keeps me edging forward. I can’t overstate the importance of movement both for a whole sense of wellbeing and for good mental health and healing. When I do my therapeutic work outdoors I am inviting clients to experience what it is to embody the movement they want in their inner worlds, and to feel the possibility available to them in the energetic exchange between themselves, nature and me. It’s very common for people to say to me ‘I always knew the outdoors was good for me, but I never quite knew why’. I help them see what’s happening in their minds and bodies as they begin to develop a new relationship with the outdoors in this way, and to reconnect to more intuitive parts of themselves and their wilder nature. This for me is a type of emotional re-wilding, and it involves a degree of stripping back to a more essential and vitalised places within ourselves. It involves feeling the earth beneath our feet, the soil between our fingers or the salt water on our tongues.
An exciting aspect of my work is exploring the various meanings and healing effects of different environments and places. Whilst we all bring our own stories, symbols and personal mythologies to different ‘genres’ of environment, it is fascinating to consider the therapeutic benefits of, for example, the ocean compared to a mountain-scape, or a fast-flowing river compared to a dark, damp woodland. People are often drawn to the ocean for its calming effect, for its reassuring expansiveness, for the ease of finding a clearly discernible horizon, or for the energetic and literal washing away of their troubles. This can be quite different to the type of perspective achieved by being at altitude. When I work with people outdoors I want to know ‘to what are you drawn?’; I want to understand what the outdoors means to them in the here and now, and how they are already using it as a way of regulating emotion or making-meaning of their day to day lives. From there we have a way in, and a starting point to reconnect with nature from.
But of course, it’s not just about the one-way therapeutic use of the outdoors. I hope that through this type of work, clients naturally come to find a new way of valuing the living planet, and from there find new ways of advocating, stewarding and otherwise taking responsibility for their impact on the earth. The aim for all of us is to protect nature for its intrinsic worth, but perhaps a first step on that journey is to enter into a symbiotic relationship with the outdoors where healing becomes two way. Outdoor coaching or therapy that allows nature to become a utility is missing the point. We have to be asking what we can do in return for an earth that will help heal us if we let it? We can start with litter picks, but what else can we do – what would we do for our best friend? Our dearest loved one?
The wisdom of nature and the outdoors is one of the oldest wisdoms we know, and whilst outdoor therapy is a specific way of working, everyone can reconnect with nature and develop their own mutual, respectful, meaningful relationship with nature. It begins with taking the first step outside and being open to what develops. It is as simple as breathing deeply, noticing a sense of gratitude for the natural world and feeling the ground beneath you, or the water around you, in contact with your skin. This is available to everyone. It is the most democratic way of healing and reconnecting to wildness that there is.
Words by Ruth Allen | Photographs by Liz Brown