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Remembering Nature: How soldiers found nature helped them cope and heal

November 11, 2018

 In Japan, there is a practice of wellness that the government instituted as part of its national programme. It is called shinrin-yoku, which literally means "forest bathing". It was 1982 and the government wanted its citizens to switch off, unplug, and reconnect with nature. Since then, shinrin-yoku has grown around the world as people are finding that as the demands on time and energy grow, the need to just slow down and catch up with themselves is becoming paramount.

 

Finding solace in nature is not a new concept, rather it is a return to what once was, before industrialisation, before modernisation, and before human beings decided that evolution meant building and living in concrete jungles. While all those things were and are necessary for us to continue to grow as a species, the impact that nature has on our physical and mental being is undeniable. So much so, that even during the most stressful times, nature has provided comfort, peace, and stress. In his book Where Poppies Blow, author John Lewis-Stempel wrote about how the one constant in a soldier's life during the Great Warwas nature. It reminded them of what they were fighting for when they were surrounded by misery, violence, and death. For the British soldiers fighting on the front, defending their land was as literal as it gets. For them, the earth, the soil, the flowers, the grass, the animals, the trees, the woodland and farmland, all of it was what made Britain, Britain. The English war poet Rupert Brooke wrote in The Soldier:

 

"If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven."

 

Comparatively, Lewis-Stempel writes that today, we "have become de-natured and uber-urban." But for the soldiers in WWI, nature was their grace, their salvation, their everything. He writes, "In the trenches, soldiers actually habited the bowels of the earth, in direct and myriad contact with all flora and fauna of Flanders and the Somme. Nature was all around, in every one of Its/His/Her guises. There could only be heightened awareness of nature when at war." Lewis-Stempel would go on to write, "The ability of nature to endure, despite the bullets and blood, gave men a psychological, spiritual, religious uplift. The unconquerability of nature provided the reassurance that life itself would go on, that there was after all a purpose and meaning to things." In Where Poppies Blow, Lewis-Stempel writes about Second Lieutenant Ford Madox Hueffer from the 9/Welsh Regiment who, en route to the Western Front while on the train from Southampton in England, wrote:

 

"And I thought:
'In two days' time we enter the Unknown,
But this is what we die for...As we ought...'
For it is for the sake o the wolds and the wealds
That we die,
And for the sake of the quiet fields..."

 

 Finding meaning in life whether it is during the direst of situations and times, at war, or fighting a war within oneself, is a way for us to try to grab a hold of the reigns of our own existence when it seems all is running away from us, that all is out of our control. For so many of us that meaning comes from the very basics, yet the most precious, tenets of life: love, family, our spirit and spirituality. But in order to come to that realisation we need the space, mental, emotional, and physical space to allow our minds to clear and for our natural state of being to surface. That is perhaps why during WWII, the National Parks Servicein the United States created camps where servicemen could heal and rehabilitate. The NPS said "nature's physical and mental healing power was an 'X-factor' for military medicine." In 1943, a hospital to be built on Yosemite National Parkwas commissioned for Naval officers. What would eventually be called Yosemite Naval Hospital focused on physical and mental health for those "suffering from shell-shock or battle fatigue" and would "prove to be a watershed event in the development of U.S. military medical rehabilitation techniques" because of the location and its impact on recovery.

 

That focus on recovery in natural surroundings for war veterans continues to this day. The journal Health Psychology Openin the U.S. National Library of Medicine found that "nature has been used for health improvement purposes for centuries. During World War I (WWI), a specific therapy, often referred to as horticultural therapy, was established and offered to soldiers who were traumatized during combat.. The number of Western soldiers who suffered mental trauma during WWI and in subsequent wars facilitated the development of a horticultural therapy profession. The increasing amount of research on nature and human health relations confirms that nature can be a resource in relation to human health." The journal also explored a Danish study which was conducted a few years ago with war vets to see how "nature-based therapy" could help those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). What they found was, "the veterans experience how being in the therapy garden led to an attention both on themselves and on nature. They emphasized that the sensory experiences were the scents of the plants and the soil, changes in the sunlight when clouds drifted in front of the sun and the coolness in the shadows from the tall trees were experienced as having a direct bodily impact." The study also showed how the effects of PTSD and then with nature-based therapy had enabled the veterans to feel safe again, both among others and within themselves. They said, "Using nature as a safe place was important with regard to lowering the participants’ feeling of alertness. One veteran reported how he felt that the nature settings provided so much protection that he even could close his eyes, something that he rarely felt he could do in public. Others found that being in specific locations in the nature settings had positive impacts on their PTSD symptoms." The study would go on to quote one of the veterans who said, "Sometimes, when I have too many things to think about, I have this inner dialogue with myself and my brain works far too hard...then, being here, it doesn't stop totally, but, it feels like a part of my head is more relaxed."

 

Reading those words from a war veteran, well, they could be words some, if not many, of us will have thought ourselves. While the ravages of war, the constant life and death experiences are tremendous and incomparable, meaning is often found as a sacrifice for the freedom of a nation, from tyranny, and a fight for the greater good. The after-effects in the form of PTSD are well-documented. Yet today, for people who are battling against day to day existence, their experiences cannot be undermined. The World Health Organisation declared the health epidemic of the 21st century was/is stress. Again, I am not saying the stress we feel today is the same as the intensity of life that soldiers felt and feel fighting in wars. It is different. Today, we are seemingly at war with ourselves, our fight to stay relevant in some warped universe that bases itself on a popularity contest. We live in an age where we are in constant motion mentally. Smart phones have made us on-call 24/7. Even during our down time we are on the phone, scrolling away at social media, and despite its irony, using an app to help us meditate and calm ourselves. Sometimes just looking out your window, at the sky, at the clouds, the rain, a lone tree on a street can bring the much-needed 15 second therapy our bodies and minds are craving.

 

When I was living in the city (be it Toronto, Hong Kong, or London), it was just the mere thought of the countryside that would calm me down. When my husband and I moved our little family to the English countryside I understood why so many painters, writers, poets, and all other artists found such inspiration in the hills, the lakes, the mountains, fields as far as the eye could see. My heart still fills with such happiness at the thought of our little boy playing with the littlest of lambs who were feeding in the fields right in front of the Somerset cottage to which we had decamped after landing from Hong Kong. Today, when we go for walks I can feel this energy wash over me, one that reassures me that everything will be ok, or rather, everything is already ok.

 

There is that reassurance that Lewis-Stempel talked about in nature. One where things happen when they're meant to happen and that no matter how much we try to control things, life and nature will always prove to have the upper hand. And it is reassuring in the sense that we don't always have to have life figured out. The Danish studyalso concluded that "the unchangeable and enduring character of nature was experienced as calming, and the veterans perceived the old trees with their thick trunks as an expression of stableness that they physically could lean against." The study would quote a veteran who said, "The plants and the trees, they don't change at all. But then again, in two days' time, they won't look quite the same. And they move, no big movements, but...a predictable rhythm to follow. And trust. And your brain doesn't have to use energy to analyse it." Another veteran said, "(nature is special) because there are no demands and expectations of you. Well, there is a tree, and I am sitting here, no expectations, no questions, no nothing." The study goes on to conclude, "The way in which the veterans experienced nature as a place where you are accepted just the way you are, and their experience of the brain being relaxed, seemed to be important for the healing process. When compared to the veterans’ descriptions of the turmoil, they felt when they were in the city with its bright colours, fast moving cars and loud and shrill sounds, the garden and the arboretum seemed to provide the veterans with a place of recovery." Like the Japanese believe in their practice of Shinrin-yoku, bathing in the forest is a sense of being enveloped in all that simply is, as it is. Being enveloped in the knowledge that all will be well.

 

It has been 100 years since the end of World War I. 100 years of memories, experiences, stories, and lessons learned. While the world has advanced in so many way, the enduring legacy of the Great War told through its soldiers is that life fought for in the fields was for that life we hold so dearly, our values, our hopes and sometimes certainty of tomorrow, and the clarity of what is important in our lives. In the depths of humanity's worst, the soldiers often found amongst them humanity's best, surrounded by the simplicity and beauty of nature, the beauty that reminded them of their home. Nature was the one constant that kept them going at a time of great uncertainty. We wear the poppy as a sign of respect and remembrance for all that was won and lost. From the poem 'In Flanders Fields' written by the Canadian doctor, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae who, in 1915, after the death of a friend in Ypres, saw the vibrant red flowers growing in the fields where battles were fought, a sign of life and beauty even after and amidst death.

 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

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