It was too cold even for insects. The glassy surface of Lake Superior faithfully reflected a ruby sky as the sun rose over Pancake Bay Provincial Park, crisp beams of light cutting through the branches of old growth maple, birch, oak, spruce and pine. The mist burned away and birdsong swelled to fill the open chambers of this lakeside wood. I was alone.

A week on the road — living out of my car and hastily erected tents — had me wound pretty tight by this time, every wallop of responsibility weighing on my mood, but this morning was different. Away from an abusive relationship with my mobile devices, I felt calm for the first time in days, even exultant.

While I wasn’t aware of it in the moment, the natural cathedral in which I stood was orchestrating profound changes in me, lowering my blood pressure, heart rate and stemming the flow of the stress hormone cortisol. My anxieties, tribulations and ruminations were dissipating while feelings of happiness, curiosity, vitality and awe were welling up. In no time at all, I’d surrendered my exhaustion to this profusion of green and blue, its sights and sounds playing on my primate brain with the sureness of prescription medication.

Algonquin Provincial Park. Photograph by Zack Metcalfe.

The health benefits of time in nature — once the stuff of folk wisdom — are now the subject of international scientific inquiry. Among children, regular doses of nature have the long-term benefits of improved self-esteem, vision, body weight, attention and overall academic performance. In surgical recovery rooms, patients with windows overlooking greenery are less dependent on painkillers. Having 10 more trees on your city block improves self-perceived health equivalent to being seven years younger, or $10,000 a year richer.

These findings and others are no longer theoretical, speaking to a phenomenon as powerful as it is mysterious.

Relatedness

Lisa Nisbet, assistant professor of Trent University’s department of psychology, has spent a career on this subject. While we walked the edge of campus in early June, she expounded the benefits of even 15 minutes in natural settings, tipping our mental scales in favour of positivity and ease, but that’s just the beginning.

Lisa’s research has focused on how time in nature influences our treatment of nature, using a mechanism she calls "nature relatedness." In simple terms, nature relatedness is how much a person appreciates nature as a whole — not just the cute or scenic parts — and to what extent they understand the complex relationships tying it all together. Adoring polar bears but reviling all insects means you’ve missed the point of nature relatedness. Holding swamps and sunny beaches in equal regard for supporting unique biodiversity means you’re on the right track. Regarding yourself as a small piece of an enormous ecological puzzle, better still.

In order to diagnose a person’s relatedness, Lisa established the Nature Relatedness Scale, a test of 21 questions which gives a score between one and five, one representing poor nature relatedness and so on. To date, this scale has been translated into more than a dozen languages, adopted by innumerable environmental organizations and applied to more than 10,000 people from office workers to conservation professionals, and the results are remarkable.

What Lisa found is that the more time people spend in nature, the higher their nature relatedness tends to be and the more likely they are to engage in environmentally conscious behaviour, concern themselves with conservation issues and seek out nature for personal fulfilment. The more time we spend in nature, the more likely we are to defend it.

The health benefits of time in nature — once the stuff of folk wisdom — are now the subject of international scientific inquiry.

“It’s very difficult for the average person to be an environmental citizen unless they have an intrinsic motivation to protect nature,” she explained. “If you don’t see or understand the consequences of pouring paint down the drain or putting pesticides on your lawn, you’re just not going to take the appropriate action.”

A rose-breasted grosbeak. Photograph by Zack Metcalfe

Your average Canadian scores around three on this scale — an imperfect number Lisa associates with our willingness to destroy the environment on which we depend, by way of deforestation, fossil fuels, unsustainable diets and the rest. Improving our nature relatedness is an indispensable solution to environmental woes, therefore, motivating our citizenship to take broader and routine action in favour of conservation, and for that, we need to get people outside.

“We need to make nature a habit,” she said.

Best medicine

Ten years ago, Dr. Melissa Lem wrote her first prescription for nature to a young man battling ADHD. She’d done her research and was confident in the demonstrated benefits, but was still hesitant to prescribe something so radically new, fearing it would sound “crunchy granola.” But the treatment was well-received.

Since then, she’s become an advocate for nature prescriptions, championing them at conferences, during guided tours through the provincial parks of B.C. and in her family medicine practice, suggesting nature for depression, stress, attention disorders, even concussions, at 30 minutes a pop, two hours a week minimum.

“We all know that when we go out into nature, we feel calmer, less stressed, happier, but now we have numbers to back these feelings up,” she said.

Melissa sits on the board of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), an organization whose mission is to better human health by safeguarding wilderness. They’ve promoted plant-based diets, warned of the health consequences of climate change and advocated the protection of natural spaces specifically for the human animal. It’s Melissa’s vision that such things will eventually find their way into medical textbooks, and that green prescriptions will become commonplace in the clinics of British Columbia.

“Doctors and nurses are consistently rated among the five most trusted professionals in Canada,” she said. “When we say something, patients listen. If we could get health professionals to mobilize and prescribe nature more frequently, I think that would be quite powerful.”

An eastern phoebe. Photograph by Zack Metcalfe.

Just such an endeavour is brewing independently in Wasaga Beach, Ont. More specifically, at the South Georgian Bay Community Health Centre — its multidisciplinary team servicing 1,700 clients, many in lower-income brackets. As they have thus far been imagined, these prescriptions would come hand-in-hand with maps of accessible wilderness near Wasaga Beach, perhaps a bus pass from the municipality and park passes from Ontario Parks (both of whom are partners), and methods for tracking the progress of participants, such as decreases in their clinical visits, use of medications, self-reported issues and so on.

“The purpose of the program is to validate what research tells us about the link between spending time outside in the natural environment and an improvement in health and wellbeing,” said Ruth McArthur, a nurse with the District Health Authority and board member of the Wasaga Beach Community Health Network — the group ultimately responsible for crafting these prescriptions.

The size and scope of the program is funding-dependent, but Ruth and colleagues expect their first prescription soon.

Coming home

Nature means many things to many people, some coveting the organized foliage of urban green space, others the remote wilderness of national parks. For Tyler Coady, serving in the deserts of Afghanistan with a P.E.I. regiment, nature was a square foot of grass, brought overseas by a fellow serviceman and cared for by many a homesick Canadian.

“I know it’s weird, but we treasured it,” Tyler told me. “One of the things I missed the most being overseas was green space.”

I met Tyler in July 2019, a young man of 33, strong and very well-spoken. He greeted me with a joke and a smile in downtown Charlottetown. I might not have noticed his PTSD — the consequence of a roadside bomb encountered during his service — had I not known beforehand He’s been home since 2009.

“Post-traumatic stress disorder disrupts pretty well every aspect of your life,” he explained. It plagues him with unwelcome flashbacks and constant, crippling anxiety. It has eroded his mental health so severely that he withdrew from society — something that's been very difficult for him to overcome. Counselling, medication and peer support were integral to his ongoing recovery, but so was his purchase of a small farm and regular hikes through its wilder corners.

While downtown, Tyler must actively suppress the symptoms of his PTSD, manifesting as a tremour in his voice while we spoke. When in nature, however, staying calm is no work at all. Whatever hold nature has on the human mind, it’s especially pronounced in people like Tyler. Making use of a master's in military psychology, he’s been co-ordinating peer support groups for other Island veterans with mental injury, helping them find peace in nature.

The Island Nature Trust is one of the oldest private land trusts in Canada, independently protecting more than 4,000 acres of P.E.I. wilderness since its founding in 1979. It was instrumental in establishing portions of P.E.I. National Park, and continues to hit above its weight class in the protection of provincial biodiversity.

Algonquin Provincial Park. Photograph by Zack Metcalfe.

This charity, recognizing the special need among veterans for nature, offered Tyler the use of their largest protected area — the 600-acre Jenkins Complex — replete with forests, wetlands, trails and old access roads for those struggling with mobility. A donation of $17,500 from 100 Women Who Care has financed the creation of a parking lot and serenity area. In time, the complex’s trails will be expanded and a wildlife viewing area will overlook one of its many ponds. With additional partners, the Island Nature Trust hopes to establish other such spaces across the province, open to the people who need them most.

“In the past, land trusts were more about preserving ecosystems by limiting access,” said Megan Harris, executive director of the Island Nature Trust. “In some instances, that may still hold, but there is broad recognition now that we’re only going to protect what we love. Trying to compartmentalize people and the rest of nature doesn’t work. We are not separate from nature, and there are things we need in nature. Those needs are sometimes compounded when our minds have been tested in the extreme, as with veterans.”

Pursuing nature

I explore nature professionally, trading my desk for a remote island in the Bay of Fundy, the mountains of western Newfoundland or, in the course of researching this article, the provincial parks of Ontario — diverse, beautiful and invariably wild. My access to nature is a privilege which many Canadians do not share.

The separation of human beings from nature has done monumental harm to mind, body and biodiversity, a point made only too clear by the people in this article. For the sake of a healthy and sustainable future, through these programs and others, we must all find ways to pursue nature.

This story was originally published by Nature Conservancy of Canada Magazine.