What is it about nature that calls to us? What makes us momentarily throw off the trappings of civilization in favor of the “wild?” Why do we seem to wake up, or come alive, in the outdoors? What is nature, really, and why can it range from city park to wilderness for different people? Most importantly, why do so many people describe a healing of the mind, body and soul in nature?
I am a veteran of the Iraq War. I spent three years in combat. I was good at it and I have the scars to show for it. In between my second and third tours, and well into the downward spiral that is untreated PTSD, the Army sent me to Washington State to take an infantry company to war. After staring at Mount a Rainier every day for six months, I decided to climb it with my platoon leaders. Our first attempt was a mess. We were blown off the mountain and my friend nearly had his head knock off by a boulder on the cleaver. But instead of tossing our axes in the garage and cutting our losses, we fell in love with the mountain. Why? At the time, I thought it was because we were recreating the best parts of combat. We were a small, tight group testing ourselves and depending on each other in a dangerous environment to accomplish a shared goal. But as we headed out into the wild more and more, we discovered an unexpected effect: We were healing the wounds of war in on our minds, bodies and souls.
I continued to struggle with my own demons for years with varying levels of success, but the problem with demons is that they aren’t content to possess you alone. They tend to hurt everyone around you. Throughout my troubles, I kept returning to the wild, and I learned some things along the way. Nature did help to heal me—but nature, by itself, is not the answer. Nature made me feel good and seemed to wake up my dulled senses. I kept going back out more and more to get out of my own head and feel like the man I knew I was. Unfortunately, the more time I spent outdoors the less time I spent in the rest of my life. I was isolating myself from my family, friends and career. I was using nature much as I used booze—to escape the war, my mind and my reality.
I learned another lesson as I clawed my way out of the abyss: Traditional mental healthcare was indispensable for my recovery. I returned to therapy after hitting rock bottom in my life, and it worked. It took me two years of terrifying work, and I hated it. But I put my head down and grinded on while augmenting my treatment with as much time in nature as I could manage. And I think that made the difference. Nature cannot replace existing healthcare, but I learned the most important lesson yet, it can make it more effective.
I discovered something about our human nature along the way. When we first climbed Rainier, I believed we were recreating the best parts of combat in repeatedly challenging ourselves in the mountains. I was only partially correct. At the time, I thought it was the adrenaline or the high one gets when tempting death. Later, I thought it was purely a connection with nature that was healing us. While nature was bringing us “back to life” and struggle and risk were enriching our lives, these were only part of the equation we’d stumbled upon. Through repeated struggles in nature, we forged a tight band that we could depend on, both while suffering on an alpine face and at home when facing everything from family issues to our personal struggles with combat trauma. To me the answer appears to be our band (community), climbing (struggle), in the mountains (nature).
But I still had questions. Can nature alone be a salve or cure for trauma? Why are we better when we struggle with a small, tight-knit group of friends and family? Are these the echoes of our hunter-gatherer past? Are we “designed” to be happy in nature, “gossiping and grooming” with our band as Yuval Noah Harari describes it? Is struggle a part of it? Why do we miss the hardships of war and long to go back or seek to recreate them in the mountains? Is it because, as Sebastian Junger states, that we long for the “essential human experience” of “being in a small group, struggling to survive?” What role do nature and John Muir’s “Good Tidings” play in all of this? Most importantly, can we take what we learn in the lab and in the mountains and change the way we treat mental health in our society?
Our team at the University of Washington, REI, and Outdoor Research formed to seek out answers to these questions. Beginning in the winter of 2018, we are launching a multi-year, multi-region study to examine the effects of small groups of veterans engaging in nature-based activity. Our first group will begin hiking in the Pacific Northwest in a few short months, and we need veteran volunteers for the project. Veterans, we need you to stand up and serve the warriors to your left and right one more time and help us find the answers needed to change how we look at veteran healthcare, nature and outdoor activity. Friends and family of veterans, please share this site.