Earth Day 2021

selfie of woman and young son on a mountain top

By Dawn Stoltzfus, Senior Director of Strategic Communications

We’re celebrating Earth Day (April 22nd) this week on Twitter and Facebook by highlighting some of the Institute’s innovative scholars and visionaries who explore connections between nature, healing, and planetary health.

I joined the Institute as Senior Director of Strategic Communications in January, after more than two decades spent knee-deep in public relations and advocacy campaigns around environmental issues, including clean air and water, land conservation, climate change, and environmental justice. This work opened my eyes wide to the many connections between the environment and public health, including air pollution from smokestacks and vehicles, lead paint poisoning in children, the impact of toxics and pesticides, and the way Black, indigenous, and people of color have long borne the greatest burdens of pollution. These same communities often struggle the most for equal access to clean air and water or just to have safe, green places where they can enjoy nature (and improve their health) without fear or discrimination.

I was thrilled to bring this background to the Institute, which has a history of inspiring ideas and promoting research around nature and healing as well as examining how the social determinants of health play an enormous role in people’s well-being.

One of the scholars we’ll highlight this week is Sara Warber, MD, whose research focuses on how holistic health programs and time spent in nature affect well-being. She has authored numerous articles and chapters about holistic medicine, nature-based interventions, and processes of healing. Her current Institute project explores how womxn’s expressive arts illuminate their dreams of nature, health, and a balanced life. On Earth Day, Sara’s giving a talk entitled “Keewaydinoquay of Garden Island: A Story of Hope and Healing” hosted by the Beaver Island Historical Society — you can register online here.

We’ll also share the groundbreaking work of Fred Foote, MD, a retired U.S. Navy physician who works to integrate whole-person care in hospitals and clinics throughout the U.S. Military Health System. One of my favorite quotes from Fred is: “War is a wild thing — its damage is a wild thing… So it needs to be healed by something wild.” Working with NatureSacred, Fred and his team created a woodland garden at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center where service members and their families can find respite amid forest and wildlife, beside a tranquil stream. Researchers are conducting studies to scientifically measure the healing effects of spending time on the “Green Road.”

Institute Visionary Susan Prescott, MD, PhD, leads the global inVIVO network, which focuses on planetary health and how “to restore human health we must restore the health of our society and our relationship with the natural environment ​– with a greater sense of unity, place and purpose.” Susan’s Project Earthrise suggests that to overcome our greatest challenges, we must address our value systems and fundamentally question the way we choose to live on our planet, how we see ourselves, how we treat others, and how we care for our place and our communities. It is named for the 1968 photograph of Earth taken from the moon, which is said to have inspired the original Earth Day in 1970.

The official Earth Day theme this year is “Restore our Earth.” Even as the Institute’s scholars, fellows, and visionaries look at how nature can heal us, we also understand we need to focus more attention on how we can heal nature — with the climate emergency unfolding across the world, before our eyes, and the environmental injustice that leads to poorer outcomes for Black and brown people’s health because of their zip codes and the color of their skin. Nature cannot heal us if it is itself beyond repair.

Over the decades, I witnessed environmental organizations (sometimes slowly) realizing their mission’s connections to public health, even as I grew from a “tree hugging” nature lover to a social justice advocate. Shortly after coming on board at the Institute, I learned the phrase “people, places, and planet” from Susan Prescott. And I observed the many interdisciplinary thought leaders with expertise in whole-person care who were working to help people heal through nature but also wanted to do more to understand how they collaborate and contribute to better planetary health.

Though we face immense challenges, and great urgency to act, I feel optimistic to see so many hearts and minds coming together across disciplines to help people, places, and our planet flourish. I’d sure like to believe that there can be a brighter future for the next generation, and the one after that. I hope you’ll check out some of our Earth Day highlights this week, and feel inspired like I am, because “every day is Earth day.”

Healing is facilitated through safety, persistence, and trust.

  • Persistence: “People did not simply progress through this sequence and experience healing. The healing journey was a recursive, back and forth process. They found helpers, used the skills/resources that those helpers provided, found other helpers that provided more resources and used those skills and resources. As this process continued, people experienced a gradual amelioration of their suffering. Although many despaired at times, all demonstrated the quality of persistence—they refused to give up.”
  • Safety & Trust: “To connect to helpers, it was essential for people to feel safe in those relationships and able to trust that the person would be a helper and not a barrier to healing. Persons whose wounds included a violation of trust were especially careful about testing the safety of new relationships.”

Resources support us as we heal. They include reframing, responsibility, and positivity. “Making connections enabled participants to acquire and refine resources and skills that were essential in their healing journey. People also brought their own personal strengths to the journey.”

  • Reframing: “A particularly important skill was the ability to reframe—that is to look at suffering through a different lens.” This does NOT mean minimizing trauma or pain, but rather it often means the opposite: understanding what happened was wrong, unfair, or uncontrollable and that we are not to blame for it.
  • Responsibility: While we don’t have control over what happened to us, we are the only ones who can help ourselves heal. “A third essential resource that people acquired or refined was the ability to take an appropriate amount of responsibility for their healing journeys. They participated actively in the process of healing. Once again, some participants already had developed this skill, and some acquired or refined it from their helpers.”
  • Positivity: “Another resource that people acquired or refined during their healing journey was choose to be positive—that is to have some optimism about their situation.” People have varying predispositions to positivity. In the study, positivity was important in helping people heal. This doesn’t mean a toxic positivity, but rather simply finding some good in life and feeling hopeful about our situations.

“Connection to others was an essential part of all the healing journeys.” Humans are social creatures, and even the most introverted of us need close relationships. Friends and family add meaning and value to life and help support us, in good times and bad. 

When we experience relational trauma, relationships can feel scary, but reestablishing safety and trust in relationships is where the healing happens. (To be clear, we do not mean reestablishing safety and trust with abusers, but rather finding other healing relationships.) 

“When safety and trust had been established, people were able to connect with helpers. The nature of the behaviours of helpers that fostered healing ranged from small acts of kindness to unconditional love.”

  • “Moving from being wounded, through suffering to healing, is possible. It is facilitated by developing safe, trusting relationships and by positive reframing that moves through the weight of responsibility to the ability to respond.”
  • “Relationships with health professionals were among these but were not necessarily any more important to the healing journey than other kinds of helpers, which included family members, friends, spirituality and their God, pets, support groups, administrators, case workers and supervisors.”

Healing probably means different things to different people, but one definition that emerged from the study is: “The re-establishment of a sense of integrity and wholeness.” 

Healing was an emergent property that resulted from each individuals’ complex healing journey, a result of bridged connections between resources and relationships. “…they gradually found relief from suffering and began to exhibit emergent characteristics: a sense of hope, self-acceptance, and a desire to help others—the immediate precursors to healing.”

 In varying degrees, “they were able to transcend their suffering and in some sense to flourish.” 

  • Helping Others: We find meaning in helping others. “Understanding that suffering gives the strength and experience to help others in similar situations.”
  • Hope: We begin to have hope that we will not always feel this bad. A Crohn’s patient said, “I think gradually I realized that I was going to feel better. I did have days when I actually didn’t vomit, when I did feel better. And I think gradually I came to believe that maybe I could have a normal life again.”
  • Self-Acceptance: We see our inherent value and understand that we are not to blame for our suffering. A participant living with HIV said, “I’m really proud of myself. I think that now I still want to live. I don’t want to die, and I really love myself a lot. I have a lot of comfort in myself.”

Suffering is the ongoing pain from wounding. 

There is some debate about whether people always experience suffering on the path to healing.

Wounding happens when we experience physical or emotional harm. It can stem from chronic illness or by physical or psychological trauma for which we do not have the tools to cope, or a combination of those factors. 

“The degree and quality of suffering experienced by each individual is framed by contextual factors that include personal characteristics, timing of their initial or ongoing wounding in the developmental life cycle and prior and current relationships.”

Characteristics: How predisposed someone may be to wounding/how many tools and resources someone may have to deal with trauma/illness.

Lifestages: Developmental timing plays an important role in the impact of trauma — young children often do not have the same resources as older adults.

Relationships: Relationships can provide solace and support for those suffering, while lack of healthy relationships can prolong suffering.