Shoring Up the Soul

“–then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.”

John Keats

Poets are forever extolling the power of nature, and a week at the seashore certainly rejuvenated me. On a chilly and blustery first day of spring this year, I took a solitary wind–swept walk beside a gray and churning ocean. The wind whipped my ears and froze my fingers, but it also energized my mind and invigorated my spirit. Far up the beach by the pier, I encountered a magnificent lone heron. He was facing into the roaring wind with his forked feet planted firmly into the sand. . .defying the elements. . .proud and determined. Though he seemed quizzical, perhaps a little wary as I approached, he remained motionless; and I appreciated his wild companionship on the deserted beach.

The perspective generated in a pensive moment by the ocean is so healing. The vast panorama gives one a sense of connection to the universe. It makes a handful of individual concerns seem so trivial in the ‘big picture’ of life.

Just as poets value the power of nature, there is a recognition of nature’s importance in the practice of medicine. Over 2000 years ago, the renowned Greek physician, Hippocrates taught and practiced with the basic philosophy of “Vis Medicatrix Natura” which translates from Latin to “the healing power of nature.” This philosophy, in fact, is one of the basic tenants of Naturopathic Medicine. Though practiced informally through the centuries around the world, it was established as a distinct system of healing in 1902 when Benedict Lust, a German immigrant, founded the American School of Naturopathy in New York City. However, one must credit Dr. John Scheel with coining the term “Naturopathy” seven years earlier, in 1895.

In addition to The Healing Power of Nature, the other basic principles of naturopathic medicine include: 2)Find and treat the underlying cause of illness rather than treating the symptoms alone 3)First, do no harm 4) Act as a teacher (in fact, the word Docere, means teacher) 5) Treat the whole person, and 6) Encourage prevention. Naturopathic medicine flourished in the United States during the twenties and thirties, but experienced an adversarial clash with allopathic (conventional western medicine) in this country in the mid twentieth century. Today, there is growing interest in Naturopathic therapies once again. From my perspective, the principles stated above are relevant to any form of medical care. And, the concept of Integrative Medicine combines elements of allopathic and complementary therapies in treating illness and promoting good health maintenance.

Though nature is the defining metaphor of many alternative therapies, please keep in mind that just because something is “natural” does not mean it is necessarily wholesome, beneficial, and healing. Oliver Wendell Holmes termed the rhetorical embrace of a benevolent “nature”, “the nature-trusting heresy.” Remember that the anthrax bacillus, snake venom, and nightshade are all natural, yet each is also potentially lethal. I encourage you to consider the legitimacy of science-based biomedicine as well as the appeal of complementary therapies as you choose your medical care. In many cases, a balance of the two may ultimately serve you best.

And, be mindful that we are a part, a product in fact, of this natural world. So often, we feel separate from it. We work indoors, sleep indoors most of the time, and control our climate, exposure to light and dark, and isolate ourselves from the sounds of nature. What we miss in the process is the rejuvenation of our energy, and the sense of belonging/connectivity to the universe. Treat yourself to the wonder and the beauty of nature; you’ll be healthier and happier as a result.

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
David Wagoner

Stephen L. Hines, M.D.
March 2001