One of my most vivid early memories is of a walk in the woods with my dear dad. He was a wonderful story-teller, and organically, as we walked, he made it so that we entered a fantasy land, weaving stories out of features we passed, and conjuring a heroic quest out of the stages of the journey. I can remember few specific details, perhaps a tree-stump that marked a portal to a kingdom of dryads … but the feeling of that walk has never left me. About a week later, we went back, both desperate to recreate the occasion. We failed. The magic wasn’t there, and we just couldn’t find a way back in. The poignancy of this learning only rendered the initial occasion more special; the woods were the same woods, but that walk was never to be repeated. What’s that saying, ‘you can never step into the same river twice’? Well, I learnt that you can never do the same walk twice. Because, in the words of John Muir, “going out … was really going in”, and of course it is us who are never the same.
My father certainly engendered my love of the outdoors. At 13, I did a two-week survival course on a remote Scottish island; at 17 an expedition with Outward Bound, and at 24 joined the Army as an escort officer to British cadets on summer camp in the Rocky Mountains. After 13 years teaching English, having solo travelled a great deal, mentored young people, and led expeditions overseas, I quit the day-job and started ipse wilderness.
I see wilderness therapy as a fundamentally ‘hearty’ practice. On one level, it is simply going for a hearty walk. But the therapeutic element can also be extremely ‘heart-opening’. Going outside for an adventure might be courageous, but sometimes it is the quiet moments that “clutch the heart” which “take more courage than the noisy excited passages in life.” Being quietly present in nature, walking and talking, seeing, feeling, we are meeting ourselves head on, and listening to our inner nature. And this takes courage. Courage simply translated is ‘heartness’, from the Latin ‘cor’ for heart. When we step with courage into the great outdoors, we are opening our hearts, even if we are not undertaking an extreme challenge.
Lots of people ask me how and why wilderness therapy works. Many of us can attest to the mental health benefits of going for a walk, but it is difficult to pin down exactly what are the factors that cause this effect. Below is my attempt:
The energy of growing plants is to constantly strive. They are always gently, purposefully trying; upwards towards the light. This vitality and positivity can be both inspiring and calming, and frequently has a buoyant effect upon the mood of humans. John Muir, Edward Thomas and the Romantic poets write about the uplifting impact of nature on the human soul. We have all heard the exhortation, ‘Get outside, go for a walk!’ from a well-meaning friend, faced with our low mood or feelings of hopelessness. As a teenager, suffering from depression, I heard this every weekend, like an accusation. I’ll be honest; it used to make me feel more depressed. Going outside would of course make me see that nature was beautiful, other people cheery, and everything not bleak and hopeless. Ironically, the result was, on returning and finding myself intransigent, I would sink further into despair. Nature is not a medicine. It cannot cure depression on its own, and medication is essential for some. Furthermore, getting into nature is not always safe, accessible or appropriate. A good walk may be a tonic, but the whole remedy sometimes needs something stronger.
However, continued or prolonged exposure to the natural world can, slowly, have an ameliorating effect on the psyche. The natural world is non-judgemental and endlessly patient. It is a space which waits, allows and inspires perspective. In the outdoors, we cannot help but place ourselves into a hierarchy, a pattern. Our minds stretch upwards and out, to the horizon, the weather, the sky, and our eyes focus downwards, zooming in to tiny details; an unfurling fern, a tiny creature, a pretty stone. Placing ourselves within a pattern is a fundamental human desire; it tells us that we exist within a framework, reminding us that there are things both bigger and smaller than us. By feeling our place within the system of things, we feel connected, above and below. Even a solo walk can decrease our feelings of isolation. As Mary Oliver writes in ‘Wild Geese’:
"Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place in the family of things."
Psychologically, open skies and wide spaces can bring an expansive quality to time spent in the wilderness, which encourages creativity and freedom of expression. I know from personal experience that conversations had outdoors, especially whilst walking, can be more free-wheeling and wide-ranging than those conducted indoors. Side-by-side movement, and the removal of the pressure for constant eye-contact can create a sense of limitlessness and lightness, in which words can be spoken and feelings named, then moved through. Attitudes and opinions can be given to the air, one’s words whipped away as soon as they are spoken. One can try something out, float an idea into the ether, try a stance on for size, mull something over, inhabit a position, experiment with a role, a voice, an aspect of the self. And crucially, then move past it, let it go, not have it recorded or pinned down. On a shared walk with a good friend, we can choicefully examine parts of our psyche which do not normally get an airing.
But there might also be a political dimension to the healing benefits of nature. Eco-feminism identifies the importance of women reclaiming the earth as a woman’s place, making a link between the patriarchal domination of women and landscapes. The sense of rightful connection with ‘Mother Nature’, and the identification of the landscape with women’s bodies is thought to be a large component of the increase in confidence which female survivors of sexual abuse have experienced as a result of wilderness therapy interventions. Women can also learn through outdoors challenges that their bodies are allies; putting the weight, strength, balance, and flexibility of their bodies into service to a physical task, leading to greater body awareness and acceptance. Women may also enjoy exploring landscapes in less classically ‘masculine’ ways, preferring meandering explorations to the conquest of summiting a peak. The pilgrimage, or inward journey, might be more important to women than ‘dominating’ the landscape.
Fundamentally, the wilderness environment is refreshingly honest. It gives concrete, blind, immediate feedback. The rain does not have favourites; it cares not for racism, sexism, homophobia; the rock does not mind if you climb it or not; the river will flow through your fingers. When we look around us on the bare structures of the earth, we are forced to be honest with ourselves. I remember very clearly knowing that the me that was standing on a hillside, at 17, with all I needed for survival in my rucksack, no make-up, no phone, no glamorous clothes, was the me that I really was. And whether that self that we encounter there is a self with whom we are happy or not, it is at least empowering and important to meet and know that self. A leader once consoled me, when I was sad to be returning to civilisation, ‘the wilderness is always there for you, when you need it’. Of course, one can always plan a trip, or set off for a walk, but I took this to mean that the lessons I had imbibed from my wilderness experience would remain available to me, and that I could mentally drop into that space whenever I needed to, to re-access that wisdom and self-knowledge.
After all, the process of leaving home, going into the wilderness, completing a journey and returning home, mirrors the ‘Hero’s Journey’; that archetypal narrative found across centuries of literature worldwide, which metaphorically describes the process of self-actualisation. In so doing, we gather our mental and physical strength, pass over a threshold, face fears, incorporate lessons, and return with new-found gifts. As one participant remarked after a wilderness therapy pilgrimage: “I never imagined it to be such an emotional journey, but I feel I have opened up so much of myself and learnt so much. I actually feel awakened.”
Undertaking a significant challenge, such as hiking over a mountain, completing a rock climb, or swimming across a lake can have temporary euphoric effects, and longer-lasting positive impacts on the mental state, self-esteem and confidence. Completing such a task in a group setting adds the benefit of social support and cohesion. Powerful bonding takes place between groups during physical challenges done together, especially combined with immersion in the wilderness.
On one expedition I led, in the Umfulozi National Park in South Africa, a teenage girl in my care said after our 5-day immersion in the bush; “I used to believe in God; now I believe in people.” I don’t think the experience had caused her to lose her faith. I think she had seen that there is an inner light, or universal spirit, that shines in all of us. A central principle of this trip, run by Wilderness Foundation, and guided by expert Zulu rangers, was ‘ndaba’, a talking circle we held twice each day, sitting in the dust, passing a stick between us, listening to whatever needed to be spoken in that space. I found out later that ‘ndaba’ means ‘the matter’, or ‘the point’. For that girl, this meaning was central; what mattered to her was not seeing the ‘Big 5’, or the perfect photos. That circle, the people she was with, and the sharing she took part in, was what really mattered.
Going out really is going in.
Let me know in the comments below about your experiences of the mental health benefits of a 'hearty' walk. How does a good walk affect you?