How living with plants (and other things in nature) can help us be happy and well

Whenever I go for a run beside the water, watch the hummingbirds visit the feeder on my porch, or eat a piece of fruit, I think of my friend Cheney. I was at the studio the other day and Matthew was watering one of the beautiful plants in the lobby. Again, I thought of Cheney, who has taught me a lot about the benefits of connecting with nature.

Cheney Creamer is a Horticultural Therapy Specialist. She helps people adapt to change, build resilience to stress and improve relationships, all through learning experiences with nature. Recently, I met with Cheney to find out more about horticultural therapy, and to ask her how we can adopt simple practices to find wellness in nature.

Intentional re-connection with nature is healing and reassuring

Cheney talked with me about “eco-anxiety.” This is a profound and foundational disconnection with nature. In our industrialized world, we no longer control our sources of food and water. We must trust others to ensure that our sources of basic nourishment are protected. As we begin to realise the fragility of this relationship, our wellness is affected. Intentional re-connection with nature is healing and reassuring to our instinctual and natural selves.

What happens in a nature therapy session? It might be digging in a garden, or a guided walk in the forest, or maybe doing some plant-based cooking, mindful eating, focused contemplation of a plant, listening to nature sounds, or experiencing a nature-based meditation practice. All of these experiences help us to feel connected with the nature in ourselves. They also help us learn to incorporate nature therapy practice into our daily life.

When we slow down and really notice a cup of tea, we are connecting with nature

So what can we do in our everyday life to re-connect with nature? First of all, and kind of surprisingly, we don’t even have to go outdoors. Sure there are those beautiful plants in the lobby (more about them later). But what about a simple cup of tea? When we slow down and really notice a cup of tea, we are connecting with nature. The plant that gave the leaves, the water, the earthenware cup – all of these are from nature. As we sip the tea, we notice sensations of taste, touch, smell, warmth, and we are nature as we drink. Cheney talked with me about potent little practices, like sipping tea mindfully, that can become part of a regular practice of healing and growing with nature. In her work, Cheney teaches clients these practices, to help themselves and others be well.

So what else can we do? Going outside is good too! Look in the garden for what’s growing now. Learn about the fruits and vegetables, ones you know and ones that are unfamiliar. Experience their textures, smells, shapes and colours. Cheney talked to me about repetitive experiences, in the same garden or forest, retracing our steps, it’s different every time. How we arrive, what we need, and what’s happening in nature at that moment make the experience unique. I thought about the parallel with my yoga practice, how every practice is different from the previous one. In both yoga practice and nature therapy, the repetition helps me to focus and go inward, while the subtle differences help me connect with fluidity to the outside world, to be adaptable and resilient for whatever reality is present that day.

Lots of people engage in nature therapy: people looking for stress-management strategies, people interested in enhancing their wellness, healthcare professionals seeking ways to enrich the lives of their patients, teens, adults, old people in residential care, even pets. I asked Cheney about this and she told me that dogs who have been rescued from situations of abuse or neglect can benefit from help re-connecting with nature and and their natural selves.

pets are nature therapy themselves

Cheney lit up when we talked about pets and nature therapy. She told me that pets are nature therapy themselves. Dogs can be trained to provide pressure therapy to help people who have anxiety disorders or autism. When the person shows signs of stress, the dog will lie down on their lap or chest, providing calming pressure and reassurance. Pets are also great teachers. Cheney told me that she gets some of her best lessons from watching her dog. When she sees her dog shaking off water after a swim, she appreciates the graceful effectiveness of that simple motion, and its power as a natural stress-reliever. Cheney’s dog “greets the grass” when first let outside in the morning, reminding Cheney of the importance of ritual, and connecting with the earth when your body is “not quite there yet.”

A community that connects around shared valuing of nature is strong and healthy

There are lots of things one person can do to benefit from connection with nature. What about a community, or society? Cheney talked about just showing up in nature places in our own neighbourhoods. Go use the park, inhabit the space, and assert its therapeutic value. Valuing these nature places can help motivate us to advocate for the protection of our streams, forests, and urban green spaces. A community that connects around shared valuing of nature is strong and healthy.

Getting back to those beautiful plants in our studio lobby… Is there really benefit to bringing growing things inside from outdoors? Cheney says yes, there is. We see flowers inside, and know that they came from outside. When we see them, our brain connects with the outside, and our mind doesn’t know the difference. Our mind just sees the beauty. The flowers become a visual metaphor for blossoming and flourishing on the inside. We grasp the metaphor and recognize the nature inside of us. We re-connect. Even pictures of plants and flowers have this effect. All of this may sound a bit theoretical, but there’s evidence to support it. Check out this study about employee wellness and plants in office spaces:

If this is interesting to you and you would like to learn more, look for some books about nature on our Modo bookshelf, and look up Cheney’s website, One Green Square. There you can find out about upcoming events and activities, and other resources for learning about wellness through connection with nature.

I left my meeting with Cheney feeling happy, relaxed, and energized. I am grateful to be reminded that I am nature, and that almost everything I do in an ordinary day can provide an opportunity for re-connection with its healing benefits.