How Nature is the Great Healer
TURNS OUT, BEING SURROUNDED BY PLANTS IS AS BENEFICIAL AS EATING THEM
In October of last year, when the first bite of fall entered the air and New York City began to sport an autumnal glow, I left my noisy, crowded urban home of a decade and headed south. My destination was ten verdant acres in the North Carolina Piedmont encircled by tall pines, on which sit two homes: One, a small cabin with Civil War-era bones, thoughtfully updated to preserve its historic soul; the other, a simple-yet-stately modern farmhouse with a broad and beckoning front porch. Set back on a rolling lawn behind the property’s namesake pond, the homes can be glimpsed from the rural road, but at night, save for a few illuminated windows, it is dark—a deliberate choice, to maximize stargazing.
New York natives and newcomers alike speak of the city’s energy: fast, furious, exhilarating. It’s a force that pushes you forward, and it’s the very thing that attracts so many, hoping to use it to manifest their dream lives. Small Pond Farm, my family’s outpost in Pittsboro, North Carolina, has an energy of its own. It’s one that relishes quiet, encourages reflection, and as I’ve come to believe, promotes healing. During the six months I spent in bucolic bliss, I channeled its curative properties in a very literal way, as I recovered from a series of surgeries.
I also learned something during that time about prolonged, regular exposure to nature: For anyone seeking overall wellness, it’s a necessity.
As a city girl with an affinity for creature comforts, my outdoorsy inclinations have been limited to a day at the beach and snagging a good outdoor table at a restaurant. But as the months in North Carolina wore on, I surprised myself with a deepening appreciation for my rural surroundings: the sound of birds singing and tiny frogs peeping and cows lowing from nearby pastures, the piney smell of cedar mulch, the tickle of grass on my bare toes. A few days back in Manhattan left me longing for the open skies and peaceful silence of the farm. After six months, my bones were healed—but something deeper in me was too. Not only did I have a new sense of ease in the world, but also a new tool at my disposal for managing stress and finding happiness. And all it required was opening the door and stepping outside.
The Nature Cure
The power of plants to heal you from the inside out is well documented, but research suggests the inverse is also true, and that you can reap nature’s benefits from the outside in. A study dating back to the 1980s found exposure to nature (in this case, a view of the outdoors through a window) in surgical patients was associated with quickened healing time and reduced complications. Another more recent study from Japan found an increase in immune cell activity in people who practiced “forest bathing,” or “short, leisurely visit[s] to a forest.”
How exactly does being surrounded by nature heal? It could be that it provides a counterpoint to city woes like air pollution, noise, and excessive heat, while also encouraging healthy habits like exercise and social engagement, as suggested by a study that found a decreased risk of mortality associated with exposure to greenness. No wonder, then, that in Scotland’s Shetland Islands, doctors treat patients suffering from anxiety, depression, and high blood pressure with “nature prescriptions” as part of a National Health Service program.
Bringing nature inside—say, with that fiddle leaf fig in your living room—is both a go-to decor tip and a NASA-approved method of purifying the air. But plants have even more to offer—specifically, phytoncides, terpene-based compounds plants emit naturally to protect themselves from insects and disease. In humans, phytoncides may lower stress and anxiety, regulate blood pressure, and improve concentration.
Considering the evidence, it makes sense that wellness guru and self-described manifestation expert Lacy Phillips calls trees “wild, incredible natural healers.” She has harnessed nature’s curative powers for the benefit of urban dwellers seeking a fix. At her recently-unveiled Forest Retreat Home near Yosemite in California, guests can spend days or weeks unplugging from their modern lives, forest bathing among the dogwoods, cedars, pines and douglas fir; soaking by moonlight in an outdoor clawfoot tub; or cooling off in a swimming hole after exploring one of a dozen nearby hiking trails. As Phillips puts it, with a warm laugh, the property is “fully loaded to be the most wellness-y biohacked forest self-guided retreat space.”
What’s equally notable is what the Forest Retreat Home lacks: namely, blue light and non-native EMFs, or electromagnetic fields from sources like computers and mobile phones. All the lighting is incandescent, to eliminate light pollution and help restore natural circadian rhythms. And while Phillips’ guidelines around technology are lax—she takes a “to each their own” approach—she suggests guests limit internet use to one hour in the morning and evening. Phillips herself turns the WiFi off when she’s at the Forest Retreat Home, particularly at night, to support cellular rejuvenation. “It’s all about getting here and—we call it ‘getting naked,’” she says. Guests are encouraged to do “whatever they need to do to strip away the pollution, the EMFs, the stress...everything in order to connect very deeply with their whole, authentic, worthy selves.”
When asked about the science behind her approach, Phillips cites the research of neurosurgeon and biohacking pioneer Dr. Jack Kruse into the adverse effects of non-native EMFs on the mitochondria of our cells, and the hormone disruption and imbalance thought to be linked to light pollution. “When we’re staring into our phone first thing in the morning, it signals to our brain that it’s 12 in the afternoon, so we may have gotten a full night of rest but all of a sudden we’re having to put out these obscene amounts of dopamine [a neurotransmitter that regulates learning, attention, and emotions],” she explains. According to Kruse, it’s also no coincidence that many illnesses, including forms of cancer, became more prevalent at the same time as the advent of electricity. Whether or not you’re fully on board with this theory, it’s a compelling enough reason to unplug for a few days—if you even needed one.
The choice to create a nature retreat in the forest was also inspired by Maggie Harrsen, a healer who experienced first-hand the transformational health effects of the forest. “Maggie suffered from everything from Lyme to IBS, and started to realize she healed it completely when she would go and live in Peru,” Phillips explains. “What she noticed was, she healed in nature where there are no non-native EMFs, blue light or light pollution. And the conifer [trees] are famous for raising your natural killer cells. The benefits are endless.”
The Forest Retreat Home was a long time in the making for Phillips, who also teaches manifestation via her To Be Magnetic program and hosts the Expanded podcast. Aptly, she’d been manifesting the home in her mind for several years, but it goes back even further; the Forest Retreat property is about an hour from the ranch on which she grew up. “When I lived there growing up I couldn’t wait to get out because it felt so limited and the opportunities felt so sparse, but I started to appreciate it a few years ago,” Phillips recounts, explaining that when she was struggling with autoimmune disease, trying everything from spiritual soul-searching to herbs to dietary cleanses, returning to her rural roots was the only thing that worked. When she’s home in Los Angeles, she grapples with blood sugar fluctuations, dehydration, and digestive issues, but after some time at the Forest Retreat Home, she reports, her symptoms disappear as if by magic—proven by clean lab results from her naturopath. “When I’d come back [to the retreat], things would start to dissolve. I’d sleep deeper and I would feel my stress release. I’d get into homeostasis. Everything just got a whole lot better.”
Phytoncides, iPhone light and the havoc-wreaking waves coming from your 5G connection might begin to explain the science behind Mother Earth’s intrinsic healing powers, but what about the spirit? The answer, I think, is in the redirection of energy she inspires. Sitting on the porch or strolling across the lawn at Small Pond Farm, free from the distractions of my phone or the Internet, I could be fully absorbed in small moments of nature simply doing what it does, indifferently and without fanfare: a blue heron alighting on a rock in the pond, the colors of the sky morphing as the weather shifts. These moments felt to me like a tap on the shoulder from the universe: Slow down. Look around. Pay attention. Beyond healing the body, the natural world has a lot of spiritual lessons to teach: about the delicate and essential connections among living things, about perspective on our problems relative to the great big world, and about appreciating small moments of grace and beauty.
In my newly adopted home of Los Angeles, there are 4 million people and lots of traffic, but there are also walls of fragrant rosemary and jasmine, cactus as tall as houses and succulents that look like they came from another planet. I notice these beautiful, natural things, green and alive, and in my mind, I leave the city and return to the farm. Every day, I gaze at the sky. I admire the flowers. I inhale the ocean air. And I feel lighter, kinder—simply, I feel better.
Nature Healing for Modern Life
If you’re firmly planted on the grid, here’s how you can you tap into (or at least replicate) nature’s healing wisdom:
-Drink water from high mountain sources—Mountain Valley is a good bottled option.
-Get sun exposure for 20 minutes at a time, as early in the morning and late in the evening as possible. If you’re located in a place where you can gaze directly at the sun while it’s red—right as it rises and sets—that’s ideal, but sungazing 30 degrees beneath the sun will also deliver benefits while protecting your eyes.
-Remove devices like laptops and phones from your bedroom and turn off WiFi at night.
-Create total darkness in your bedroom at night using blackout curtains.
-Diffuse hinoki essential oil to mimic the healing powers of being surrounded by conifer trees.
-Touch the earth with your hands and feet (ideally while the ground is wet) while you look up at the sun to create magnetism throughout your body.
-Try blue-light-blocking glasses; Phillips recommends the ones by BLUblox