Ecotherapy

The sound of a footstep brought me back, and I sat up just as a guy in running clothes came to a stop 10 feet away. He was joined by a woman, also in running clothes. Both were sweating heavily.

"Did I wake you up?" he said.

"No," I lied, "I was staring at the sky." I turned to look down through the trees at the green water pouring through Devil’s Racecourse Shoals 100 feet below.

"Great sky to look at," he said. He stepped up on a bench and then onto the railing. Leaning against the trunk of a poplar, he stretched his right leg behind him and then his left.

"Want to stretch?" he asked the woman. She shook her head.

In a few moments they were gone, and I was left alone again on a deck built on the granite palisades of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.

The riverbank is thick with trees. Pines and hardwoods compete for footing on a steep palisade strewn with giant rock outcroppings. It is the third weekend in May, but the fading pink blossoms on the rhododendron signify that spring is giving way to summer.

This area was known to 19th century boatmen as the Devil’s Stairsteps because the shoals were so difficult to navigate, but today the river is child’s play. The water is low – a reminder that we are in the midst of a drought – and so gentle that people in canoes and colorful rafts pass through them laughing and shouting as if in a backyard pool.

It’s hard to believe I haven’t been to the woods in a year. I discovered long ago that nature restores me in ways that nothing else can, and I used to make it a point to visit them at least once a month.

But then I stopped. Perhaps because I took up golf, which is something like a walk in nature, but as former champion long driver Mike Dunaway told me last year, "If you’re playing bad, it brings up all your insecurities."

Whatever the reason, I’d been listless and cranky of late, and no longer able to ignore the obvious: I had let television, the internet, Starbucks, Publix and the Y define my existence. I needed to get away.

I haven’t had a real vacation in a long time. Every trip I’ve taken has been family related, and while I love every one of them, being around family is never just a vacation.

Belize would be nice, or Split on the Dalmatian Coast, or perhaps the Bernese Oberland, but the timing wasn’t right, and it took something on the internet to get my attention.

The Times of India reported that studies in Scotland (global village, anyone?) found that people with mental health problems reported that their depression and anxiety declined and their self-esteem increased after they took a 30-minute walk in a country park. Those who took walks in a mall, by comparison, found that their tension increased and their self-esteem dropped.

A British outfit called The Mind, which was described as a "mental health charity," cited the studies as proof that "ecotherapy is an important part of the future for mental health."

I’ve known this for years, but it does me no good unless I practice it. So I stuck a notebook, water bottle and energy bar in my backpack and drove 9.9 miles to the Indian Trail section of the park.

It was an exquisite day: 80 degrees, low humidity, cloudless sky, light breeze. As I hiked to the deck cantilevered off the face of the palisade, I prepared myself to encounter a lot of people. Who wouldn’t be out on a day like this? But I wasn’t looking for company, and I got my wish.

The deck was unoccupied and I sat where I could see the river. It was so low the shoals were exposed. The rocks looked like dried mud-flats, and the river’s usually boisterous roar had been reduced to the rustle of wind in the trees. 

I wrote for a time, but the sound was hypnotic. I stretched out on the bench, head on my pack, and dozed, as secure as if I were at home in bed. I wrote some more. I dozed again. I watched mayflies dancing and diving in the sunlight as if on invisible wires.

I sat cross-legged and meditated until I sensed something nearby. I looked up to see a red-tail hawk glide past on a thermal. It turned and coasted back toward me, white body exposed, sculpted wingtips spread, and gave me a thoughtful appraisal as it passed overhead.

I solved no problems that afternoon. I made no resolutions. I had no startling insights. But I did have an odd sensation in the center of my chest, and the feeling that stress was pouring out of me. This, I suspect, is the alchemy that the folks in Britain are calling "ecotherapy," and I’ll be booking another session soon. 

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