“There is healing in the trees for tired minds and for our overburdened spirits; there is strength in the hills, if only we will lift up our eyes. Remember that nature is your great restorer.” Calvin Coolidge, 1924
We have just come back from North Wales where 50 members of the extended family of Mill Grove joined in our annual summer holiday, and I would like to try and make sense of some of the healing that I witnessed while there. It’s not worked out in my mind, and so you may need to bear with me as I try to assemble the pieces of the jig-saw.
Among those who were with us were some who were bereaved, several from fragile families, and those who were lacking in confidence and self-esteem. My privilege was to be part of a process in and through which I observed the healing properties of the natural world, referred to by Coolidge, and also the therapeutic milieu which is human community.
There is healing and strength that comes from being in creative and responsive contact with the natural world, and Snowdonia is an area that provides virtually unlimited opportunities for this. Take water: I witnessed children and young people diving into rivers and the sea, jumping off a bridge into the River Glaslyn, swimming, snorkelling, kayaking, sailing, and playing for hours in a little bay near Borth-y-Gest. Does being so at home in water kindle unconscious associations of our months in the mother’s amniotic fluid, I wonder? Does it take us even further back in the collective unconscious of human history and development?
Beach cricket at Borth y Gest
As I was watching some of this water-play a retired person commented that it was a constant reminder of what she had missed in childhood. She would paddle in water, but never glide into it, or slide under the surface, surf in the waves, and strive against the current to reach the point in the mountain pool where the waterfall struck the surface.
And then there were the mountains: we climbed Moel y Gest, the local hill, Snowdon, Crib Goch and two of the Carneddau. Once again it was my privilege to watch young people scrambling on different kinds of rock, running to reach a summit cairn, looking down at the stone walls, tiny houses and villages far below. If swimming is innate, then all the evidence I have collected suggests that climbing up rock is also a reflex reaction of children.
We had two barbecues, one beside a river, and the second by the sea looking west towards Cricieth (the Welsh spelling of Criccieth) as the sun set. Once again I noticed how easily the children slipped into the routine of collecting driftwood, keeping the fire going, and enjoying the sausages, burgers and marshmallows cooked on the open fire. When the sun had dropped below the horizon, and the sky gradually darkened, we were all drawn to the light and the warmth of the fire.
The wind (or air) was ever present: sometimes a gentle breeze, but once or twice at sea and on the mountains, a challenging force to be reckoned with. Is there any child who does not feel drawn to try to lean into a strong wind, and to see if it will hold her up? Is kite flying universal? Are wind-flecked waves bound to draw children to jump into and over them?
It seems to me intuitively self-evident that this friendly engagement with one or more of the four elements is good for the soul as well as the body.
But I am aware that there was more to what was happening than individuals enjoying themselves in the created world. The other dimension to the healing was about life together: the positive effects of engaging with the community. Again and again I witnessed children and young people welcoming, accepting, encouraging and helping each other. This was not about a programme of instruction or learning, but rather informal and largely unstructured social interaction that was life-affirming. The context was mostly the natural world (although we did enjoy the occasional ice-cream and packet of chips).
Let me give a few examples that come to mind. Two young boys introduced a child to kayaking. I watched them from a reasonable distance help her into the kayak in a beach pool and show her how to hold the paddle. She kept her balance, but found the strength of the wind too much for her. Try as she might it kept on turning her off course and driving her back. The boys noticed this and so towed her into the wind thirty metres or so (they were of course wading in the water), where they encouraged her to paddle with the wind behind her. She glided across the sea water pool like one to the manner born.
A night or two later we had a competition that involved running up a steep incline from the promenade at Cricieth by torchlight. Nearly everyone had a go, and the times recorded on my stopwatch varied from six seconds to nearly a minute (it was slippery as well as steep). The winner? It was the little girl who had been in the kayak! Among those she beat were most of the rest of the group including her father, and a very sporting young man twice her age.
A group of children spent over an hour in the sea playing with some of the older boys: they had some swimming competitions, but were basically messing about in the water. Each one had complete confidence in their swimming, but also in all the others that they were with.
One day we had a Treasure Hunt: there were swims to do, a hill to climb, as well as information to collect. The climax to the day however was the creation of a model of the Olympic Park on the beach of Port Dinllaen, followed by an imaginary version of how the Olympics might look at Rio de Janeiro in four years’ time. The cooperation between the youngsters, their creative energy, and their determination, were quite remarkable, and what they created was worthy of the many plaudits they received. The four teams were locked in competition, but overriding this was a sense of belonging to a group involved in exploring the world of Snowdonia, while enjoying creative fun.
The memories are now flooding back into my mind, so let me bring the sequence to a close with reference to a trip across the estuary to the sands which we call Treasure Island. There were nine who set off, some swimming and others in the Mirror dinghy. Once on the sands there was a mile walk to the grass near the dunes on the other side. And all the way there are pools of every shape and size, warmed by the sun, and inviting splashing, diving and swimming. The three littlest ones were in wetsuits and they had a whale of a time, happy and absorbed in their play while the older ones kept an eye on the overall situation.
What I was seeing once again was the healing that there is in nature combined with the affirmation that there is in human recognition and acceptance. There is more to it than this, and we should not underestimate the planning, wisdom and experience that went into creating the environment for all this to take place. It was all done with painstaking attention to likely risks, ensuring that the adults were experienced and trained, and with extensive local knowledge.
A view of Tryfan, the Glyders and Snowdon as we descend from the Carneddau
But it is at the very least a reminder that we should not rely on formal therapy, treatment, plans and statements at the expense of the stuff of spontaneous human relationships in the natural world. The art of this is the creation of the right space for all this to happen rather than the delivery of advice or professional assistance.
I cannot say how or when, but I do know that what I saw will contribute to the development of the personal, social and even spiritual growth of all those who were part of this whole experience. And it was, as you may have gathered, something which inspired me too. I am so grateful to have been there.
And by the way: on the summit of Snowdon we encountered Lord Coe, who had just walked up the mountain by another route to witness the lighting of one of the flames for the Paralympics. I don’t want to suggest that this meeting with him was more of less significant than the other examples I have given, but it will always help us to remember the year in which it all took place!