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Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Human Need for Nature

I have a confession to make - I'm personally not much of a church-goer. From the time I was a small child going to Catholic mass on Sundays, I've always felt the church buildings too confining and too "human." I guess my thought was that if God made the Universe, He (or She) made it without buildings, right? Humans put the buildings in...the Creator built the mountains and forests and prairies and tundra. That's why I feel that Nature is my "church" - it's where I go to reflect, meditate, and ponder reality.

I suspect I'm not alone in this outlook...

This morning, a beautiful, sunny, Sunday morning, found me out communing with Nature in Loveland, Colorado. It was an odd little bit of nature - definitely "nature" with a small n - a man-made pond called Lower Hoffman Lake (or man-enhanced wetland, actually) on the eastern edge of town and surrounded by a hospital (McKee Medical Center) and upscale homes. Not your typical open space or huge vistas of the Rockies, no rolling prairie. Just a town pond, mostly frozen over but with a little open water on the side nearest the hospital.

It doesn't take much open water this time of year to attract wildlife in Colorado, whether that open water is surrounded by buildings or out on the prairie with only the mountains and blue sky as a backdrop. And today, large numbers of geese and ducks crowded the this little bit of blue water amid the larger swath of white ice coating the lake. Along with those geese and ducks were two rare beauties - migrating Trumpeter Swans that settled here earlier this month.

Trumpter Swan, Canada Geese, and Coots

I made myself comfortable along the Nature Path at McKee Medical Center, finding a spot in the sun with a good view of the swans, geese, and ducks. The medical center has set aside their lakefront (or is it pondfront?) to be a small "wellness park" with benches, a walking path, and meditation space (complete with labyrinth). The focus of this space is to give patients, visitors, and staff a quiet, nature-centered, peaceful place to unwind, reflect, relax, and heal.

It was Sunday, so the parking lot was nearly empty and I was the only person watching and photographing the swans. I loved that there was a little bit of Nature tucked in here next to the hospital - and that colorful, energetic birds converged here during the winter. Maybe patients in their rooms could look out a window and watch the daily comings and goings of animal life just a few feet away. I wouldn't blame them for preferring to watch the animals - they're a nice change of pace from watching the nurses come and go all day and night.

Adult and Juvenile Trumpeter Swans with Canada Geese, Coot, and Mallards

After about an hour, a gentleman of about 70 years old walked up and started asking me about the birds. He was joined by his daughter who looked to be in her early 40s. Both seemed tired and stressed, but they visibly relaxed as they started to watch the swans. I told them a little about the Trumpeters - how they'd just come in a week ago or so and that it was an adult and juvenile. They remarked how huge the swans looked in relation to all of the other birds on the pond - almost like an aircraft carrier sailing out of port accompanied by the fleet!

Then the gentleman told me he was here because his wife was very seriously ill, in ICU, and he and his daughter needed to think about something else for a while besides prognoses and tests and procedures and doctors. His daughter was nearly in tears as she listened to her father talk about her mother - but she still focused on the swans going about their morning, fascinated by this little bit of Nature next to the hospital. The woman didn't smile, but she did relax a little and seemed to de-stress for the 20 or so minutes she and her father stayed and watched the swans.

My heart went out to this man and his daughter. Seeing them put me in mind of the countless hours I spent visiting my father when he was in and out of the hospital for surgery, ICU stays, and chemo treatments. Hospital experiences can be horribly scary for the patient and stressful for family and friends - oddly enough, hospitals are not good places to truly heal. Anyone who's been admitted can attest to this! Even as a visitor I remember occasionally needing an escape  where I could just "be" - away from the medical smells and noises and people inside. A place where I didn't have to think or feel, just a space to unwind and realize that life was still going on no matter the turmoil my family was experiencing. I found an escape in the walking inner city neighborhoods near the hospital - it wasn't the best way to unwind, but it was better than nothing. I would have loved a healing garden or nature walk like this one, with plants and animals to focus on rather than white coats and IV lines.

Thankfully, hospitals like McKee Medical Center are beginning to recognize the benefits to humans of allowing Nature and medical facilities to coexist.

There is something about watching animals that takes my mind out of myself and my own life and problems for a while, and I doubt I'm alone in this. Just seeing what happened this morning reinforced how valuable Nature can be to us if we allow it space. Yes, Nature deserves to *be* for its own sake, but let's not forget that we need it in our lives as well.

I'm glad McKee Medical Center has seen the wisdom of bringing a little bit of Nature into the lives of its patients and visitors. It can't hurt and just might help provide a much-needed respite from the stress of hospital stays, both for patients and their famillies.

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