A career in the theater, by and large, happens indoors. Playwriting and rehearsing mostly take place in windowless rooms and, Shakespeare in the Park notwithstanding, performing does, too.
“Everyone thinks of the poor, starving artist writing away in a garret,” says dramaturge Liz Engelman, who worked in “fluorescent-lit backstage rooms” for many years. But toiling away in uninspiring spaces isn’t ideal when the cornerstone of one’s career is creativity.
“I’ve always felt better in the sun and air,” says Engelman, who opened Tofte Lake Center, a retreat for creative artists, near Ely in 2008. “And we hear from artists that they get more done here in 24 hours than they have in weeks, or even months. The creative faucet just opens.”
What is it about the natural world that unlocks creativity, enlivens the spirit, and brings out our highest, and often healthiest, selves? “I’m not sure what the magic is necessarily,” says Engelman. “But I do think part of it is how nature slows us down. We are so harried as humans. When artists come to the lake, time both slows down and expands.” Nature is a corrective to the frenetic energy that infuses modern life. “It would look so funny, and out of place, if someone ran around from cabin to cabin saying, ‘Oh, I just have to get this one last thing done!’ ” she says.
But the benefits of being in nature aren’t doled out exclusively at rustic retreat centers or other immersive, deep-woods experiences. We can reap the same rewards by sitting in the backyard or on a balcony — or by staring at the potted sansevieria in the living room. And as Minnesotans, says Bloomington-based theologian Heidi Busse, we’re already doing this, whether we realize it or not. “We pause to look out over the St. Croix or we hear a storm coming and look up at the sky,” says Busse. “Being out in nature is in our very nature, living where we do.”
“Nature is in our DNA. It is part of who we are,” says Jean Larson, director of nature-based therapeutic services at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and professor at the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota. When we immerse ourselves in nature, she adds, “something kind of magical comes back to us.”
Modern-day research has been able to quantify some of that magic. Studies suggest that time spent in nature benefits us in a wide range of ways. One of the early studies on “attention restoration theory” found that 40 minutes of walking in a natural environment helped people feel more restored after completing a mentally exhausting task and helped them perform better than people in a control group (who listened to relaxing music and leafed through magazines) at a subsequent mentally exhausting task.
“Having that experience in nature, for just half an hour each day, gives the brain time to reboot,” says Larson. “You are giving your brain a chance to check out and go, ‘ahh.’ It’s like nature is mindlessly massaging your brain.”
If even 40 minutes seems like a daunting amount of time, don’t fear. Research published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology in 2005 suggests that simply looking at a photo of a restorative environment, regardless for how long, improves performance on tests that require focused attention. “Anything we can do to interrupt that cycle of stress — even looking at beautiful images on our screen saver or looking out the window — can have a positive influence,” says Larson.
For artists like Engelman, nature’s ability to boost creativity is self-evident. But here, too, the research is robust. One study found that people who spent four days immersed in nature improved their performance on a task that required creative problem solving by a full 50%. There are mood benefits, too. Interacting with nature might be a powerful adjunctive therapy for people with major depressive disorder. Other research has highlighted how outdoor time, whether in a state park or your backyard, can help reduce both physical and psychological stress.
Then there’s nature’s ability to improve immune system function. Plants and trees release organic compounds called phytoncides, and research shows that these substances help activate the body’s natural killer cells. Killer cells are part of the innate immune response that helps the body reject tumors and, important in the novel coronavirus era, fight viral infections.
Getting outside is the best way to access the healing power of plant chemicals. But diffusing therapeutic-grade plant essential oils — like cypress or pine — in an indoor room can also boost phytoncide exposure and increase natural killer cell activity, according to research published in the International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology in 2009. (It’s worth noting that inhaling potent organic compounds in an enclosed space for an extended period of time can pose other potential health problems, so proceed with caution if you go the diffuser route.)
Into the woods
The research on plants and immunity comes out of Japan and the tradition of shinrin yoku, or forest bathing, which originated in the country in the 1980s. Experts had begun to notice increased levels of depression, distraction and stress in workers in large cities as technological advances trapped them at cramped desks for longer hours. So they began to prescribe forest bathing — or spending dedicated, mindful time in nature — as an antidote to the plight of the “salary man.”
“Forest bathing is not donning a swimsuit and playing Marco Polo in the trees,” says David Motzenbecker, a forest therapy guide and landscape architect. “Forest bathing is a slow, intentional, immersive and meditative walk in the woods.” Motzenbecker, who has been a forest bathing practitioner for the past 19 years, leads shinrin yoku walks throughout Minnesota.
What differentiates forest bathing from a regular weekend hike at Afton State Park? “I would stress the ‘intentional’ part,” says Motzenbecker. “Most of the time when you are hiking or jogging around the lake, you are going in with a goal. ‘I have to get all the way around the lake, or from point A to point B, or make it to mile marker X.’ With forest bathing all those expectations are removed.” Instead, you look, listen and feel your surroundings. A guide encourages intentionality.
Another guide, Tom Bezek, compares his work to being a yoga instructor. “The prompts are primarily around using your five senses and slowing down and letting nature do its therapy and letting you get what you need from it.” Bezek leads forest bathing walks at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska.
A guide is helpful for really leaning into the forest bathing experience, but the practice can be cultivated on one’s own, says Motzenbecker.
A lot of us already do it intuitively, adds Bezek. “You come home, you take off your shoes, you grab a beverage of your choice and you go to your deck or patio or balcony and just sit in nature for a few minutes and let nature do what it does to you. That provides the physical, spiritual and emotional things you need. You just don’t find that indoors.”