Dr. Jean Larson has always felt most at home in the outdoors. Navigating attention issues and dyslexia as a child growing up in Lake Elmo, she discovered that while sitting in a classroom was agonizing, learning subjects like biology out in the wild, with the wind at her back and her hands in the dirt, was enriching and fascinating.

By the time Larson reached college, she was on the move. She headed to Oregon to spend time at a school held in a renovated lumber mill which emphasized an alternative way of learning. She also attended a National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming. She again found herself out in the field absorbing knowledge like she never could have under the buzz of fluorescent lights in an austere classroom.

Now living on a farm in Princeton, Minn., with her husband, dogs, goats, chickens and horses, Larson is the founder and manager of nature-based therapeutic services, a joint venture between the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing, where she also serves as an assistant professor. While her work has taken her everywhere from Japan to Norway, to Taiwan and Israel, she spends most of her time in Minnesota working to introduce a wide variety of populations to the power of nature-based therapy.

In a recent interview, Larson, 55, shared a bit about the metamorphosis of the program she leads, the benefits of spending time in nature, and the ways she continues to find solace in the outdoors.

On building the nature-based therapy program

I started the program when I first got the job in 1992, and it was called horticulture therapy at the time. My focus originally was on therapeutic use of gardens, but since I come from that background, I know that not everyone likes to get their hands dirty. My love of animals inspired me to start bringing in animals to work with people and my love of hiking led to nature walks. I really started to broaden the scope, which is when we changed the name of the program to nature-based therapeutics. I have to credit Peter Olin, the former director of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. He really respected how I formed the program. It’s different from what he originally thought it would be, but I know he is proud of what it’s become. I don’t know if I’ve been doing it consciously or unconsciously, but I’ve basically been creating my dream job over the years.

On whom the program reaches

We touched over 40,000 people last year through our services, and we continue to grow and serve many different people. We work to give students and staff at the university the chance to interact with animals for stress relief, special education school districts to offer nature-based education, patients with Parkinson’s and eating disorders, adults with developmental disabilities, and high school students with chemical dependency issues. Nature affects us all and it’s essential for all of us to have a connection to nature in some capacity, so we are trying to make that available to as many people as possible.

On the power of nature-based therapies

There’s a continuum of experience — everything from the light bulb going off and someone realizing, ‘Oh, my gosh, I had no idea I would like this” to more transformative experiences where it can really turn things around for someone. We have been growing the research over the last 30 years and have a pretty clear understanding that nature is important and essential for our health and well-being. What we are doing now is really looking to see what kind of dose is best — how much nature, what kind of nature, and trying to get specifics. What might be healthy for me as a typical middle-aged woman may not be best for someone with severe mental illness or for children, for instance.

On how we can all incorporate nature into our daily lives

You may not be able to be out biking for 30 minutes or take that walk every day, but you can park your car a little further away from the shopping center, slow down, find your stillness, listen for the birds, and give yourself the opportunity to be mindfully engaged with nature. You could even have a screensaver with pictures of nature or a potted plant in your office, or you could turn toward the window and just take some time to relax. I would always advocate for exercising and being out in nature — that’s best if possible — but if it’s not accessible to you, there are other methods that aren’t as potent but are still important.

On how she gets out in nature

We live in Princeton on a farm and have raised garden beds, so it’s easy for me to get out and garden and try to grow my perfect tomato every summer. More importantly, my husband and I bought land about a mile from Canada at the end of the Arrowhead Trail. There’s a tiny little cabin there with no electricity, running water or Internet. We call it ‘comfortable camping.’ It’s where we go when we need to shut it all down and turn it all off. That’s been really important for me to have that place that is so pristine. When we get in the car we’re stressed, by the time we get to Duluth we’re starting to relax, and by Grand Marais we are blissed out.


Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.