Listening and closely observing patients, in the way we appreciate and notice nature, can promote humanistic care and clinician well-being.
Lifelong Learning in Clinical Excellence | March 9, 2022 | 6 min read
By David Kopacz, MD, University of Washington
The pandemic has changed many of our relationships and has given us the opportunity to re-evaluate our relationship with nature. Whether it’s working from home and popping out into the backyard, taking a quick walk and studying the microecosystem of the sidewalk, or enjoying lunch in a local park, nature is right at our fingertips and always below our feet. I’m not talking about nature in the sense of the great outdoors, wilderness, or national parks. I’m talking about the nature that’s right under our noses but we’re usually too busy to notice. Julia Corbett, in her book, “Out of the Woods: Seeing the Nature in the Everyday,” calls this “everyday nature,” and asks that we “reimagine this grand yet ordinary nature,” for the health of our entire species. We can all practice becoming naturalists, as a hobby, calling, and as self-care (nature is healing), and to work on the climate crisis which is a public health crisis.
I’ve been trying to pause and appreciate the wonders of everyday nature. This requires a different mindset than we normally have with our surroundings. We tend to acclimate to what we see daily, take it for granted, and pass it by. But a crow, robin, squirrel, “weed” blooming in the lawn, or brilliant green moss on a tree after the rains―all of these are as much a part of the natural ecosystem as is a bald eagle, humpback whale, bear, mountain view, or sunset over the ocean. In fact, many naturalists, eco-philosophers, and mystics tell us that our sense of separation and disconnection from nature underlies the problems we have created with our technology and lifestyles. This occurs when we believe that “nature” is somewhere other than where we live most of our lives.
To break down our separation from nature, we must recognize not just everyday nature around us, but that we, ourselves, are nature―in a sense each of us is a human national park, or even an international park, a vital natural resource, perhaps even sacred, and part of the web of life. When we separate ourselves from nature, we lose our relationship of all being in this together. If we’re not part of nature, what are we? Leslie Marmon Silko, in “Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit,” reminds us that everything is sacred―and we can extend this to ourselves as well.
All places and all beings of the earth are sacred. It is dangerous to designate some places as sacred when all are sacred. Such compromises imply that there is a hierarchy of value, with some places and some living beings not as important as others. No part of the earth is expendable; the earth is a whole that cannot be fragmented, as it has been by the destroyers’ mentality of the industrial age.―Leslie Marmon Silko
As healthcare professionals, we’re trained as scientists and technicians, yet to become naturalists we need to develop new skills or reimagine how to use them. Jane Goodall, in “The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times,” tells us that there’s a difference between being a scientist and a naturalist.
The naturalist looks for wonder of nature―she listens to the voice of nature and learns from nature as she tries to understand it. Whereas the scientist is more focused on facts and the desire to quantify…as a naturalist, you need to have empathy and intuition―and love.
If we want to become naturalists, we must develop different capacities than we use as scientists, and yet empathy, intuition, and love are things that we know from our clinical work.
Lyanda Lynn Haupt writes about ten skills for becoming a naturalist in her book, “Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness.” As clinicians, we already have many of these traits, and simply need to shift our attention from our individual clients to nature as our patient―including ourselves as part of nature. “Developing as a naturalist,” writes Haupt, “a knower of nature, is arguably one of the most critical tasks for modern humans on the planet Earth, yet naturalist is a word and a role that has, in the last century, lost its core meaning.”
Here are eight things you can do to work on becoming a naturalist:
1. Practice patience.
Nature is patient and never hurries. Instead of telling patients to have patience, we need to cultivate this skill more ourselves!
2. Watch and listen.
We’re used to running tests on patients. As a naturalist, however, we’re reminded to learn more from watching, listening, and using our senses than doing lab tests. These observational skills will make us better clinicians.
3. Cultivate an obsession.
We’ve already got this with learning our professions! The biologist E.O. Wilson wrote, “You start by loving a subject. Birds, probability theory, stars, differential equations, storm fronts, sign language, swallowtail butterflies. …The subject will be your lodestar and give sanctuary in the shifting mental universe.”
4. Carry a notebook.
We’re used to the saying, “If you didn’t document it, it didn’t happen.” And Haupt tells us,“Writing is a way of seeing.”
5. Mind the gadgetry and just observe.
This is a tough one for us as technicians as we love to have ways of measuring and quantifying. Our whole culture is in love with technology, and this is part of the cause of our climate crisis. Haupt writes, “In its pure simplicity, observation of nature may be the most countercultural thing an ecologically minded person can do.”
6. Have a “field trip” mentality and pay attention.
“The urban naturalist has the terrific luxury of stepping out her door and into ‘the field’ . . . When does the field trip begin? Whenever we start paying attention.”―Haupt
7. Make time for solitude to recharge and mitigate burnout.
This is always a challenge, but solitude doesn’t have to be on a mountain, it can be right in your own backyard or city park when you take a short walk by yourself.
8. Be an activist for patients around the world.
“In a time of ecological crisis, the place of the naturalist has become necessarily multifaceted . . . Modern naturalists must be both biologically and politically savvy . . . the modern naturalist’s calling includes an element of activism . . . As we work to know the life that surrounds us, we stand in a lineage of naturalists―past, present, and even future. We join the ‘cloud of witnesses’ who refuse to let the more-than-human world pass unnoticed.”―Haupt
Becoming naturalists is an opportunity open to us right now, and just as Berwick wrote of the social determinants of health as moral determinants of health, there’s a moral imperative for us all to become naturalists―biologically and politically savvy activists. Dougals Tallamy, in “Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard,” calls for the creation of the Homegrown National Park by converting half of every home lawn into restored native plant community (which comes to twenty million acres). Haupt calls for us to become naturalists, not just as a hobby, and not just for our health, but for the health of the planet because we will only be motivated to love and protect that which with we are in relationship.
I want to cocreate and inhabit a nation of watchers, of naturalists-in-progress, none of us perfect, all sharing in the effort of watching, knowing, understanding, protecting, and living well alongside the wildlife with whom we share our cities, our neighborhoods, our households, our yards, our ecosystems, our earth.―Haupt
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.