Admiring the beauty of the natural world and spending time in the great outdoors has been my lifelong passion. All of my outdoor pursuits and much of my professional work have all been firmly rooted in this love affair with the woods and the water. I’ve written extensively about the healing, inspiring power of nature over the years in many of my books and magazine articles and it’s something that I constantly strive to share with others, especially those who never get the chance to spend time in captivating, wild places.
If you’ve followed my writing over the years, you probably already know that my original profession was that of a minister. Before I started hanging out with Kodiak bears and guiding people into the wilds of the Last Frontier, I first served the spiritual needs of many folks in both the Midwest and Alaska. In fact, I’m still involved in ministry to varying degrees. Currently, I help serve the needs of dying patients who are on hospice care. While working as a guide and accompanying people through the untamed wilderness is an incredible experience, accompanying people through the end of life, to the very gates of eternity, is a humbling privilege which words simply cannot describe.
Giving Life and Peace to the Dying
Some time ago, a hospice volunteer coordinator sent me an article by Dr. Rachel Clarke, entitled “In Life’s Last Moments, Open a Window.” In the article, doctor Clarke shares the details of how many of her hospice patients long for the beauty and solace of nature, and how the fresh air and songbirds heal them in ways that medication and extensive treatments could not. The article starts with the account of an exceptionally agitated cancer patient, who was thought to be experiencing terminal restlessness, which is a condition of extreme anxiety that those who are actively dying sometimes endure. As it turned out, he was not yet at the end. An hour later, Dr. Clarke found the patient in his hospital recliner sitting peacefully while gazing at the beautiful trees and garden which were right outside his door. The intense agitation of a mere hour ago had vanished completely. The patient simply wanted…and needed…to bask in the soothing sunshine.
Dr. Clarke goes on to recount another story of a 51-year-old breast cancer patient for who chemotherapy was no longer an option. Upon hearing the news that her days were numbered; the patient’s first thought was to go find an open space where she could breathe fresh air and hear the sounds of nature…away from hospitals and treatment rooms. The patient shared how hearing the singing of birds was so incredibly calming for her and how it inspired a great deal of soul searching, and ultimately, profound emotional and spiritual healing.
As the article ends, Dr. Clarke states, “People often imagine hospices to be dark and dismal places where there is nothing left to experience but dying. But what dominates my work is not proximity to death but the best bits of living. Nowness is everywhere. Nature provides it.”
I would have to agree with Dr. Clarke, and I’ve witnessed much the same, especially the healing power and calming presence that nature can provide to those who are dying or in great distress. I can vividly recall a hospice patient in her early 60’s who was in the final stages of cancer. One afternoon she requested to go outside, which was a bit of challenge, as she was completely bed-ridden, but we made it happen. The patient’s husband and I, along with one of the nurses, wheeled her hospital bed outside the back entrance of the hospice house to a beautiful grotto and garden area. As I slowly maneuvered the bed through the double doors, out into the warm sunshine, the patient suddenly sprung to life, sat up straight in her bed and boldly proclaimed, “Oh my God!! Is that Jesus!?” Well, it sort of was! No, she was not having a near-death experience, but right in the center of the grotto was a large bronze statue of Jesus with his arms raised to heaven, standing above a waterfall, surrounded by a wide array of colorful, blooming spring flowers.
As I wheeled the patient right up to the edge of the grotto/garden area, her face lit up and she burst into uncontrollable tears of joy as a symphony of songbirds welcomed her with their melodic tunes. She took in deep breaths of the fresh spring air and stared with wide-eyed wonder at the squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits and other critters that scampered about in the garden. The sound of the waterfall, even though man-made, seemed to fill her soul with a divine calm. She inhaled through her nose with as much effort as she could muster to fully take in the fragrance of the blooming flowers. As it turned out, she was a gardener all her life, and there were few things she enjoyed more than being outside in such a setting. As the tears continued to flow and the smile on her face broadened, I politely excused myself in order to respect her much needed time for solitude in that special place. A few days later, she passed peacefully from this world to the next.
Those who love the great outdoors know good and well about the healing, transforming, inspiring power of nature. Quite often, activities such as fishing, hunting, hiking, camping, gardening, nature photography, and all the rest, become catalysts for experiencing the stress-relieving, soul-stirring, mind and body rejuvenating qualities of the natural world. Many “get something” oriented activities have much higher potential and value than simply getting a fish for the stringer, venison for the freezer, vegetables for the table, or some great photographs for one’s collection. In the outdoors, there is the opportunity to “get something” that goes far beyond immediate gratification or bodily sustenance. Spending time in creation can reconnect us to the creator in a powerful way and provide essential nourishment for the soul…which is sometimes starving to death.