I am working hard to transform human relationships with nature, including my own. As I continue to learn and grow, I encounter other individuals and efforts doing similar work. One that comes up often is the Nature Rx movement. I believe it may have started with Park Rx America with Dr. Robert Zarr. He hopes to encourage other doctors to prescribe nature as they would other medications to improve wellbeing. I support the work and the premise. I also foresee potential dangers if we act as if nature is medication to be prescribed only when needed. These are five dangers of the Nature Rx movement (nature prescription).
Nature prescriptions lack reciprocity
According to Merriam-Webster dictionary online, Rx is short for medical prescription. Rx comes from the Latin recipe which means “take.” The movement talks about the health benefits of time outside. Park RX America has a downloadable poster that mentions how time in nature can improve physical activity, sleep, energy levels, stress, wellbeing, connection to others, weight, and mood. And all these things are true. However, if the effort is only about taking, then nature (and we) will lose eventually.
Some mention of reciprocity must be encouraged at the onset. Parks, whether part of Park Rx America or not, should notify users of the staff, budget, and projects needed to manage parks. The “parking lot fee” is not enough to keep parks vital.
When visiting parks, I always imagine a two-way sign. On the way in, the sign provides the usual information about trails, areas of interest, and any rules. I would add an encouragement for people to pause and set an intention for the time there. As Carver Park Reserve here in Minnesota does, it might also provide a brochure on a meditation trail to help people be more present. On the way out, the other side of the sign could remind people to be grateful for what they just experienced. It may also provide an updated project needs list and specific ways to practice reciprocity.
Nature Rx miss impact to the environment
Promoting the benefits of nature, the way the Nature Rx movement does may entice people to go outside. This is especially helpful for people who are far removed from a direct relationship with nature. In addition to talking about benefits, though, we must remind people of impact.
- Going off trail tramples plants and potentially cuts habitat through disturbance.
- Pavement is nice for ease of use, but results in more habitat removed from the system.
- Any movement through a space is a potential disruption to animal behavior.
- Rock piling and other forms of nature art, growing in popularity, can also cause disturbance, in addition to turning unsightly when overdone.
Any effort to improve people’s relationship with nature should encourage being mindful and purposeful in that exchange. If you are coming for exercise, stay on trails and do your best to be the least disturbing. If you are coming for solitude, enter and exit silently; focus your attention on your senses to become aware of your place within nature. If you are coming for rest, turn off or leave electronic devices behind and make yourself present to the awe and wonder around you. Set your intention and then minimize your impact. This will assure places are here for us in the future and for future generations.
Nature prescriptions may set unrealistic expectations
Presence is required to fully reap the benefits of nature as the movement suggests. While just being in contact with nature has some benefits, they cannot be fully realized if your mind is somewhere else. In my human-nature workshops, I require a homework activity meant to bring people present in nature. Inevitably, participants want to resist the homework. When done, most realize they do not spend purposeful time in nature. And my participants are people in outdoor-related and conservation fields that you would expect to already practice what I preach.
As I talk about unrealistic expectations in my workshops, I use Subpar Parks to prove my point. This is an artist that takes one-star reviews of national parks and turns them into memes. They are funny and sad. For example, the meme for Arches National Park says, “You pay to look at orange rocks.” I cannot imagine people who are disappointed in the beauty and awe of our national parks will care for any land or water, much less be any kind of steward.
I think the movement could do better to talk about the benefits in a spectrum related to our willingness to be present and wonder. You are likely to experience even greater benefit if you care for those places while they care for you.
Nature Rx focuses on the individual
Writing out a nature prescription for someone to go outside could encourage the first step. What is missing is the need for neighborhoods and communities to rethink the spaces that exist now.
- Mowed lawns can be converted to nature lawns or gardens.
- Community gardens could exist in all neighborhoods.
- Trees should line our streets.
- Office spaces and health care buildings must include natural elements.
- Community design must maximize biodiverse green space.
We need individuals, neighbors, community leaders, health care providers, park managers, city planners, landscape designers, and others to be a part of putting natural elements in every place possible.
Start small, in your own yard, deck, or window if possible. Help grow a movement beyond individual health to community health.
Nature Rx is treatment not a solution
Because Nature Rx follows the medical model, it acts as a treatment of symptoms and does not get to the underlying causes of our lack of wellbeing. The heart of the problem lies in our misplaced relationship with food and beliefs about exercise and rest. At the core are our beliefs about consumption and production. In fact, nature is our life force. Nature is a part of us, and we are nature.
Because we are nature, our bodies provide the information we need. It lets us know in noticeably clear terms when we need to rest and when we aren’t fueling properly. We often do not like to hear what it is telling us because it means we must give up our fake self-care like junk food, alcohol, over-consumption and other addictions that temporarily make us feel better.
I have started to shift self-care and ecoresilience workshops to focus on energy regulation and management. Participants are encouraged to think about what is needed to bring their best gifts to the world. I need a healthy mind and body. and do my best to eat whole foods and move my body in multiple ways. When I notice my mind spinning, I have realized that is my sign to exercise or take some time outdoors. During the onset of Covid-19, I used the phrase “open the front door not the fridge door.”
In the end, we must minimize our consumption and simplify. When our planet is not well, we are not well. So, for the Nature Rx movement to really matter, it will have to encourage less consumption. The Nature Rx movement (and all of us) might learn from our original protectors and caretakers of this land through Indigenous wisdom which is reciprocal, rather than consumptive.
Nature Rx has great intentions and has the possibility to change people. Like any other wellness program, it is not a silver bullet to our planetary crisis. You will benefit individually from time outside, that is true. Yet, vitality will only come when we get to the heart of our relationship with Earth, which provides life.
I continue to work on my own personal relationship with Earth. Like my other personal relationships, sometimes I fail and am simply imperfect. As I work on mine, I help others grow in their nature relationship as well.
If you are interested in my workshop series called Human Nature Connection: Building Ecowellness, Stewardship, and Inclusion, send me an email at email@example.com. Join me in this four-part series that will explore and challenge beliefs about access and nature. We will consider an ecowellness model to examine relationships with nature and dig into environmental identity. We will contemplate ways to converse with and embrace the experiences of anyone we meet outdoors while minimizing harm. The end goal is to pursue ways to move people from tourists to explorers and advocates of our land, water, and wildlife.
Acknowledgment: I do want to note that many people lack well-being because of poverty, lack of access to good medical care, lack of access to healthy foods. Therefore, lack of wellness is not necessarily the fault of individuals in those situations. Some must spend their energy worried about food, water, and shelter and do not have the luxury, privilege, or even access to significant nature for wellbeing.
For fun, check out this video series; http://www.nature-rx.org/,
Written by: Michelle Doerr