There is something familiar about the first sprinkling of snow covering the landscape. The air is thick in the morning with ice crystals, as if glitter was strewn about from the clouds. The birds huddle in the maple trees, now denude of leaves. Condensation gathers in the corners of my windows, a testament to the changing seasons. And though I will yearn for a white sand beach and sunshine before the year’s end, I smile. This cycle, this seasonal reminder of the passing of time, restores a sense of balance and health lost in the chaos of autumn.
Long have people known the healing powers of nature, in the form of herbs, plants and animals. Intrinsically many people still know about the ability of natural things to restore an inner calm. Houseplants create both atmosphere and a focal point of life in our otherwise sterile homes and offices. They bring the outdoors in, all the glory of growth and renewal and ongoing life is there in your houseplant. Of course, they sometimes remind us that all life must end when we look over and only crackly remnants are found. Ah, how nature can reinforce a point that nothing else can. Why did the plant die? Are we so incompetent that we can’t even keep a plant alive? Are we thinking about too many other things? Are we making time for things that are less important than others? Did we simply forget? Are we blaming someone else for not watering it? Was it just its time to die? Oh, the things we learn from a houseplant.
There are a million testaments out there from people who say that when life gets too complicated, they walk in the woods. They hike through a field. They climb a mountain, work in the garden, swing on a backyard swing. As you walk through whispering pines, your ears and nose getting colder, time seems to slow and fit into its niche. Birds are chattering, “There’s some great seeds over here! Come on over! Oh, there’s a person! Run! Wait, I want to see them. They don’t look so bad. Tell the squirrels to hush.” Chipmunks scamper through the leaves and snow, tracks the size of raindrops giving away the secrets they keep. It’s not long before the only thing on your mind is what is there at that very moment. Gone are the worries, fading are the to-do lists, and any stress that accompanied them lies buried under that dusting of white, safe with the acorns and pine nuts.
It may take five minutes standing on a porch to feel like the world has returned to equilibrium. It may take a weekend in a tent. You may need your family with you, or your best friend. Or you may need to be alone with just the hemlocks and blue jays. As we approach one of the most stressful times of the year, between family and travel and gift-buying and time management, I entreat you to look fondly upon your houseplant. Take a walk a grin with childish enthusiasm as you try and catch snowflakes on your tongue. Follow some deer trails, see where they go. Take your time, find the apple they stopped to take a bite out of or the tree they stopped to snack on. Breathe, let the pace of nature reset your internal clock.
I could go on and on about the different things from nature. Mint tea calms an upset stomach. Catnip tea is a mild sedative for both people and cats. Rose hips are chock full of vitamin C and make a tasty tea. This list is long and involved and there are books out there written about it. Herbals (herb books) from the 1600s celebrate the power of herbs and plants. There were fewer cases of adult ADD and depression and stress-related illnesses when people were out every day getting their hands dirty. There wasn’t a child alive that couldn’t name the common birds and mammals of their area. They saw them every day. Farmers knew it was time to start thinking about tapping maple trees because they knew the song of the Tufted Titmouse. So accurate is the bird’s timing that it was nicknamed the “sugarbird” and this name is still used in many parts of the country. Nature was integrated into everyday life. And despite a harder physical working day, many would claim it was a better life. We have moved into a more “mind-heavy” working society, but the need for nature is still as strong.
Can a houseplant combat cabin fever? Can an aquarium reduce your stress level? Will a weekly walk in the woods restore your balance? Would even a pinecone sitting on your desk absorb a few of the worries that plague you? Try it, that’s really the only to find out. People strive for a corner office for a reason, and not because the amount of glass makes you more important. Some architect somewhere knew that if you could see the world while you type and fill out paperwork and answer the phone, you would be happier. I know this first hand as I sit at this computer typing while watching eagles diving for gulls over Big Pond. I witness winter creeping in as the ice forms on the backyard pond and the juncos picking seeds from the trail where the Blue Jays have tossed them. Let nature be your guide this season and slow down. Spend time with friends and family over good food. Find and cherish the important things and keep them safe, like a winter cache of nuts. Remember that time doesn’t hurry, we do, and in that rush we may lose some of the precious life that makes every day special. Happy holidays. Water your plants.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. Walk the trails, attend an event, explore the exhibits. The Nature Center is open from 10:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sundays when they open at 1:00 p.m. The trails and Liberty viewing are open dawn to dusk. ACNC is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. Call (716) 569-2345 or visit auduboncnc.org for more information.
Sarah Hatfield is a naturalist at Audubon.
Article originally printed December 2005.