Doctors in Shetland can now prescribe a walk in nature

Note: this was published elsewhere last year.

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Photo by Martin Zangerl on Unsplash

Since October 5th, Doctors in Shetland have been authorized to prescribe “nature prescriptions to their patients.” It’s thought to be the first program of its kind in the U.K., and seeks to reduce blood pressure, anxiety, and increase happiness for those with diabetes, a mental illness, stress, heart disease, and more.

There is a leaflet of ‘nature prescription suggestions that accompanies all this filled with amusing, charming, sometimes seemingly off-kilter suggestions as well: in February, you can “draw a snowdrop” or make a windsock so as to “appreciate the speed of the wind”; in March, you can “borrow a dog and take it for a walk” and welcome Oystercatchers home; in April, you can “touch the sea” and “make a bug hotel”; in May, you can “bury your face in the grass”; in July, you can “pick two different kinds of grass and really look at them”; in August, you can summon a worm out of the ground without digging or using water; in September, you can help clean the beach and prepare a meal outdoors; in October, you can “appreciate a cloud”; you can “talk to a pony” in November, “feed the birds in your garden” in December, and do so much more.

The evidence for the benefits of nature on mental and physical health are numerous: if you spend 90 minutes of your day outside in a wooded area, there will be a decrease of activity in the part of your brain typically associated with depression; spending time in nature not only reduces blood pressure, anxiety, and increases happiness, but it reduces aggression, ADHD symptoms, improves pain control, the immune system, and — per a summary of research regarding the health benefits of nature — there’s even still more we don’t know and are figuring out every day.

In Landmarks, the writer Robert Macfarlane bemoaned the disconnect between the landscape and the words used to describe and engage with that landscape, as well as all that disconnect implied. The book attempted to serve as something of catch-all for words Macfarlane worried was being lost. There are Shetlandic words in the book, including grumma (mirage caused by mist or haze rising from the ground), flaa (hunk of turf, matted with roots of heather and grass, torn up by hand without a spade and used in thatching), skumpi (clumsy, lumpish peat; outermost peat in each row as the peats are cut out of the bank), dub (very deep bog or mire), yarf (swamp), iset (color of ice: isetgrey, isetblue), and others.

One could imagine that someone encouraged to spend more time in nature by their Doctor won’t just feel better — they might think about tearing a flaa out of some skumpi before turning around and heading back home. They’ll spot some isetgrey ice. And, as they reconnect with nature, they will reconnect with the language of nature, a language that is frequently site-specific and carries with it a quiet institutional memory of its own, a memory worth recalling as the world faces development and climate change.

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