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One could do worse than learn from a muskrat carrying flowers

This time of the year, my husband and I try to walk or bike on the trail after work every evening here in Preston. The frogs and crickets are singing, the deer are out, and the fireflies have just started blinking.

One evening, we spotted a muskrat swimming upstream. When he came to a little waterfall over rocks, he’d get out, walk along the bank, and get back in the river. We kept following him, and he came over to our side of the bank, sniffed around, picked some marsh marigolds with his teeth, and swam upstream carrying the flowers in his mouth.

Every so often we’d lose sight of him. Then we’d spot him, still carrying the flowers, until he got out, climbed up the bank went into a hole, and came out without the flowers. We decided he was bringing flowers home to his mate, and that it must be muskrat love. After a difficult day at work, seeing that little muskrat restored our souls.

There’s a reason an experience like this feels restorative.

At the University of Michigan, Dr. Stephen Kaplan has been working on a theory he calls "attention restoration." He believes there are two forms of attention: directed and involuntary. Directed attention is the attention we use to stay on task when we work or balance our checkbook — we experience fatigue with it, and after a certain amount of time feel numb mentally, have difficulty focusing, and are likely to say, "I can’t do this any more."

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At that point, we switch to using involuntary attention, which is easy and requires no effort — things like relaxation meditation, fishing, looking at a camp fire, or spending time in green space. During "Us time," our directed attention is restored from fatigue. Without this restoration we experience burnout from work.

In England, the University of Essex just completed a study of 2,000 people with mental health issues who were treated with ecotherapy-exercise, combined with encounters with nature. They gardened, did conservation work, ran and cycled outdoors. Ninety-four percent reported great improvement in mood, self-esteem, and level of tension.

In another study, one group was taken on country walks. When compared to a group exercising at a shopping mail, the people walking in the country improved greatly, and those walking at the mall improved only slightly. Although they likely experienced cardio-vascular benefits and burned calories, 44 percent of these folks actually felt more depressed after walking at a mall.

In the Netherlands, the government contracts with 600 farms to treat people with mental health issues by having them do agricultural work. The patients’ symptoms improve, and the farmers are paid to let patients help with farm labor. Care farms are also used in Norway, Italy, Germany, Austria, Belgium and Slovenia.

Mind, a mental health advocacy group in the U.K., is calling for primary care doctors to prescribe regular ecotherapy to patients as readily as they prescribe exercise. Mind advocates making green space equally available to individuals with low income levels by way of public transportation to parks and waterways, by building green space into affordable housing, and by planning cities with walkways and parks.

Mind also calls for outdoor exercise as an antidote to the high dropout rates at fitness centers by people who struggle with obesity and as a treatment for depression to persons confined to institutions. (www.mind.org.uk. search for Ecotherapy Report-The Green Agenda for Mental Health.)

Here in the U.S., ecotherapy is a relatively new field — it’s called environmental psychology — and the research is just starting. Children with attention deficit disorder and children living in public housing were studied recently by Dr. Andrea Faber Taylor at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign. The children who used green space around their homes were better able to control impulsive behaviors, pay attention, and delay gratification (getting what they wanted immediately).

Previous research with prison populations have shown that green exercise calms inmates, reduces violent behaviors, and results in fewer sick calls.

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Before you say, "Duh. I could’ve told you that without the research" think about how children are affected when recess is taken away from them. Have you been to a nursing home or assisted living center lately? How about a psychiatric ward at a hospital, or a chemical dependency treatment center? Most that are affordable have very little green space, and people are kept indoors.

Consider how people who are depressed and anxious stay inside and watch TV or work on computers, when what might make them feel better is to watch a little muskrat bring home some flowers.

Nancy Hengeveld of Preston is a licensed psychologist with a practice in Rochester.

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