an interview with Ruth Baetz
We live in a society that is plagued by stress and its symptoms: heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders, anxiety, and depression, to name a few. Increasingly, physicians and other healthcare experts are extolling the virtues of relaxation, meditation, and even communing with nature as a way to reduce stress. Andrew Weil, M.D., best-selling author of 8 Weeks to Optimum Health, recommends spending quiet time in nature on a regular basis, as does Deepak Chopra, another best-selling author/physician. Self magazine recently reported a study by Alan Hirsch, M.D., director of the Smell and Taste Treatment Foundation in Chicago, concluding that even the scent of a bowl of green apples placed on a table reduces levels of anxiety by increasing the brains alpha waves, associated with relaxation. According to McCalls magazine, University of Michigan psychologist Stephen Kaplan found that workers whose office windows overlooked natural settings reported less job stress than those with views of a parking lot.
Likewise, writers like Thoreau, Muir and others have long recommended the benefits of communing with nature. The problem is, however, that none of these luminaries really told us how to do it. Particularly, for those of us living in crowded urban areas, finding the time and the place to commune with nature can prove to be a daunting prospect. And ironically, before heading to our city park, we often need to move through fear or, at the very least, concern about what harm may come to us not from wildlife, but from other human beings.
Now, Seattle resident Ruth Baetz provides some answers. Her newly released book is Wild Communion: Experiencing Peace in Nature, a unique combination of how-to manual and inspirational narrative, which engages both the logical, linear side of the brain and its creative, experiential side.
Baetz began her relationship with nature in the urban landscapes of Chicago, where "the great outdoors was a baseball diamond and playing jungle meant slinking among the trash cans in the alley." On her 33rd birthday, this self-described city slicker decided to do something different. In search of adventure, she packed her car with "enough food and books to last three months" even though her trip was only three weeks long, and embarked on her first solo car-camping trip to the Canadian Rockies. Baetz had prepared for any eventuality; what she was not prepared for was the bliss she experienced while alone in the mountains, an experience she describes as "off her internal Richter scale." Anticipating her return to the city, Baetz began to get depressed and promised herself she would find ways to reconnect with nature and the ecstasy she had felt. The result of that promise made years ago, Wild Communion draws from the authors experience with psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, meditation, and relaxation techniques.
A therapist in private practice for over fifteen years, Baetz received a Masters of Social Work from the University of Washington. These days she communes with nature in the green spaces near her home in Seattle, particularly in the Washington Park Arboretum, on the slopes of Mt. Rainier, and outside of Tacoma, where she and her partner Sandra Jo Palm own a cottage. She is also the author of Lesbian Crossroads, which was published ten years ago.
Christian: What exactly do you mean by "communing"?
Ruth: Websters defines communing as "intimate fellowship or rapport." When we commune, we experience our intimate relationship with nature with our entire selves: mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We may have an ecstatic experience of oneness with the whole universe or a calm sense of kinship with the tree beside us.
Christian: What are the benefits of communing?
Ruth: Communing affects each of the four quadrants of a human being. Physically, it relaxes the body much like meditation does, lowering blood pressure, etc. Studies have shown that there are medical benefits to relating to pets, to plants, even to a view of nature out the window. Mentally, it clears and relaxes the mind, so our mind is refreshed when we return to problem solving. Emotionally, it offers a nonjudgmental place to get a larger perspective on personal problems; it offers role models and inspiration. It soothes upset feelings. Spiritually, communing places us in the middle of miracles and mysteries, in the middle of something much larger than ourselves. Here we can ask the big questions about life and death and we can feel the presence of a higher power.
Christian: What led you to write a book like this?
Ruth: I needed some inspiration to get through Seattles long dark winters, so I started reading what I had written during earlier communing experiences, and I discovered that those writings took me back to feelings of serenity and rejuvenation and kinship with life. As time went by, I shared some of the writings with friends and they got the same nourishment. They encouraged me to share them with a larger circle by putting them together in a book.
Christian: How is communing different from meditation?
Ruth: Meditation focuses you in on yourself your thoughts, your sensations, your mantra, your visualization. It doesnt matter where you are; you can do it sitting in front of a blank wall. Communing focuses you out on your relationship with nature or with some specific thing in nature. There is something out there you are relating to; it matters what you are sitting in front of. Meditators align themselves with a preset goal to quiet the mind or to increase the joy and peace of all beings, for example.
Communing starts with you asking yourself what you need at this moment, what your goal is this moment. Your goal will change each time you commune. Meditators dont want to be affected by externals; they want to stay detached. Communers do want to be affected. They want to feel something in response to nature.
Christian: Do you really think people need help to enjoy nature? Isnt this a natural thing to do?
Ruth: In our busy lives we get into habitual ways of thinking and feeling. Usually we are worrying about the future or the past, and usually we are trying to think of several things at once. We do need help to break that habit, so we can be present in just this moment and focus on one thing. Usually we carry the tension of plans and worries in our bodies. We do need help to break the habit of our muscle tension. Just being in nature will relax you to a certain extent, but many people stay preoccupied with work or family worries when theyre in a park and cant let in deeply the rejuvenating power of nature thats all around them.
Christian: Many of The New Times' readers are in the healing arts, including psychotherapists, nurses, massage therapists, and other practitioners. Dont they already know about stress management?
Ruth: Communing will give them another tool. They can use it for themselves to prevent the burnout that plagues so many in the service field, and they can teach it to clients. Its actually helpful for both mental health and stress management.
Christian: Whats a simple communing technique someone could do right away?
Ruth: Try being something in nature. Sit in front of a rock or a tree or a lake, and imagine that you are a rock, a tree, or a lake. Feel the air on you, notice your weight and your height or depth. Notice how the world looks from your perspective. Notice the things above you or below you and around you. Notice what rubs against you or lands on you. Being something in nature immediately takes your mind away from your worries and puts you in the present moment. It plunges you into another beings reality; it wakes up your senses and your curiosity. Its the most intense kind of relationship like "walking a mile in my shoes."
Christian: One of the tragic things about modern life is that most of us are really busy and often lead frantic lives with little time to spare. What are some tips for communing in an urban setting in, say, twenty minutes or half an hour?
Ruth: When you have a short time you need to drop your busy mindset and step into a communing mindset quickly. Heres a simple, step-by-step way to achieve that: 1) Make a determined decision to commune. 2) Put your daily concerns on a list or give them to nearby trees and tell yourself youll pick them up later. This will help you let go of your preoccupations. 3) Say your goals for communing. This will turn your mind towards communing. 4) Get close to something natural that you want to commune with: a leaf, a blossom, or a rock, for instance. 5) Put a boundary around yourself and whatever you want to commune with. You want to feel separate from people and traffic noises. Sit behind a natural boundary of bushes or a tree, or create an imaginary boundary like the old toothpaste commercials invisible plastic shield. Be aware of the air and sounds inside your boundary; let the other noises be out there. 6) Take three deep breaths, or do any other quick relaxation exercise. These simple steps will only take a few minutes, and then you can spend the rest of the time using whatever communing technique you choose.
Christian: As a lesbian, do you feel your book has a particular message for gay and lesbian people?
Ruth: Sometimes I feel we need nature more than heterosexuals do. At some point in our lives, we are likely to go through significant trauma without support. Whether its our first experience of coming out or a later experience of discrimination, there will be times when no human support is at hand. Natures comfort and wisdom and support are always there. Our connections to our families are often difficult or disrupted altogether. Where do we get a deep, enduring sense of belonging, of being nurtured, a sense of kinship? Where do we find a relationship weve had as long as weve had a relationship with our family? Nature, of course. Our connection to the religion of our childhood may have been severed because of homophobia within that religion, or because in our questioning weve questioned those beliefs too and found them wanting. Where do we go to reconnect with the holy, with a higher power? We may have been judged and shamed. Where do we go to feel sacred and accepted and okay again? Where do we go to weep, to collapse, to feel held, to heal? We can go to nature for these things and more.
Ruth Baetz will be speaking in Seattle at East West Bookshop on December 11 at 7:00 p.m. and at Elliott Bay Bookstore December 13 at 5:00 p.m., and in Redmond at Stonehouse on January 15 at 7:00 p.m. She is appearing on KKMO radio's (1360AM) "The Barbara Lord Nelson Show" December 10 at 12:00 p.m.
Christian de la Huerta is founder and executive director of Q-Spirit, a nonprofit organization promoting personal growth and spiritual development in the gay/lesbian/queer community. Based in San Francisco, he is presently writing Coming Out Spiritually, forthcoming from Tarcher/Putnam in 1998.