The Healing Nature of Going Outdoors: Reflections on Quarantine and The Secret Garden

At dusk I walk fast. So fast I can feel my circulation buzzing in my lips when I return home. My family is in quarantine after returning from our spring break in March.

After being entirely at home, I’m struck by the smells. The smell of an engine as a car passes me, of dryer sheets from someone’s laundry exhaust.

I couldn’t explain it then, but I needed to be outside, and I was glad it was warm enough to walk. There was something healing about being outdoors.

I read about this healing with my daughters during the state stay-at-home order afterwards. They listened entranced to the transformation of the character Mary in the children’s classic The Secret Garden:

“But the big breaths of rough fresh air blown over the heather filled her lungs with something which was good for her whole thin body and whipped some red color into her cheeks and brightened her dull eyes when she did not know anything about it.”

She was no longer the sour, pale creature at the beginning of the book. 

Separated from everyone but my family, I too felt soured and lifeless. Although I couldn’t be with others, I at least could be outdoors in nature.

The healing that came from being outdoors wasn’t only for my bodily health but for my soul’s health and my relationship with all of creation. 

Our Bodily Health

Being outdoors is healing.

I like to pick at things, and weeds are good to pick at. As I pluck the weed’s stem close to the soil to extract the root, I’m interacting with bacteria in the soil that may be a natural antibiotic. Also, in spring, I stop taking my Vitamin D. Instead, I receive at least twenty minutes of direct sunlight a day.

As the weather has become comfortable, my family has gathered with friends in fresh air sitting in lawn chairs spaced appropriately because we’ve learned that outdoor ventilation reduces the spread of the Covid 19.

Our Souls’ Health

The outdoors is also good for our souls.

Interacting with soil microbes has been shown to boost mental health. When I awake and hear birds twittering outside our bedroom, I’m less likely to dwell on the despair I’ve felt at Covid 19’s effect on our society. I’m reminded that God’s mercies are “new every morning” (Lam. 3:23).

The night I took the walk while quarantining, I was arrested by the beauty of a budding tree silhouetted against the sunset, an old squirrel’s nest bundled on a branch. There was hope.

Our Interdependence with All of Creation

Instead of the word nature, I often try to use the word creation. According to the philosopher Norman Wirzba in From Nature to Creation, “‘Creation’ names the ongoing reality of human beings, animals, plants, land, and weather, all  connected to each other and bound to God as their source, inspiration, and end.”

In other words, as reflected in in Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, there is interdependence of humans and outdoor creation. A theme of the book is friendship of three children—Mary, her cousin Colin, and the local boy Dickon—in tending the garden.

But the book also reveals the brokenness of interdependence among humans. Abuse due to both race and class appears. Mary slapped her “Ayah” in India, and Colin railed at his Yorkshire servants.

Going outside, I’ve encountered others that I don’t normally in my daily activities.

When I take my kids to a public park and lake, half the people we greet on the path are of color unlike in my kids’ mostly white suburban summer programs, which have been canceled.

On my frequent walks, I pass a house where multiple migrant laborer live. They are remodelers, and they had less work during the stay-at-home order. With more time on their hands, I noticed they had been renovating their own dwelling.

I stopped to admire the fresh gray and teal paint, and a woman leaned toward the window and waved, smiling at me. I’d never stopped before. I didn’t even know the men who lived there were not alone.

Going outdoors in my city, I’m forced to recognize my broken relationships with others outside my own circles. My community was cut off from me, thrusting me toward the outdoors, and being outdoors, I’m driven toward my need for the greater healed community.

Heather Walker Peterson