The first time J. Phoenix Smith told me that soil has healing properties that can help thwart depression, I just nodded slowly.
Smith is an ecotherapist, a practitioner of nature-based exercises intended to address both mental and physical health. Which means she recommends certain therapies that trigger in me, as a medical doctor, more skepticism than serenity: Listen to birdsong, in your headphones if necessary. Start a garden, and think of the seeds’ growth as a metaphor for life transitions. Find a spot in a park and sit there for 20 minutes every week, without checking your phone, noting week-to-week and seasonal changes in a journal.
Ecotherapy is a fledgling profession,still unrestrained by such things as “standards of practice” and “licensing requirements.” It can mean regular outdoor sessions with a therapist or simple exercises undertaken on one’s own, and can be part of a general approach to wellbeing or a supplement to treatment for a medical condition. (It is not intended as a replacement for standard evidence-based treatments.)
Smith almost lost me at the part about not checking your phone. But I couldn’t dismiss her out of hand. Her certainty that she is doing something great for people was disarming. Plus, she has a background in public health: She worked in HIV prevention for 20 years, until she was laid of in 2010.
After Smith lost her job, aimlessness led to stress, which led to depression.But she found solace on long hikes in the Northern California hills, and was inspired to volunteer at a garden in East Oakland. “I remember walking into the garden, and I immediately felt better,” she told me. “I just saw wealth and abundance. There was food growing, and flowers. It really helped to shift my thinking.”
Smith became so convinced of nature’s healing powers that she decided to start a consulting company, EcoSoul, predicated on the idea that “bringing forth your medicine is a way of honoring your ancestors, your highest self, and the earth.” The next year, she was part of the first class to graduate from the ecotherapy certificate program at John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill, California.
Ecotherapy training programs are springing up around the country, but the one Smith attended was launched by a pioneer of the movement: Craig Chalquist, the chair of the East-West Psychology Department at the California Institute of Integral Studies. When I tracked him down, he shared some familiar advice: “If you hold moist soil for 20 minutes,” he told me, “the soil bacteria begin elevating your mood. You have all the antidepressant you need in the ground.”
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