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November 2023 Issue
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Nature’s healing power

Victoria with her daughter Emilie on a recent trip in Kahurangi National Park. Photo: Victoria Bruce

Tramping connects us to something much bigger than ourselves.

‘Into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.’ 

This quote is often attributed to naturalist and mountaineer John Muir, and I can relate to what he says, for spending time in nature has helped me heal, build confidence and self-reliance, and rediscover my sense of fun and joy.

 Exposure to abuse and violence at an early age can cause a person to have a hyperactive alarm system. Stress hormones are secreted continuously, which means living with a constant sense of danger and helplessness. This in turn messes up the immune system and the functioning of the body’s organs. 

I have been diagnosed with major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. There’s no magic switch or miracle cure. The slow path to healing involves tolerating the feelings while coming to terms with what happened.

A note from my therapist reminds me that ‘feeling leads to healing’, while ‘repression creates depression’. 

For me, there’s no better place to heal than on a good long tramp with my daughter Emilie by my side.

Once I’m settled into the rhythm of walking, my mind slows and the busyness of the working week – its financial stressors and the never-ending to-do list of single-parent life – is left behind.

I breathe deeply into the knots in my stomach, the tightness in my neck and chest, lumps in my throat, the ache behind my eyes – all physical symptoms of a hyperactive nervous system and a body pickled in adrenalin and cortisol.

Surrounded by shades of green, gold, red and brown, my gaze relaxes. My senses absorb the soft sound of running water and the wind whispering through the trees, the smell of the bush, the sweet notes of birdsong and Emilie’s happy chatter.

It’s a calming massage for the senses: an immersion in a living, breathing forest where so many plant species co-exist in quiet harmony.

I watch the erratic movement of a pīwakawaka, dipping and bowing as it comes to visit, bringing messages from the underworld. I feel a sense of connection to this cheerful little bird, its bright eyes and fluffy bottom. All around is the sense of something so much bigger than me. I’ve become part of the magic, a wayward forest child returning to the bosom of Papatūānuku. 

I love the muscular challenge of climbing and seeing the huge tree trunks of the valleys replaced by more stunted varieties; goblin forests of wispy green.

One last push and we’re above the bushline, the rippled green canopy now below, ridges and valleys rising and falling wave-like to the horizon, in deepening shades of blue.

Up here we’re on top of the world, and I’m overwhelmed by a huge sense of peace. The heaviness I brought with me into the forest has lifted, my mind has slowed and my breathing has deepened.

The more my body becomes accustomed to tolerating the physical discomforts associated with tramping – wet, cold, tired, muddy, hungry – the easier it becomes to tolerate the unpleasant physiological sensations of a dysregulated nervous system.

Nature has the ability to challenge, revitalise, heal and reconnect us to something much bigger than ourselves.

As long as my legs will carry me, I’ll keep coming back for more.

– Victoria is a keen tramper and author. Her new book, Adventures with Emilie, documents her experience of walking Te Araroa Trail with her daughter.