Nature's wild medicine

THERE is something life enhancing about being knocked off your feet by a huge wave rolling in from the Atlantic Ocean and crashing onto the shore.

It is an almost primal feeling as the churning sea washes over you and you are tugged in 10 directions at once by the bubbling, hissing tide.

Scrambling to my feet I turn and wait for the next one, wallowing like an excited child as again I am knocked flying by the breaker and dragged down to be tossed about under water.

Much has been written in recent years about the healing properties of sea water but there is also something psychologically liberating about swimming in the wild.

The beach I am on is in a particularly wild place off the coast of Co Clare where layers of limestone seem to flow off the Burren and into the ocean.

When I last swam here on a sunny say at the start of the summer the beach at Fanore was packed, but now as autumn is setting in it is much quieter and there are just a few others enjoying the freedom of swimming in the sea.

I have read theories that suggest swimming in the open sea causes changes in the neural patters of the brain - that it can help reset it.

But who needs scientific papers to tell you that a dip in the open sea can be psychologically beneficial. The pure buzz and exhilaration of just being in the water speaks for itself.

The same can be said for 'shinrin-yoku', the Japanese for forest bathing.

According to research carried out by the Japanese government, spending time in among trees can improve mental wellbeing and bring physical benefits by boosting the immune system, lower blood pressure and heart rates.

Research in Japan concluded that this is a result of a chemical called phytoncides which is released by plants and trees.

This research has led the Japanese government to introduce shinrin-yoku into the country's health system, as both part of a recovery programme from illnesses and as prevention against illness and psychological stresses from developing.

But as with swimming the open sea, do we really need scientific research to tell us that spending time in a forest, or in any place surrounded by nature, is good for the mind and body?

Forests and woodlands have a particular appeal at this time of year when the leaves are falling and mushrooms are sprouting in among them and fungi on the bark of fallen dead branches.

There is an almost tangible texture to the smells of a damp forest in the autumn that is ancient and mysterious.

And then there are the mountains. Many head straight for the summits and see them as something that have to be mastered to prove some want in ourselves - we conquer a peak or overcome the challenge of difficult terrain.

Yet the mountains are not the ones that set the challenge, they are simply there getting on with being mountains.

Away from the busier trails and summits it is still possible to find utter silence, apart from the occasional crawing raven or the sound of a river gurgling out of the ground or gaining identity as a tumbling waterfall cascading down a rocky crevice.

And even with the increase in the numbers of people visiting our mountains over the past 18 months it is still possible to enjoy a few hours of silence, away from the better known peaks and trails.


First published in The Irish News

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