The Healing Power of Nature Images in Story

By Garth Gilchrist.

Growing up in the forests of western Washington, wading up maple-canopied streams and scrambling through the branches of big fir trees, I was happy. I still draw on those memories, and the leafy stories they spawned. They provide me with a good deal of my own sense of roots, values and identity.

This week, in a river valley in Baja, California, I was reminded of my long-ago childhood by a boy I met named Willie. Eight years old, Willie lives beside sacred Mt. Kuchumaa, has acres to wander over, mules as friends, a raven-visited tree house in a sycamore and a wild sparkle in his brown eyes. It struck me over the days I spent with his family that Willie looked remarkably and wonderfully happy. His sparkle spoke not only of loving parents but of a spirit fed by streams of powerful presences: stones, birds, branches, open sky, wide stretches of time, and good stories – natural companions for a child to grow up and thrive with. Willie’s dad, Bill, manages an eight-acre organic production garden near Tecate. Though caring for the garden and the workers leaves him a bit less free than Willie, Bill has the same sparkle in his eye. He, too, loves and is fed by the land.

But there are few Willies or Bills these days. Kids in the dozens of suburban schools I visit, and millions of kids like them across America, have only lawns, fenced schoolyards and stiffly landscaped subdivision streets to play in. Though children are naturally resourceful and imaginative, and many gifted teachers develop their students’ imaginations, too many kids lack a welcoming, exciting outdoor environment in which to cultivate their connection to nature. Many find themselves wandering instead through the seductive landscapes of Nintendo and commercial television. Children recognize hundreds of brand names and logos, but only two or three species of birds or plants, and few know any stories of the places they live. Their parents, in offices and tract houses, and on freeways for the greater part of their week or year, suffer similarly. We live in a culture that is quickly losing touch with land and with the natural well-being that contact with wild and growing things brings.

Among indigenous peoples around the world it was and still is a common belief, rather a certainty, that when people are taken away from the land, they lose their spirit, even their identity, separated from the elemental forces of life that nourish and sustain them. The relatively new science of environmental psychology is founded on this observation, that relationship to nature, or lack thereof, can have a profound impact on an individual’s psychological health. Therapies in this discipline focus on restoring strong, healthy connections with place, especially with the wild elements of a place.

Can stories help? Yes. My experience over many years has shown me that storytelling rich in nature imagery is health giving, even a healing force for children and adults alike. Among many benefits, the principal blessing of wild tales is they nourish our sense of relationship to the larger natural world in which we live. This is profound; it gives us, whether as adult or child, a larger context in which to perceive ourselves and the meaning of our lives. The varied benefits of this perception are too many to list, but the central principle that underlies them is clear: if we understand and feel ourselves as part of an immense, wondrous, harmonious system of life, full of beauty and mystery, this understanding positively influences our relationships, our activities in the world and our ability to cope with challenges of every sort. In this article I’d like to consider the various uses of nature images and themes in stories, and explore some of the health-giving benefits of using storytelling to build a deeper sense of connection to nature.

Children are almost universally fascinated with wild landscapes. They have an inborn, on-sight instinct to run out into them and interact with them with eyes, hands, feet, mouth and soul. Put any two to twelve year old in a wild setting, even an untended back lot, and he or she will soon be running across, scrambling over, sliding down, rolling in and exploring with great interest and delight whatever happens to be there. Adolescents and even adults, if we have not become entirely domesticated, likewise have an instinctive joy in and need for physical, perceptual and emotional relationship to the natural world. The youth or adult returns from the land charged with enthusiasm and wonder, energized, and more connected to the world in a fundamental way.

Hyemeyohsts Storm, in his remarkable book Seven Arrows, describes the Oglala (Sioux) sense that each wild thing serves as a sort of mirror that reflects to us dimensions of ourselves; thus contact with animals, birds, trees and elements awakens and strengthens the fullness of our own natures. Maybe that’s what children sense. Walt Whitman says this: “I never knew I contained so much.” And John Muir: “Wonderful how everything in wild nature fits into us …”

But when there is a paucity of real landscapes to wander through, language and story can serve the role of cultivating and elaborating our wild inner landscapes. Any storyteller, if you ponder it, brings landscapes alive within us, the presences of persons and places, through artful description. Language is powerful. Language represents, replicates, even creates experience in our consciousness; landscapes of sense awareness, characters, values and emotional textures take form within us as we listen or read. “We don’t have to rely totally on experience if we can do things in our imagination” says contemporary poet Mary Oliver. “You can escape your own narrowness of vision.”

In my telling, I water my listeners’ ears with powerful language about nature so that the presences of great trees and waterfalls, the wondrous forces and beauties of the land sprout and bloom in their imaginations. I recall that John Muir swayed the nation, converted a whole generation of Americans to conservation by the sheer quality and force of his descriptions of landscape. Muir’s genius lay in his extraordinary ability to create a new inner landscape, an interior picture of nature, for Americans to walk through and dwell in.

Whether we deliver a carefully prepared narrative or a simple anecdote, all stories about wild things give affirmation and value to a child’s own experience of nature -nearly every child has magic moments outdoors some time or other in his or her life. These stories encourage a child to be attentive and to seek more of this experience, especially when adults relate their own personal stories.

Stories specifically about nature, or even stories that simply include descriptions of land, the presence of animals or the magic of the seasons as elements of the tale, nourish something deep in children. They have a natural hunger for such stories that parallels their eagerness for nature itself. Children want to run through the landscape, whether with physical or imaginational legs. They are eager, only awaiting the raw material to fuel their imaginations. Teachers and parents can augment even humble outings to small parks or a corner of the schoolyard with stories, turning a small outing into a rich adventure. Back in the classroom a review of the stories can stimulate creative writing or art, and in general fire the wild imagination.

This idea of telling stories specifically about nature is new to many of us. Most storytellers7 stories are, predictably, about people and their interactions; we are most interested in ourselves. Even in purely human stories such as folk tales and fairy tales, even in fables, a rich sense of place, an underlying landscape can be created by adding at intervals a short sentence, a phrase or a word that brings to life the place in which the story occurs:… the ferns in the mist… the breeze whispered through the fronds of the tall cedars …she stepped out of the tent upon the sand and found herself under the cold moon and the dazzling stars …he emerged from the cave and saw the waterfall, like a curtain of diamonds •…in through the wooden window floated the soft darkness and the scent of lilacs… the stream flowed between her fingers like silk. . . fireflies danced over the prairie grasses … the water tasted of stones and moss …a speckled hawk shrieked . . . the oaks stood immovable. Such phrases can improve many otherwise non-nature-oriented stories by adding texture and beauty, especially if the teller is conscious of a range of multisensory impressions. Scent, sound and taste are powerful references in a story. The story is improved by a more solid sense of place, and the listener is moved by the magic of the images taking form in his or her imagination, which, if carefully chosen for tone and metaphor, only intensify the force of the narrative.

A strong sense of place is largely lacking in modern life. Story can encourage us to pay closer attention to where we live, to keep a sharper eye and ear on the natural world around us. Sense of place -local, regional, familial, natural-has given solace in hard times, everyday beauty and rich historical texture and identity to Americans and to all peoples. Stories are powerful tools to fortify and fill out a sense of place.

Each wild element, each specific animal or tree or force, has its own quality that colors a story with a certain presence or wisdom.

I find children and adults love to hear stories about my experiences in nature, straight from the horse’s mouth. They ask for these stories over and over. So I tell them: the grouse that woke me up napping in the woods and then followed me home, the seal that came to my kayak like a glowing torpedo through the bioluminescent tide of the bay, my hanging tree house in the cedars, the tiny birds that cured me of sadness, swimming with the sea turtles in Hawaii. What I particularly value is that after a session of these stories children will raise their hands, and adults will come up to me, full of excitement to tell of their adventures and experiences in nature. Obviously my telling is giving weight and value and importance to their own experience! And, again, that perceived value encourages them to seek more such nature experiences, and to note and value them when they occur. Adults invariably say that my stories brought back their own childhood to them or recalled the power and blessing of their own mountain experiences. “I can’t wait to go back now!” they say.

We can also pass down stories from our families. Kids love to hear about the sleigh horses that saved my grandpa’s life in the snowstorm and my mom’s remembrances of animals on the farm.

In the 1980s I wrote and recorded stories that gave kids the opportunity to be the central character in the tale. These guided imagery journeys, using music and second person (“You”) narrative, asked kids to imagine themselves as various animals and led them, for example, through a day in the life of a squirrel leaping through branches and nestling into dry leaves, and along the fall migration route of a trumpeter swan, wings cutting through the snowy wind. A later recording in standard story format carried kids along a salmon’s journey from an egg in a mountain stream to the ocean and back, and another through the amazing adventures of George, the water molecule. I wanted to give kids the sense of being nature. These sorts of stories are easily made up, even as spontaneous bedtime tales. Oh, what dreams they’ll have!

Published stories about animals are another good source. With a little looking in used bookstores, you can find troves of animal story collections published from 1900 through the 1960s. These stories can be very exciting, full of drama, warmth and wisdom. I also love to tell stories from the writings of great naturalists about their adventures: David Douglas, Lewis and Clark, Thoreau, Sigurd Olson, Gary Snyder. John Muir’s stories, particularly, are highly telling able and wonderfully appealing to children and adults alike.

I notice that certain words, certain images, have an almost hypnotic quality with an audience, especially an audience of children. Perhaps these words access deep race memories in us, bring us inexplicable recall of old powers, old dangers, wonders and mysteries that must still live in us today. Cave, night, dawn, moon, wolf, lion, bear, snake, eagle, coyote, whale, dolphin, shark, waterfall, cliff and river – these images are clearly deeply rooted and resonate profoundly in our psyches. They are archetypal in a loose sense; Carl Jung’s writings describe the function of such images in our collective unconscious. I am not a psychologist, but I do see the fascination on the faces of the children, and I see some of the children’s bodies spontaneously assuming the postures and motions of the animals as I tell, their faces responding to the enchantment and force of the elements. As I pack up to leave and walk through the schoolyard, I hear the children retelling the stories to each other. Something important, something exciting has happened. The mention of the word “dead” always brings a hush to the audience, even to squirrelly kindergarteners. I sense that during a passage about a dead bear, or a dead bird, something crucial is happening. If I can frame the death of the animal beautifully, in the context of a larger life, the flow and circle/cycle of nature’s Life, Fm confident a healthier, more natural attitude towards death is growing in the listeners.

Each wild element, each specific animal or tree or force, has its own quality that colors a story with a certain presence or wisdom. Of course each individual species of tree, bird or animal has its own presence. The presence is both metaphoric (oak tree is strong, willow gentle) and yet more subtle, the power of the image, if artfully described, works directly on our awareness in a way we can hardly describe but can feel. All animal and tree and elemental presences have some quality of consciousness. Fm not speaking of the tree squirrel’s consciousness or the giant sequoia’s consciousness necessarily -these are entirely speculative – but rather of our consciousness as we perceive the animal or tree or element, either directly or through the agency of descriptive words. This is personal, direct, and real because experienced. This is the Native American concept of mirrors: something awakes in us as we perceive, as we watch and wonder (Hyemeyohsts Storm, Seven Arrows, Ballantine Books, 1985).

A sensitive teller/ therapist/healer might become skilled at finding the ideal presence to balance particular maladies: a turtle story for the impulsive child, a tale of narcissus blooming through the snow for a person needing hope, a sequoia storm song for the fragile. A water journey epic might help the individual who is rigid or stuck, a salmon story persuade the insecure to trust their instincts. An eagle flight for higher perspective, a moon poem to soothe, a sun salutation to energize, the story of a stream to encourage dreaming, a buffalo winter tale for endurance, a fox story to help you outsmart those blocking your way, a coyote story to learn to see difficulties as teachers, a wolf story to increase appreciation of family, a packrat story for the chronically messy!

Even without specific therapeutic goals aimed at particular difficulties, wild stories are generally therapeutic for our modern and nearly universal malady: separation from the life-giving earth. Knowing this, I fill my stories with presences, with short phrases, poetic descriptions, that help awaken natural consciousness, the experience of beauty, mystery, gentleness, power, joy, flowing energy and the deeply healing intuition of connectedness with the world.

At the end of this article on the benefits of nature storytelling we have not yet touched on the most obvious, usually the first subject to be promoted: the benefits to nature itself of humans paying compassionate attention to it. It goes unsaid that stories about nature will foster in listeners ethics of conservation and harmonious interaction with nature. If one feels for, one cares for. Sensing the life and magic of wild things we want to take them under our own wing. But the benefit is not just to nature; the rewards we reap are enormous as we open our hearts and minds to the broad world. Well-being and healing flow to us perpetually from all things great and small. The contentment and wonder eight-year-old Willie feels in his sycamore tree house in Baja can be shared to some extent by thousands of kids and adults delighting in wild stories that sweep them through wild places in memory and imagination, cultivating the inner landscapes that connect us to a broader life than our own.

The Big Tree by Garth Gilchrist.

I was eight when I fell in love with trees. Our family had just moved into a brick house in the Sammamish river valley, east of Seattle. Dad and I walked our land, gazing up at cone shaped red cedars like giant tipis, western hemlocks graceful as dancers and sky-climbing Douglas firs. We were from Missouri and we were astounded.

Up on the back hill grew a huge tree, a seven hundred year-old Douglas fir whose width proved broader than my father’s outspread arms. Dad said he was sure it was the biggest tree for twenty miles around. The deep furrows in its bark flowed upwards like canyons to its’ top branches which caught the wind some 300 feet above the rooftop of our house.

Dad was an adventurer and a long-time lover of trees, so we were not surprised when he decided one day to climb the big Douglas fir. But standing on the top rung of our long extension ladder and stretching his arms as high as he could, Dad couldn’t reach even the lowest limbs.

“Thank goodness,” sighed my mother.

Dad winked at me as he climbed down. “Maybe you can figure out a way to get up it in a few years.

I looked up at him, and up farther at the tree. The idea seemed impossible, but wonderful. The fir stretched grandly into the blue northern sky, more of a god than a tree. I wasn’t sure when, or how, but I knew right then I would climb it, someday.

“You’ll see the whole world from up there,” Dad said.

I set right in to practice, and scrambled up first smaller and then bigger trees with growing agility. Fifty feet up in the hemlock that grew beside our garage I was amazed at how our house looked so much smaller and the world so much bigger.

“The higher the tree,” Dad said, “the more you’ll see. And the more you see, the wiser you’ll be.”

“Don’t encourage him so,” my mom complained. “He’s already more squirrel than boy. And what happens if he falls?

“He won’t fall. He’s a good climber.”

I think Dad knew the value of tree climbing. Not just the boyhood fun and freedom of it. He wanted me to see the world from a broader perspective. At twelve, I shimmied up between two close-standing trunks and got into the smooth-barked branches of a one hundred twenty five foot tall cedar. From the top I looked over the rooftops of the whole neighborhood! I could see the Thorsons having dinner on their porch, Mr. and Mrs. Fluharty talking as they picked beans in their garden, and Mr. Reed trimming the laurel hedge in his driveway and stopping to shoo a dog away. I felt an omniscience being up there. I could see everything all at once; human things, and the wonderful flow of trees and wind and birds and squirrels, and the clouds drifting across the sky.

When I was fourteen, a heart attack took Dad away from us. I climbed even more because it reminded me of Dad; somehow I could feel his strong, adventurous presence in the branches.

I hadn’t climbed the big tree, though. And I felt bad about that. Dad had wanted me to, and I wanted to. But it was just so huge and the branches so far up.

Years passed, and then in my first year of college I went mountain climbing with friends and learned something of the use of ropes. My first day back home that summer I walked up the hill in the back yard with a purpose. Throwing a string tied to a stone over the lowest broken off branch stub of the big tree, I fed a rope up and over the stub. When the rope was secure I pulled myself up the side of the tree and stood on that broken-off branch, heart pounding, my body plastered against the rough bark of the fir’s trunk, my arms stretched wide around it. I reached carefully up to the next stub and hauled myself up. Before long I was in the limbs and climbing. The strong, limber branches seemed to welcome me. “Here you are, at last,” the tree seemed to say. The views opened up, wider and wider, and I could hear Dad’s voice in my mind: “The higher the tree, the more you’ll see. The more you see, the wiser you’ll be.”

I saw the houses along our lane, then the streets of the whole neighborhood, and then the town on the other side of the river; thousands of cars, and people, all living their lives. As I climbed into the higher branches, my view crested the nearby hills and I could see out over Lake Washington to the Cascade Mountains, still capped with snow, and I felt the expanse and lift of the land.

When I gained the top of the tree at last, I caught my breath. Puget Sound shimmered in the west and across it the peaks of the Olympic range rose into the evening sky. Mt. Rainier, a huge and tranquil presence, rested in the distance. The sun was spinning into the burnished shades of evening when Mom came out the back door and hollered up into the yard, “Garth, dinner time!”

“I’m up here, Mom!” Mom glanced up and around, then craned her neck back and finally caught sight of me waving from atop the big tree. She shrieked.

“Don’t worry,” I yelled. “I’m as safe as I’ll ever be anywhere. I can see the whole world! Just like Dad said!”

I ate like usual that night, but no food had ever tasted better, and Dad was there with us, beside us at the table. I could hear Dad’s laugh and see his smile of approval, because I had made it to the top of the tree, and seen the whole world, for both of us.

This article and story originally appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 3, Spring 2002.

Garth Gilchrist’s writing, poetry, extensive teaching and performing, and nature guiding over twenty-five years all spring from his wonder in nature as the face of Spirit. Garth has been honored for his one-man show John Muir: Hitched to the Heart of the World and has published and produced five recorded collections of original and adapted nature stories. He is editor of the renowned guide – Sharing Nature with Children – and believes that good stories awaken the best in us, stretching our emotional landscapes, and foster a sense of kinship with nature and with each other.

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