Here’s one thing that everyone in Beaufort has more of than anyone in New York City: a wealth of access to pristine nature.

Here’s one thing (maybe the only thing) that everyone in Beaufort has in common: We are only as healthy as the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and… the nature we can see and touch.

The point is, whether the sight of a hooded merganser makes you swoon, you shoot them, or you don’t know what that is (spoiler alert: it’s a bird), if you live in Beaufort County, you’re a lucky S.O.B. because you’re surrounded by nature—and nature is excellent for your physical and mental health.

That’s right, your mental health, too. Many of us know this intuitively. For example, have you ever noticed that everyone on the beach or the Spanish Moss Trail seems to be in a pretty good mood? Have you ever felt the need to step outside for “fresh air” in a stressful situation? Medical researchers and scientists have taken note, too.

Pretty soon your doctors may be prescribing you a dose of nature. For real. Environmental Health Perspectives published a national research agenda in 2017 to spur more scientists to study how contact with nature affects human health. They hope to answer questions like, “What is the correct dosage of nature?” and, “How does being in nature affect different populations?” But substantive scientific evidence already available is proving that the health benefits of spending time outdoors, particularly in greenspaces, are undeniable.

Contact with nature has the following rewards:

  • Reduced stress
  • Reduced depression
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Greater happiness, well-being, life satisfaction
  • Reduced aggression
  • Reduced ADHD symptoms
  • And improvements to many physical health issues, like congestive heart failure, blood pressure, birth outcomes, postoperative recovery, child development (cognitive and motor), diabetes, eyesight, obesity, immune function, the list goes on.

In light of May being “Mental Health Awareness Month,” and this collective moment emerging from COVID-19 (at least here in Beaufort, South Carolina), this nature-mental health connection is not lost on me. Many of us are recovering or reckoning with unprecedented spikes in stress, depression, anxiety, or all three. Were you one of the luckier ones who had a backyard filled with birdsong? A boat, kayak, or paddleboard to seek refuge on the water? A wide-open marsh painted by sunsets just beyond your porch? Millions of other Americans were not so lucky.

The division between the haves and the have-nots is defined not only by money and power but by access to nature that isn’t polluted or degraded. If you can see, smell, hear, and touch it, you’ve got it. It could be a tree outside the cottage you rent or a river view from your hospital bed. For once, this wealth has nothing to do with owning land or what land you own.

It has everything to do with the health of the environment though. If you care about your health or anyone else’s, you should probably care about your environment’s, too. And not just yours but also that of the community who live next to the smoggy coal plant or smelly hog farm; and that of the countries next door, too. For one very good reason: Nature, the great equalizer, knows no borders or property lines or political affiliations when it comes to the constantly swirling air or ocean currents.

If you’re experiencing stress, depression, or anxiety, I want you to know you’re not alone. Come now to find a moment to rest your racing thoughts. You have done well walking in the world today. You have tried the best you can to put one foot in front of the other. It is time to put down your busy world and imagine a moment in nature.

A space to clear your thoughts and decompress. It’s a chair in a yard. You find yourself gravitating there to take a seat and unload. It is almost dusk now. Cicadas begin to chirp beckoning summer’s arrival. Squirrel and cardinal are tucked in the ancient oak tree whose branches reach over you like lightning frozen in time. You too are in your own comfortable place. A safe space. Becoming quiet. Becoming still. You bring your tired body to rest in the melodies coming from the edge of the forest. Tense and worried nerves unfurl and fall away. For a moment you let your breath lead you to peace, taking a deep and slow breath from the loving engine of your own body. You look up from your seat to find yourself engulfed in a canopy of green lace filling the sky. Leaves shimmering in filtered sunlight, a light breeze caressing your face. You don’t have a thought in the world. Not now. You simply look up witnessing in wonder and worship the world breathing before you. You’ve lost the notion of rushing. Nature has slowed your blood. There are no walls separating you from the shifting sky and gathering clouds. You’re rooted as the oak tree, malleable as the spartina grass. You feel your heels lift and retouch the soft bed of leaves and soil beneath them. For a moment it’s as if your very pulse is matching the beat of the earth. The snapping of a twig and the rustling of leaves shifts your attention towards the soothing woosh of wilder wind. A familiar pitter-patter begins to fall from the sky and you wait to feel the cool dampness of rain only to find the tree is sheltering you. You scan the living treescape and see peering out from dark brown branches a red-headed woodpecker as big as a rabbit. You watch eyes wide open as it drills the bark unbothered by the rain. A low and commanding grumble thunders from a distance as if it is asking, who did you think you were? A sweet, earthen fragrance rises from the ground and sweeps over your senses. A scent so good, so fresh, you find yourself closing your eyes just to hold onto it a little closer. Now smiling wide. That smell of rain on damp earth. You hear the drops quicken before you feel them, and life rushes back with a wet kiss.