Hiking Havens: Walking Toward PeaceAug 31, 2021 05:00PM ● By Cindy Ross
In Ferncliff Nature Preserve, Lancaster County, our heads tilt skyward, as we follow the ancient giants—beech, tulip poplars, hemlocks and white oak—up into the heavens. This space was dedicated as a National Natural Landmark in 1972 because of the exceptional old growth forest that has been maintained here. It is just the place to bring my veteran friends, who are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.
For the last seven years, I have run a nonprofit for veterans called River House PA. I lead vets to beautiful places like Ferncliff Wildflower and Wildlife Preserve, Lancaster County, and let nature do its magic.
Ferncliff is a wonderful place to walk, because of the huge old growth trees and the sense of awe they create. This emotion plays a vital role in our health, happiness and wellbeing. Awe makes us feel small, in relation to something larger, and it humbles us. Being in nature also helps shift our brain to the relaxed, calm, focused electrical brainwave pattern. Our brains run on electricity, and various wave patterns result from different experiences and activities. Learning to switch to the relaxed alpha pattern helps rewire the post-traumatic stress disorder brain into a calmer, more focused one, and it is just what these veterans need.
War—and everyday trauma—takes a toll
Since 2001, more than 2.7 million veterans have served in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. One in five veterans has been diagnosed with PTSD. An average of 17 veterans die by suicide every day, totaling almost 60,000 veterans since 2010. These staggering numbers have forced therapists, caregivers and researchers to find alternatives to traditional therapies and prescription medications for veterans experiencing PTSD, depression and anxiety.
Here’s the thing: civilians can also suffer from PTSD, brought on by a traumatic experience. Since the onset of COVID-9, every person’s mental health has been challenged and, whether you are a combat veteran or a civilian, nature has the capacity to heal.
Learning to heal
One of the most innovative approaches to healing is ecotherapy, which uses outdoor activities in nature to improve mental and physical wellbeing. Hundreds of studies, many in Japan, have been conducted in the past decade, convincing even the most skeptical that spending time in nature has healing power. The activity of hiking is one of the easiest ways to reap the benefits of nature’s healing.
The first part of the blue-blazed trail in 65-acre Ferncliff Nature Preserve follows an easy, comfortable mile-long path along the unpaved road from Bald Eagle Road through the preserve to the Susquehanna River. The locked gate at the entrance prevents unauthorized vehicular traffic. There are bunches of beautiful ferns to admire and, in the spring, wildflowers carpet this ancient tree cathedral. Blooming mountain laurel and rhododendron decorate the forest in early summer. In the fall abundant stands of paw paws, with their fragrant, edible fruit, beckon. We stop at a natural swimming hole, where a great slab of red rock has fallen down the slope. Underneath it is a deep pool where fish hide. We flip over rocks and look for caddis flies and salamanders.
The act of walking actually diminishes the inclination to ruminate and obsess over negative thoughts—common behavior for those struggling with PTSD. A Stanford study using MRI technology to measure brain activity after hiking yielded these results: walking in nature reduces mental fatigue, soothes the mind and boosts creative thinking.
Once we reach the rolling Susquehanna and admire the water, we double back to the blue-blazed trail. We take our time, climbing up the switch-backing trail through a steep ravine to the Winter Overlook. Navigating a tricky hiking trail such as this forces the mind to assess and reassess the environment. A hiker must watch the ground with each step to make decisions about foot placement. This engagement with the environment exercises the brain—the complete opposite of a life spent indoors focused on screens and electronic devices. The latter seems to breed disorders like depression and anxiety, whereas hiking in wild areas feeds both the body and the brain like vitamins.
Exercise actually changes the brain so it can cope with pain, by manufacturing natural opioids that work the same way as addictive meds to reduce pain and stimulate the production of serotonin. The brain can make so many of these natural opioids, that they can dampen pain and replace it with euphoria.
The view from this hilltop encompasses the wide, expansive Susquehanna River and beyond to Johnson Island, the home of the first bald eagles found in these parts. Birds are abundant in Ferncliff, including bald eagles, which may be seen soaring overhead from their nearby nesting and hunting grounds along the river.
There’s no need to hike many miles in order to reap the benefits of nature. Studies show that spending time in forests and in green natural areas significantly lowers your body’s concentration of cortisol, as well as pulse and blood pressure. The Japanese have a term- shinrin-yoku- “forest bathing.” Merely sitting passively in a natural environment significantly improves an individual’s physical and emotional health.
I sit with veterans admiring the view and the beautiful Susquehanna and search the skies for soaring eagles. By the look on every veteran’s face, they are feeling content and peaceful. For some, the path to healing is a rather literal one.
If you need a dose of peace to improve your mental health, go for a walk in nature. You just have to take the first step.
If you go
Welsh Mountain Nature Preserve in East Earl features a half-mile, fully forested, Universally-Accessible Trail.
For more information about Ferncliff Preserve and Lancaster-area hiking opportunities, contact the Lancaster County Conservancy at (717) 392-7891 or visit lancasterconservancy.org/preserves.
Cindy Ross is the author of nine books. Her latest is, “Walking Toward Peace: Veterans Healing on America’s Trails.”