CONTACT WITH NATURE HEALS. IF YOU TALK ABOUT NATURE, ONLY IN HAJNÓWKA
Why is there no need to be afraid of getting your hands dirty with soil? What skills development of children is influenced by nature? How could Hajnówka residents implement “green prescriptions”? This is what PHD Katarzyna Simonienko, a psychiatrist, a guide to the Białowieża Forest and a promoter of forest therapy, tells us.
What will your work involve in the “Hajnówka ReNewal – Green Transformation” project?
I provide advice on the ecotherapeutic values of landscape. We have a few ideas on what could be done to make the residents of Hajnówka and guests who will be visiting the city and the Białowieża Forest more enjoyable, but also to make sure that they can benefit from our Podlasie region nature, all that supports their health, and that they do it with full awareness.
There is probably no better place than Hajnówka to achieve such a goal?
I think not. This is a fantastic place, located at the gate of the Białowieża Forest, where tourists can stay, have access to shops, a swimming pool and a spa. It has its spa values, and at the same time it is not that far away from the world, so it’s perfect. And there is huge potential here. It is worth remembering that we have a unique forest nearby. People come here from all over the world to see it and it has many health benefits. And we, the residents, are lucky to be able to use such a landscape every day. However, I think it may be helpful to educate yourself about these resources and how to use them. There are several offers, aimed at both children and adults, in several places.
For example, there is a corner by the river, located at the entrance to Hajnówka from Białystok or Bielsk Podlaski, and there will be benches near the flowing water. There are studies that say that the sound of flowing water, the rustle of trees and the singing of birds are the three sounds that soothe our mind and make the body relax the fastest. This is evolutionarily conditioned. We want to create such a friendly place where you can sit by the water and relax, even when you are in the city center. There should be nice bushes and nicely composed greenery. There will be an information board about what ecotherapy is. It involves using our relationship with nature to improve our physical and mental health. And also strengthen immunity and support rehabilitation. There is evidence that people recover more easily after illness by being close to nature. This is our first stop.
The next one is the Pompik bison zone, which will be intended for children. This is a fairy-tale character created by Tomek Samojlik, who in a fantastic way popularizes the forest among the youngest. However, this zone will not only refer to the history of Pompik, but also educate children and encourage them to contact nature, so that they can feel free, have fun here, and have many benefits. There is a lot of research that shows that children who spend a lot of time in greenery develop extensively. Both mathematically and linguistically. They also develop social skills. There have also been studies in which children’s brains were scanned using magnetic resonance imaging. And it turned out that children who spend a lot of time among vegetation have better developed areas of the brain responsible for learning, memory and concentration. Children are also more mentally resilient and less likely to suffer from depression in adulthood. According to scientists, if you miss this contact in childhood and spend it inside walls, it is very difficult to make up for it later. A very natural, nature-friendly playground, it will familiarize children with nature. Show that nature is important and healthy. It will build such natural experiences and good associations for the future. For example, I have a lot of childhood memories of being in the garden, in the forest. I remember all these smells – flowers, mushrooms, wild strawberries – and this is my resource. Some children today do not have such experiences at all…
And so we destroy ourselves and the planet…
Yet we are part of this nature! This is a blow up in the face because we are destroying ourselves as a species.
How else can you bring nature closer to adults?
A well-being zone will be created, which will border directly on the city park, where there is an amphitheater and a fountain, where it will be possible to relax in various ways, both individually and in groups, and in various landscape configurations. For example, we have planned a flower meadow, which is a friendly environment not only for people, but also for pollinators. It attracts various types of insects, these insects can easily eat pollen and everything needed from flowers. It is worth remembering that insect biodiversity is also important, because it directly affects whether plants can bear fruit and birds have something to eat. There will be a flower meadow, one that will hopefully be active at different times of the year, not only April-May, but later species will also bloom. I took part in interesting research conducted with the University of Białystok, which concerned flower meadows in the city.
There are already a few of them…
Yes, and what we found interesting is that the more colorful the meadow and the more plants there are, the better our well-being. We prefer meadows where something is happening, rather than those with, for example, only sunflowers. However, the lawn is terrible. Of course, a lawn is still better than concrete, but if people have to spend time sitting on the lawn, it does not give them as much relaxation and relief, and does not have as beneficial an impact on health parameters as spending time in a flower meadow. But there is one condition – that this meadow be in a safe environment. So it can’t be in the middle of an intersection, where cars are driving around us and we feel unsafe. And in this zone of well-being it will be possible for us to enter through a kind of gate that will, perhaps, refer to our regional decorations. It is worth mentioning cultural heritage here. It is very important in ecotherapy. We shouldn’t make cultural borrowings. This is our land, to which we often feel connected. These indigenous anthropological connections are part of our ecology, our relationship with the landscape in which we live, often for generations. So there will be a path, we will go through a flower meadow. There will be various structures on it so that we can walk barefoot on various surfaces. And it is very good for our sensory integration, to feel different textures with our feet. But also for a phenomenon called grounding. And which I previously associated with esotericism…
And this value, i.e. rootedness, will probably be important for people who are interested in esotericism. However, there is a lot of research that says that if we equalize electric charges between our body, which is basically an electromagnetic system, and the earth, it works like grounding, e.g. in a house or car. It also affects antioxidant processes and the removal of free radicals. As well as the fact that we feel less pain and we recover faster after fatigue. For example, properly charged red blood cells repel each other more easily, which reduces the so-called blood viscosity. There are so many benefits.
What exactly is grounding? Is it enough to just walk barefoot?
Yes, we touch the naked surface of the body to something that is connected to the ground and has the nature of a conductor or the ground itself. We can sit, we can hug the tree and it then acts as a guide because it is immersed in the ground. What cuts us off every day are our rubber soles. Because rubber is an insulator. Unfortunately, most of us have such shoes. We rarely touch the ground, we are basically cut off all the time, and we don’t equalize these charges. For thousands of years of evolution, we have been without shoes, or shoes were made of leather. We have distanced ourselves from this a bit, just like from many other mechanisms. And in this zone of well-being, we will reconnect with the good things that evolution has given us.
There will be a biochemical plane here that we can use, i.e. trees. They secrete a lot of monoterpene substances, some of them are so-called phytoncides that kill harmful microorganisms. The tree produces these substances for self-defense. In turn, by inhaling these particles, we cause them to reach our body and help us defend against pathogenic microorganisms – viruses or bacteria, but also stimulate our immune system. The Japanese have researched that when we walk through the forest and the trees secrete a wealth of essential oils or monoterpenes, our white blood cells, NK lymphocytes, are more active and begin to divide faster and produce particles containing anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory substances – granzymes, granulysin and perforin. So not only do we gain better immunity, we also have the potential for cancer prevention. So we have a “miracle of nature”. Living in the city, we automatically cut ourselves off from it, unless we go to the park.
How long should contact with nature be before it begins to bring results?
In Japanese studies, two hours one day and then two hours of approximately two hours each day were enough for this effect to last for a month.
Something for busy people…
All it takes is a weekend in the forest – and we see a visible change in the first week, and a smaller one, but observable for a month, and this immunity is already greater than in people who did not use the benefits of the forest at all.
It costs nothing and the effect is almost immediate…
Exactly. In the well-being zone you will be able to sit in a deckchair near the trees, lie down or sit on a bench. It is also based on the so-called forest bathing, i.e. mindful walking in a forest environment. However, this does not necessarily have to take place on forest paths, it can be paths in a park or a square with trees. The idea is for us to breathe deeply, engage our senses and be absorbed in what is here and now in nature. They didn’t think, they didn’t analyze – loans, plans, meetings, children at school, etc. Just to focus on what’s around us. And that’s enough. We have a lot of benefits that concern not only our immunity, but also hormones, the circulatory system – normalizing blood pressure and heart rate, we also gain better oxygenation of the body, lowers sugar levels in people with diabetes, all in all, there are a lot of benefits. In the well-being zone, we will be able to use a forested corner.
If we would like to engage our body more, it is also worth taking care of physical activity. You can run, go on Nordic walking trails, which is a popular way of spending free time in Hajnówka, or go cycling. However, if someone wants to exercise stationary, it is worth considering, for example, yoga. It is sometimes controversial because some people associate it with spirituality, but there are different trends, different paths, different schools of how yoga can be trained. Of course, there are classes combined with deep meditation. But there are also those where it is pure physical activity. It has been scientifically proven that yoga has a positive effect on our various health functions. So we thought about creating a wooden platform on which mats can be spread in the well-being zone. So that you can be safe, not on bare ground, so as not to trip or get caught, practice yoga, pilates, stretch, and take up other forms of activity, maybe some dancing. Yoga is not only stretching, but also more difficult, more demanding exercises. While it’s important to do as much as you can at your own pace, you don’t have to break records. Both younger and older people can do it. Such a platform can be used in various ways. We are also thinking about separating it from the rest of the park with greenery, which will create privacy. People won’t feel ashamed until they all get used to the fact that it is normal for people to exercise in the park.
They are slowly getting used to the fact that they can lie on a blanket in the park…
Many years ago I lived in Heidelberg and people there spent their time actively in the parks. They played football, played with dogs, ran… They did a lot of outdoor activities. What was anyone able to do…
You are a great advocate of “green recipes”. What is that?
I think this is a fantastic thing. These are the recommendations of health care professionals, not only doctors, but also rehabilitators, psychotherapists and midwives, to spend time in nature to support our health. Prevention, assisting treatment, rehabilitation. Not “instead of”, not like: “Get off the pills, because they are chemicals, and go to the forest”, because that would be a harmful pipe dream in many situations, but as a green support.
The idea of green prescriptions has developed very well, for example in Canada, where doctors of various specialties can print such a prescription with a bar code, which is also an entry ticket to national parks. A person who is burnt out professionally, has a lifestyle disease and needs to regenerate, and nature supports this, goes with such a ticket and uses it. Fortunately, there are no tickets for the forest here. It would be good if our health care workers thought about this and prescribed such recommendations to their patients, because a doctor’s word, especially on a piece of paper, has a certain “power” and authenticates nature’s support in maintaining health.
Do green prescriptions already exist systematically in our country, or are they currently part of recommendations?
In Poland, on a recommendation basis. In Great Britain, systemically, in Canada too. Every country has its custom. In Korea and Japan also systemically. Finland, Norway on recommendation basis. The topic is quite new for us, we are just starting to encourage people. The fact is that the idea was talked about long ago and that it was beneficial to health, but the name “green recipe” did not exist. I remember that when my child was little, the pediatrician regularly sent us to the forest during infections. “There is no fever, go to the spruce or pine forest. There are oils there, it’s good to inhale them,” she said. This is also a good solution for asthmatics. Our doctors have been making such recommendations intuitively for a long time. On the one hand, this is obvious knowledge, but on the other, I have the impression that it is forgotten. In Canada, recommendations have been created for doctors on how best to implement these green prescriptions. It is worth recommending a specific place to the patient where he could use the green prescription – in Hajnówka we would have a well-being zone. And encourage him to plan such meetings in his diary and approach them seriously, just like other important meetings or activities, such as the gym. You also need to write down how often he should stay there and what exactly he should do. For example, that the patient should forest bathe once a week and go to the platform to exercise. It is also encouraged to fill green prescriptions with several people. It is worth inviting friends, because then we motivate ourselves better. The Polish Society of Lifestyle Medicine has been operating in Poland for several years. It brings together representatives of various medical specialties who place great emphasis on diet, sport and nature. This year there was an ecotherapy panel, during which we discussed how nature supports us. The well-being zone will meet the needs of people who want to take care of themselves, but also health care workers who will be able to recommend specific activities. Perhaps, over time, a therapeutic garden could be created here.
This type of classes could also be held at the Academy of Nature. Maybe on weekends or in the form of tournaments. For different age groups, from different perspectives, supporting health. Either through education, or working in the garden, or through phytotherapy and contact with local herbs.
This therapeutic garden is interesting. I know many people who say that they don’t need anything big to grow there, but the fact of digging in the ground helps them…
There are many benefits, and we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. The soil contains the beneficial bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae. When we dig in the garden, they penetrate our respiratory tract or digestive system and begin to affect our body. A study on rodents yielded interesting results. It turned out that these bacteria have a positive effect on the area of the brain where there are neurons, colloquially speaking, “acting on serotonin”, i.e. the so-called a neurotransmitter of happiness that is missing, for example, in people suffering from depression. These bacteria cause serotonin conduction to increase in certain areas of the brain. So we can say that they work a bit like a vaccine against depression.
So let’s not be afraid of hands dirty with dirt.
Let’s not be afraid. It is known that it is better to avoid digging in the ground where animals defecate, and you also need to remember about parasites. But ordinary work in the garden also means mindfulness, it means freeing yourself from obsessive thoughts and excessive analysis. We have something specific to do and that’s what we do. There was also a very interesting study on stressed people, what would relax them more: reading a book in the garden or working in the garden? It turned out that people who read a book after stress not only couldn’t calm down, but also became even more nervous because they were constantly analyzing whether they had done everything right or not. And those people who had specific work to do: weed the garden, plant something, focused on the work and rested not only in their minds, but also in their bodies. They relaxed, their blood pressure and heart rate normalized. Working in the garden is also recommended for rehabilitation.
Could something like this appear in the well-being zone?
I think it is worth going in this direction, because it will be useful both for sensory integration, for autistic patients, and for older people with dementia spectrum disorders or mood disorders. For example, there is a therapeutic garden at the psychogeriatrics department of the hospital in Choroszcz. Patients can, for example, have contact with flower species that grew when they were children. Such species are often e.g. dahlias or roses. This makes them feel soothed, good memories come back to them and in fact, contact with flowers, especially for women, is very therapeutic.
Let’s go back to forest bathing for a moment. Should they be done in any specific way?
The important thing is that it should be a very slow walk. Japanese research says that it is enough to move one kilometer per hour, two kilometers. Yes, step by step, but to stop sometimes and sit down if you want. Resist, pay attention to details. And it is amazing how many interesting things can be found in nature when we are not in a hurry, when we take out the headphones. I have the impression that when I go to the forest and follow the same route again, I will still find something interesting and new. Different colors on the leaves, different natural phenomena. You can admire the play of light and shadow on the leaves. Such little things, but there is something different every time of the year. Now we have leaves changing color, soon there will be snowflakes. Blooming flowers in spring. Sparkling frost in winter. This is what mindfulness is all about, allowing us to settle in the present for a moment.
Interesting results were brought by a study in which an encephalograph was placed on people’s heads and they checked what was happening in their brains as they wandered through the forest. It turned out that both types of waves – alpha and beta – then begin to have larger and clearer amplitudes. Some are responsible for concentration, concentration and remembering. The second one is for relaxation. One should appear in the recording when we are at work, and the other when we are relaxing. Both are active when in contact with nature. This is an old evolutionary mechanism, dating back to the times when hunter-gatherers had to constantly look around the forest to see if there were plants to collect or any animal tracks, but at the same time it couldn’t be tiring for them so they wouldn’t stop this activity quickly. . Walking in the forest was something natural for them, but it also stimulated concentration. It turned out that we didn’t outgrow it and it still works. In the forest, it is often easier for us to associate facts and come up with an idea. Let’s also use forest bathing to improve concentration.
Hajnówka is the coolest place you can imagine to talk about nature and educate people. Because you can invite people from Poland and around the world and show them everything on an ongoing basis. We have a forest that does not exist anywhere else, with enormous biodiversity, and wonderful traditions, e.g. herbalism. This is a great profit for the inhabitants, because if we have a forest that does not wear out, which, instead of generating profit from wood, generates income from the fact that it is old and diversified, this is an inexhaustible source of benefits. On this basis, it is possible to develop both the restaurant and tourist base, and strengthen the position of the profession of guide in the Białowieża National Park, or in the forest in general, and ecotherapists, of whom there are few in Poland. Hajnówka is also a great place to display our heritage and multiculturalism. In this way, we do good for ourselves, our families and the surrounding nature.