The Healing Woods

Nearly a half century has passed since Fred Rice, a Saranac Lake guide took a teenaged tuberculosis patient named Martha Rueben into the Adirondack woods to take the cure. It was believed that breathing the clean, fresh, balsam scented Adirondack air would flush the disease from the lungs of consumptives, as tubercular patients were known. Time in an outdoor environment was therapeutic and Saranac Lake became a world renowned cure center due to such opportunities. Ms. Ruben recovered and wrote a national bestseller entitled, The Healing Woods. an account of years she shared a camp with her guide on the shores of the Saranacs. Today, NYS Historical marker stands in her memory near the State Boat Launch in Saranac Lake village. Eventually, a more effective cure for tuberculosis was achieved with the antibiotic streptomycin and by the mid 1950s, the cure industry disappeared from Saranac Lake. Although Adirondack residents still recognize the health benefits of an outdoor life, it was only recently that studies were instituted to confirm it. Researchers now recommend that parents make more natural experiences available to children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a malady that affects an estimated 8 million kids in the United States. Although the commonly diagnosed malady of ADHD is often treated with Ritalin or Dexedrine; a growing body of evidence suggests that the positive effects of nature can help recovery from normal psychological wear and tear and the constant stimuli presented by the natural environment can bolster the senses and improve a capacity to pay attention through fascination, which is another term for involuntary attention. Children can improve their ability to concentrate and increase their capacity for voluntary attention by the simple fascinations presented by the natural world. It can happen in the magic moment when first discovering a salamander, a frog or a butterfly. Children are simply absorbed; they cant take their eyes off the prize and in the process they learn to pay attention. By bolstering childrens attention resources, green spaces enable children to think more clearly and cope more effectively, explains Nancy Wells, Associate Professor at the NYS College of Human Ecology. Her studies have found that being close to nature can boost a childs attention span and that contact with nature is as important to a child well being as good nutrition and adequate sleep. I was fortunate to witness this process in action when an former guest hired me to help him to introduce his teenage son to the outdoors. He cautioned that his son was in a private school for children with special needs and had been diagnosed with a list of maladies including Attention Deficit Disorder and Hyper Activity mixed with episodes of antisocial and inappropriate behavior. Sams a big, strapping kid, he told me, But Ive never taken him on any trips like this because, I didnt have the confidence to try it by myself. And, Im not sure how hell handle it. He can be a handful! I suggested a canoeing a route through streams and ponds that would allow an option to scrap the boats and hike out if matters required. On the day of the trip, the weather was cool and the sun brilliant; it was a fine spring day. As father and son paddled a canoe; I rowed solo in a guideboat ahead of and in direct contact with them offering a running commentary on paddling techniques in hopes of keeping their canoe on course. However, it became apparent that Sam wasnt going to be much help. As his father struggled to keep the canoe in a straight line; Sam was busy in all the wrong directions. He dropped the paddle repeatedly and fidgeted constantly in his seat. Yet, he was at attention when a kingfisher flew chattering along the shoreline. Again, he focused when we encountered a group of turtles sunning on a log. It was obvious that elements of the experience interested him, particularly when a group of loons displayed a courtship ritual; chortling and dancing across the waters surface. Sam was truly intrigued when a gaggle of Canada geese made a commotion and bottlenecked the creek, blocking our passage. When I joked that the geese might fly over and box his ears, Sam promptly dropped to the bottom of the canoe and pulled his hat down over his eyes. He refused to look until I assured him that the geese had honorable intentions. After crossing several ponds and winding our way down a narrow creek, we stopped for a shore lunch. Father and son busied themselves collecting firewood as I prepared the lunch. After the meal, Sam poked at the fire I had built and asked about fishing. After witnessing the way he had handled a paddle; I attached a lanyard from the rod handle to his belt buckle to insure the spin casting outfit wouldnt be lost. For safety reasons, I removed the treble hook off a large, silver lure. Without a hook, neither fish nor family had anything to fear. After cleaning up the lunch, I showed Sam how to cast the push-button reel and retrieve. Seated in the bow of the canoe, he began to cast, and cast, and cast. In another three hours of travel, we reached the take-out. It mattered little that no fish were taken; Sam was simply enthralled with the distance he could cast and watching the lure flash in the clear waters. He was completely engaged by the process of casting. His father and I carried on a conversation which Sam interrupted, only on rare occasion, to express how much he enjoyed fishing. Later, as we loaded the boats in the parking lot; Sam remained on the dock, flinging a few, final casts. With a look of concern, his father turned to me and in a very stern and serious voice, he asked, What have you done to my son? I was confused by his tone of voice and I was unsure how to respond. Up to this point, I thought the journey had gone quite well. Yet before I could reply, he said Ive never seen him like this. Hes so focused and absorbed; its not like him at all. Its unusual and I cant believe it! You know, hes never stayed on task this long with any activity weve tried. Hes enjoying it, hes really happy. Hes not sullen or removed and Ive never known him to be so talkative, so excited, especially with a stranger. Realizing the success of the outing, I breathed a sigh of relief. Later, I asked Sam to tell me about his day. I liked watching the way waves kept moving, all the time, so regular, they just keep coming and that he never heard birds laughing and dancing on the water (loons) or saw turtles sun tanning on a log or smelled air that tasted so good or water thats so invisible. I dont like being scolded, he continued, But it was OK when that blue bird (kingfisher chattered) did it, she was just protecting her kids. Geese were a different matter, They scared me with their long, goofy necks and honky noises, Sam explained annoyed, They dont own that stream! Ive always believed in the restorative effects of the outdoors, the natural world is both soothing and calming. Yet, Ive never witnessed such a dramatic response as Sams. His senses were enlivened, he smelled, saw and heard things that neither his father nor I even noticed On that cool, spring afternoon, there were no studies or other analysis required. An expansive grin was all that was necessary to prove a natural cure is the best medicine. Joe Hackett is a guide and sportsman residing in Ray Brook. Contact him at brookside18@ adelphia.net

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