This summer marks a transitional moment in my life. As I take stewardship of the Commonweal Garden and directorship of Natura Institute for Ecology and Medicine, cultivating the connection of medicine to nature, to the land, to the plant realm, to each other and to self, I took a trip to my ancestral homeland of Scandinavia. As I reflect on the experience, I am inspired to share what I’ve gleaned from this soul journey.
My family cultivated and tended farmsteads in Sweden and Finland in the 1800s. Did they know the abundance of nourishing foods and medicines growing in the forests around their farms? Did they consider themselves in reciprocal relationship with the land? Did they have the luxury of taking time away from farming to go to the coast, the stunning Finnish archipelago so very close to their farms? Who were the medicine people in town and where did they source their medicine?
I pondered these questions while exploring the forests between the water and the farmland, picking my way through the blueberry understory and yarrow-adorned meadows. As I rambled, I felt the profoundly relaxing awareness that here in Scandinavia I could be drawn in any exploratory direction without concern for whose land I was on and whether I was allowed to walk there.
Scandinavians enjoy the constitutionally protected freedom to hike, camp, pick berries and mushrooms almost anywhere they like, a concept known as “allemansrätt” in Swedish. No-trespassing signs are a foreign concept. My Swedish third cousin who hosted us said this age-old cultural practice became part of the constitution in the wake of famine in order to ensure access to the bounty of nature. In Scandinavia it is considered a human right to be able to connect with nature.
My appreciation for the bounty of nature grew as our trip progressed. Though delicious, the culinary norm of meatballs, pancakes with lingonberries, pickled herring of various sorts, reindeer venison, salmon, gravlax and potatoes left me feeling starved of the greens to which I’m accustomed. There also seems to be an unexamined relationship with sweets in Sweden, so imagine my delight walking a creekside path one evening and finding an abundance of lush dandelion greens. There, growing among a profusion of equally nourishing wild strawberries, currants and nettle, was my breakfast for the following days. What medicine the bitter greens are for a sweet-deluged
Despite my observation that Scandinavians do not eat a lot of greens, health outcomes in their countries remain much better than those in most parts of the world, including our own. We had the serendipitous opportunity to go to a “sjukhus” (ask me to pronounce it for you—it isn’t how it looks), literally translated as “sickhouse,” for a minor emergency. The experience was quite nice and we were charged a nominal fee for top-notch care. No doubt, collective health is improved by uniform access to health care—along with less stress, more social support, a cultural endorsement of time away from work to connect with family through paid vacation time, lots of time to bond with newborn babies and sick time to be home with ill children. Given what we know about health risks of stressors like socioeconomic disparities, lack of access to health care and feeling unsupported and overworked, it makes sense that social democracies like Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark top international rankings in both national happiness indices and health outcomes. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Finnish practice of plunging into cold water following a hot sauna has something to do with Finland ranking number one in the United Nations’ World Happiness Report in 2018. (I highly recommend it.)
On my quest to understand the roots of my deep connection to the restorative, healing resonance of nature, it was the phenomenal beauty of the natural world that most stirred my soul. In early July, the days were long, and I sat up several evenings in appreciation of the two-hour sunset displays. These ended at 11 p.m. and were followed by a dusky twilight with a perpetual, shifting glow on the horizon and the return of light beginning at 3 a.m. As I kayaked in the gentle backwaters of the Finnish archipelago on the Gulf of Bothnia, under a breathtaking sky and graced by the presence of swan families and terns, I felt a transcendent connection with great, mysterious beauty. A pair of cranes called to each other, their otherworldly trumpeting echoing across the water into infinity. Here, steeped in the ancient coherence of the wild, I felt awe.
Now back in West Marin, I am leaning into the vision and work of bringing Natura Institute for Ecology and Medicine into being and cultivating the Commonweal Garden. I have a fuller understanding of where I come from, who I am and the beautiful opportunity before us.
Weaving tighter and deeper connections in community alleviates stress and allows people to feel supported, even outside of a social democracy. We in Northern California are ahead of the cultural curve in understanding how to use nourishing food and plants as medicine. We can improve our collective wellbeing and reconnect with the natural world. It is our birthright, even if not constitutionally protected here.
On my drive home from San Francisco this week, I stopped above Stinson Beach. Sitting under the nearly-full moon haloed in the mist, I listened to the murmur of the ocean below and saw the familiar constellations. Here, too, I experienced the joy of communion with this beautiful world. I am renewed in my work to bring healing into our communities by coming together in the delight of learning to tend the Earth as we tend ourselves and each other, and I am so grateful to my ancestors and my many teachers, including dear Mother Nature.
I invite you to be a part of the journey to deepen our collective remembering of a path toward an integrative journey toward healing and wholeness.
Anna O’Malley is a Bolinas resident and an integrative family and community medicine physician at the Coastal Health Alliance.
Dr. O’Malley and James Stark will present an introduction to The Art of Vitality, a program of the Natura Institute for Ecology and Medicine, on Saturday, Aug. 11 at the Commonweal Garden in Bolinas. To learn more, visit naturainstitute.org