Bush medicine: healing with the great outdoors

Paolo Kernahan
Paolo Kernahan


MODERN lifestyles are killing us. It's not just processed, unhealthy foods or self-medicating with a smorgasbord of intoxicants. Many of us spend most of our days indoors bathed in the unnatural glow of computer screens. When the workday ends we generally swap that glow for the equally cold glare of television screens, alternating with our phones.

Both body and mind are being systematically poisoned within the gilded cage where we've imprisoned ourselves. Some studies suggest Americans and Europeans spend as much as 90 per cent of their time indoors. While the statistic in TT is surely lower, it probably isn't dramatically so.

Escaping to the natural world is a luxury for the majority of us working stiffs.

I've been practising a work-from-home arrangement long before the pandemic made it a “fashionable” imperative. The benefits of such a convenience are so seductive the downsides rarely get equal billing.

I can focus exclusively on my work, avoiding productivity-killers like commuting and traffic. More time is in my control rather than frittered away on the road or marooned in interminable meetings devoid of purpose.

Still, there's been a marked change in my physical and mental health since this new phase of my working life began. I'm talking about noticeable declines beyond the customary creaks and groans one would expect with advancing years.

You see, a few years ago I reported to work on most days in the “bush.” When I was producing my television programmes Bush Diary with Robert Clarke and The Road Less Travelled, a big chunk of my time was spent outdoors.

Monday I would be wending my way through mangrove arches and shallow lagoons of the Caroni Swamp. Tuesday would perhaps see me trying to corral ebullient mountain man Keith Transcoso for an interview in the verdant refuge of Cumaca in the Northern Range.

By the way, having knocked about most, if not all, of this country, I can say without fear of contradiction that Cumaca still holds the title for worst road in TT – possibly the region. While travelling to these locations could be exhausting, I never felt better in my life than when I was working outdoors.

I spent many days as a solo video shooter in the Nariva Swamp. There I captured footage of noisy macaw couples necking in the canopy, or a baby porcupine curled up and asleep on a low branch.

Regrettably, my work on the television shows came to an end. The business had to evolve into something new; an existence umbilically hitched to contemporary life.

Consequently, feelings of euphoria and conspicuous calm that would come from being in nature have been usurped by increased bouts of melancholia and anxiety. At times I feel I might as well be plugged into the wall just like the computer I work on – except there is no charge coming in. All energy and life leeches away into the walls surrounding me.

The recharge I felt working outdoors isn't some woo-woo mysticism. There's research suggesting that time spent in nature can boost creativity. For me, this is particularly compelling because there are few effective cures for creative constipation.

Additionally, there is noteworthy evidence that being in nature can enhance short-term memory, increase physical and mental energy and mitigate stress, anxiety and depression.

I wasn't conscious of how important this daily nature “treatment” was to my overall health until I left it behind.

Increasingly, life in TT makes this sort of bush medicine an absolute necessity rather than a nice-to-have. With unremitting political tensions, a quickening slide down the crime slope and economic uncertainty, this country is evolving into something difficult to bear. Trinis also seem to have become more volatile and aggressive, even in the most routine public encounters. In this pressure cooker, escaping to nature (what we have left of it) can be a powerful mental balm.

I've resolved to spend more time outdoors, but not the way I used to.

A few years ago, I was shooting video on the causeway through the Fullarton swamp in Icacos. If you haven't been there, it's quite spectacular. While there, a police vehicle pulled up behind me. The officers told me there had been a spate of robberies targeting oblivious day-trippers scouting the area. I didn't need much convincing to flee the scene.

It's quite sad. I will find a way to return to nature to heal myself. I hope this country that has lost its way can somehow do the same.


"Bush medicine: healing with the great outdoors"

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