Wildly Successful: The Healing Power of Nature

By: Jim Knox

Wildly Successful: The Healing Power of Nature

Tennyson’s timeless words of, “Nature, red in tooth and claw” portray the wild world and its inhabitants in a harsh, if ever honest light. Though penned more than a century and a half ago, those words ring as true today as they have down through the ages. The wild is no place for the squeamish. That’s for certain.

Nature’s ever efficient and perfectly calibrated functioning ensures that the world’s swiftest, most powerful, agile and resourceful creatures never go home on an empty belly. Theirs is a race—an arms race of hunter and hunted in which stealth and ambush catalyze fight and flight. Unfolding each night and each day, the players in this drama gain and lose in boldest fashion, where life surrenders swiftly to death. The energy is expended—never lost, so that from this very death, life inexorably springs forth.

Yet all is not a binary camp of victor and vanquished. There are innumerable creatures who feel the business end of tooth and claw, horn and maw, to stalk or flee another day. The lioness who suffers the wildebeest’s kick, the sea turtle who shrugs the shark’s bite, emerge far wiser for the encounter. “Once bitten, twice shy” begins to take on meaning beyond the figurative, don’t you think?

Mother Nature has equipped each of her creatures with the unfailing ability to conceal all but the most pronounced injury and illness from the ravenous ranks of her hunters. Yet while they are expert in concealing vulnerability, savagery invariably erupts. It is from such encounters that beasts sustain the scars of battle. Be it a broken tooth or a torn ear, none who attain ripe old age go truly unscathed. For these wild warriors, nature has remarkable strategies for survival. There is a name for this umbrella sheltering the planet’s creatures from the storming forces unleashed upon them. We know it as healing. This adaptive protection masks mechanisms we only partially understand.

Nature’s healing handiwork comes in many forms and they are all astounding: hyper healing capability in Great White Sharks, closing wounds which would spell the end of other creatures, perpetual tooth replacement in American Alligators, furnishing more than 4,000 teeth on-demand for a lifetime of battle with rivals and prey alike, and autonomy–the unfathomable regrowth of tails, limbs and digits for select amphibians and reptiles!

There are certain creatures who go a step beyond the ordinary. Creatures who possess abilities which are seemingly impossible. Among them, is one familiar to many. The Green Iguana is an inhabitant of islands and rainforests from the Caribbean to the southern edges of Amazonia, and it may just be the world’s most popular pet lizard. Attaining lengths of up to 6.6 feet, and weights of up to 20 muscular pounds, you would think these arboreal reptiles would have few enemies. Despite their size and power, Green Iguanas represent a protein feast for any predator able to bring one down. From the moment they emerge as three-inch hatchlings, they’re on the menu.

So how does such a creature fend for itself in the ever-hungry world of the rainforest? Well, you remember “Nature, red in tooth and claw”? I know from experience that the Green Iguana certainly possess both, and uses them extremely well. Yet the big lizard has another defense which is both unexpected and astounding. Like certain amphibian cousins, including Connecticut’s Four-toed Salamander, Green Iguanas are equipped with a trait known as autotomy which literally means “self severing”. This gives them the ability to lose their tails in battles with predators and actually regrow them! Not only will the tail “break” along pre-set fracture points, it will move like a living creature, enticing a ravenous predator to focus on the movement and seize the guaranteed dinner twitching in its paws or jaws, while the stumpy iguana makes a dash for the safety of the nearest tree or river.

Remarkably, autotomy enables the Green Iguana to rapidly regrow the tail. Cartilage will replace bone in the regrowth area, and the texture and color will change a bit, but the tail will assume the same basic form and function as the original. What’s more, autotomy is found across the animal kingdom, from snails and spiders, to crabs and lobsters…and at least one known mammal!

Yet nature’s healing power doesn’t end there. It merely begins. While her physical healing capabilities seem supernatural, it is Mother Nature’s ability to heal what we cannot see, that is perhaps her greatest gift to each of us. Just as no one is immune to the pain of loss, life’s journey exacts a different toll on each of us. There is no one balm for all.

A few years ago, I lost a dear friend who left us far too soon. On the heels of that loss, I reflected on the times we’d spent–growing up together–along with the fishing, hiking and wilderness camping that filled the summers of our young adulthood.

Not long ago, I took a hike we’d planned to take together, but sadly, had never gotten around to. We were to summit Mount Wolverine in Utah’s Wasatch Range. On a crisp late summer morning, I headed out with a small group. The valley ascent went smoothly. At around 9,000 feet the air thinned and the gradient steepened. Though I prided myself on being prepared, sea level fitness and Rocky Mountain fitness were two different things entirely. I felt the weight of the mountain and I thought of my friend. Through high school and college, sports teams and weight training–we’d done it all together and never gave up. He was always there for me, never letting me give less than my best…and I did the same for him. I stopped just shy of 10,000 feet when the remainder of my party turned back. I looked down briefly and then up to the summit. When I made the final push that day, I made it for both of us.

The mountain breeze wicked away the heat and dust from the effort and left me feeling fresher than when I’d started. Nature is restorative, reaching us in ways we often can’t articulate. Immersion in its soothing greens and blues quite literally lowers our blood pressure. It clears our brains of fog and brims our hearts with hope. While it cannot heal all that we endure, nature is both shelter from, and tonic for, a weary world.