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The Healing Woods

A distraction from COVID-19, if not a cure

Grace Hudowalski, 46er #9, the first woman to record climbing the 46 High Peaks, and club’s long-time historian, often talked about “the healing woods.” She was referring to the memoir The Healing Woods (1952)* written by Martha Reben. Reben was a tuberculosis patient at the sanatorium in Saranac Lake, New York, during the 1930s. After three years of following the traditional treatment for the disease of bed rest and fresh air, and a number of unsuccessful surgeries, she decided to try something different. She hired a local guide to take her camping in the wilderness. For several years the pair spent spring through fall camping on the shore of Weller Pond, southwest of the Village of Saranac Lake. In her memoir Reben recounts her experiences in the wilderness, crediting the combination of constant fresh air, rest and relaxation, moderate exercise, and the restorative powers of the natural world for leading to her eventual cure from TB.

Like Martha Reben, Grace was a firm believer in the healing power of nature. As the club historian, Grace received innumerable letters from climbers describing personal issues that were having a negative impact on their lives – everything from battling cancer, or recovering from major surgery, to dealing with the stress and depression brought on by the death of a loved one, a divorce, or job loss. They all credited their time spent in the beauty and wonder of the great outdoors while climbing the 46 as giving them strength, healing, peace of mind, and the power to restore their health and positive attitude. Grace herself experienced the curative powers of the natural world as she struggled with her own health issues.

Many of us already know firsthand the sense of calmness and well-being that we experience when we are in the mountains. And we know that often that mental state is just as important, if not more so, than actually making it to the summit of a peak. In this extraordinary time of the COVID-19 pandemic that we are living through now, we are all searching for ways to cope with the myriad of uncertainties. We are all in need of some way to settle our fears and anxiety. Many of us will look to the strength and steadfastness of the healing woods to help us through the unknowns that surround our future.

If we are healthy, some of us will go on a hike – although the pandemic directive for “social distancing” and the hiking guideline of “don’t hike alone” seem to be mutually exclusive. The best we can do is to choose our hiking partner wisely. If you don’t want to, or are unable to go on a hike right now, there are other ways to make the human/nature connection. Walk or bike in a local park. Canoe on a lake as the ice allows. Sit on your porch, feel the breeze and listen to the songs of the birds. Just look up at the sky and watch the clouds moving above you. Or pull out your photos of previous hiking and camping trips and relive the moments. The gift of nature’s grace will find you.

Stay well and be safe.

*Unfortunately, Martha Reben’s book The Healing Woods is no longer in print.

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