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October 28th, 2019
By Shelly Smith, Licensed Counselor & Therapist
As a child, I always felt a little different and felt safest and most at home when I was outside. My favorite pastime was lying in the grass and looking up at the trees and the clouds. My first job as a counselor was at the Greenville Mental Health Center in 1992. One day, I was meeting with a young woman diagnosed with schizophrenia and decided we should go outside for a walk while we talked. I remember it was a crisp fall day and beautifully colored leaves were littering the sidewalk. We were walking in silence and out of the blue she said, "You know Miss Shelly, when I'm out in nature, I don't feel mentally ill." It hit me like a punch to the heart and I heard myself say, "Yes. I know exactly what you mean."
Fast forward twenty years and I decided to transition my private practice to seeing clients exclusively on my thirty-acre property in Pickens County. I didn't have any models for doing this and wondered if I was crazy. But, I'd had great results doing equine-assisted therapy with incarcerated teenage girls and noticed that simply being outside helped them be more in touch with themselves, more willing to express their feelings and learn new ways of relating to themselves and others.
In 2012 I started Nature's Way Home, a nature-based, body-informed counseling, coaching, and personal growth practice. While new clients are sometimes skeptical, once they sit down, they'll look around and consistently say things like, "Oh. This is beautiful," and will start to settle down and relax. I can see it in their posture and in their breathing. My property sits at the base of the iconic Glassy Mountain. It's surrounded by protected lands and home to abundant wildlife. The pristine waters of Town Creek flow through it. I've had people from all walks of life and different spiritual traditions say that there's something special and almost sacred about the land.
Combat veterans with PTSD, people with long-standing depression and/or chronic anxiety, and ordinary men and women who are tired and stressed, and tired of being tired and stressed, have found healing and restoration sitting on the bridge over the creek or out in the pasture, watching the horses, as we talk. One combat veteran said, "I would have never been able to do this sitting in an office." (The this he was referring to was the body-informed process I use to access and release traumatic memories.) A rape victim I worked with could only tolerate her memories when holding onto a tree.
There are many more stories like these, but regardless of the severity of the pain or the type of healing that's called for, I've seen time and time again that being in nature heals us. It grounds us to our bodies and the wealth of information that's stored there, and to our own innate wisdom and healing potential.
There's lots of scientific research to support this, but I think this client's poem says it best:
Why I Am Thankful For the Place On the Creek . . .
- feelings that haunt the edge of life come into thoughts and expressions . . . finally escaping into reality
- wooden slats in a simple bridge catch tears and laughter, spilling them into the disappearing waters of the creek
- words that have never felt safe tumble into the peace of the mountain woods
- a soul, new and unknown, offers a way to touch Grace
- time belongs to the moment, not the future
- butterflies roam and flitter, feeling safe enough to land on those gathered to talk
- spirit and grace encompass all that is said or thought or felt
- a lightweight plastic lawn chair becomes the safest place on earth
- the creek moves and trickles, steady and unaware, accepting all that it passes by
- in fear, in the pain of life, in the words that never come and the feelings beyond touch,
there is always at the creek ....... the presence of God.
In 2017, the Upstate was at risk of losing this peaceful, private refuge that has helped so many. The 182-acre property immediately adjacent to Nature's Way Home was slated for a 254-home development! Most of my clients drive from Greenville and other more populated areas to get away from subdivisions and construction. The noise of the construction alone would have meant the end of my business, my livelihood, and the end of a unique, powerful, and nature-based alternative to traditional counseling.
With the help of Upstate Forever, an agreement was reached to save the 182 acres from development and the surrounding properties like mine from its negative impacts, forever. My clients and I are so grateful. Thanks to Upstate Forever, many more people will experience the healing power of nature in this potently conscious way and the ripple effect will extend out to their families, their workplaces, and their communities.
Thank you Upstate Forever, for not only helping to save and preserve Glassy Mountain and its surrounding properties, but Nature's Way Home as well.
Shelly Smith is a licensed professional counselor and licensed marriage & family therapist in Pickens County. This story was initially published in the Upstate Advocate, a twice-yearly print newsletter produced by Upstate Forever, as part of a piece called "Human + Nature: Ten Upstate Residents Share How the Natural World Shapes Their Lives." View the full issue (PDF)