Light Is Returning


January 3, 2021

Nature and Ecology
Learning and Training

by Anna O'Malley, MD, Director, Natura Institute for Ecology and Medicine

It is January of 2021. I feel myself at an inflection point, nested within a societal inflection point. The light is returning, there is a shift in political power, SARS-Cov2 immunizations are in distribution. It is a new year; hope springs eternal. 

I feel myself standing at my own professional inflection point. Now, having been in my integrative family medicine practice for twelve years, and having Natura Institute for Ecology and Medicine for more than two, the ballast of some experience grounds me as I peer into the future. I find myself in contemplative conversation with those who will come after me. Are they my children’s children? Or physicians in the future? I am not sure, but they ask:

“What was it like to be alive at that moment, knowing so much had to change?”

“What did you do when you realized what our future was going to be like?”

“What changes did you make when you realized you were complicit in the harm being done?”

In this present still-point of now, I ask myself:

“As a physician charged with the sacred responsibility to “do no harm,” how do I respond as I bear witness to the harm being done, often by medicine itself?”

“What is the role of physician in community and society, when so much is at stake?”

“How can I be in allyship with the natural world at a time when so much of our future depends on our relationship therewith?”

Natura is holding space for, and giving shape to the form of expression arising in answer to, these sacred questions. Against the backdrop of the shocking ecological footprint of Western Medicine (if we were our own country we’d be around the 8th greatest producer of CO2), the burgeoning epidemic of chronic disease now superimposed with pandemic illness, and the escalating toll of physician and allied health practitioner burnout and suicide, the urgent case for structural change in our practice of medicine and the radical importance of preventing illness and addressing upstream, root causes becomes clear. Anthropogenic forces in our society fan the inflammatory flames of chronic illness; aligning ourselves with the elements of nature (including our own human nature) and reorienting ourselves toward reciprocity therewith provides a healing salve for the ravages of modern society.

Located in the Commonweal Garden, surrounded by wild and cultivated nature, Natura’s work is infused with this reorienting salve. Drawing inspiration from the healing that happens in healing relationship with land, with plants, with community, and with our own miraculous human beings, we are working with models that reclaim the societal role suggested by the etymologic root of the word “doctor:" “docere,” which means “to teach.”  At a moment in time in which science and ecological literacy has a direct effect on how our behaviors impact our health in the immediate and long term, it is meaningful to convene people around sharing knowledge and wisdom.

Our Community Medicine Circles, once held in the yurt in the Garden, now on Zoom, serve this function. Weaving ecological consciousness into integrative medicine talks on relevant subjects, these twice monthly calls have also been a space for people, increasingly isolated, to connect. In 2020 there was no shortage of timely material to cover: from science talks on how SARS-CoV2 affects the body, deep dives into how to optimize the immune system, and how to support our respiratory health during wildfire to the neurohormonal and electromagnetic effects of love and gratitude, we have explored proactive ways to support our health, and, in so doing, lighten our ecological footprint. The two are inextricably linked.

This feels like an important role for the community-based primary care provider to inhabit, and one that is scalable along the lines of existing systems, such as the network of Community Health Centers in our country. In fact, Natura’s Community Medicine Circles are a collaborative effort with our local Federally Qualified Health Center, Coastal Health Alliance (now merged with Petaluma Health Center). Additionally, these circles are providing resident physicians being trained in Family and Community Medicine the opportunity to experience a community-level role at the intersection of preventative and community medicine and ecological consciousness. Further, it reflects in some small way the importance of offering educational experiences that reflect the nimble responsiveness and community preparedness that will serve health care providers in the future. 

In this moment, feeling the momentum of all that 2020 has compelled us to look at, in full appreciation of the work that lies ahead, we are embracing opportunities to deepen healing alliances between medicine and nature. Between community health centers and land-based non-profits. Between those who steward the land and those who practice healing arts. Between those who practice regenerative agriculture and those who connect community to healing with food and plants. The richness of our interconnectedness and our ability to see the connection between what happens, for example, in the soil and what happens in our gut, or in our hearts, our society and our relationship with sentient beings, deepens our shot at a resilient future. We all have much to teach each other. And we have so much to learn.

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