Forests are music for the soul, as the First Nations know.

Apr 3, 2024 | News

Restoration work is underway in the Australian Wet Tropics to protect the oldest continuously-surviving tropical rainforest. Forests have many benefits for physical, mental, and spiritual health, as the traditional custodians of the land know.

“I was hunting and I felt energy coming up through the ground. The river. I felt the energy of love. Mother Nature showed me that she also loved me. I cried my eyes out and fell to my knees .”

Andrew Solomon, an Eastern Kuku Yalanji from Mossman, north Queensland is convinced that humans are one with our planet. His people are called the’sunrise Mob’ as they live east of the Great Dividing Range [a spine of mountains and hill that runs virtually along the entire east coast of Australia] and those in the west, the’sunset Mob ‘.

“Country defines who we are,” he says. “It defines us as a tribe and gives us our lore.” All the minerals in our bodies are a result of thousands of years of drinking and eating from our land. We have also become genetically linked to our country.

“I thought that only blackfellas would notice it, but if we let ourselves see the beauty in nature, she’ll show us how much she loves us.”

The scientific jury has spoken. Forests are good. Forest bathing, or Shinrin-yoku, as it’s called in Japan, to birdwatching, hiking, and camping, being outdoors and in green spaces can have a huge impact on our physical, mental, and spiritual health. Some prisons in the US even have ‘blue room’ where inmates can relax and watch nature videos.

In the midst of the natural world around us, we are in the grip of an epidemic of mental illness. According to the World Health Organization, one in four people will experience mental illness in their lifetime. The World Health Organization estimates that suicide accounts for 700,000. Deaths from malaria are 608,000.

All the minerals in our soil are now in us, and we are genetically linked to our country after thousands of years of eating our food and drinking our water.

Since millennia humans have understood the benefits of green space. In the West, public green spaces were designated in the nineteenth century because of the belief that they could provide health benefits. It took a groundbreaking Chicago study from 1939 to establish a clear link between mental disorders, such as schizophrenia and depression, and urbanisation. This exposes us to environments which exacerbate stress. Being in green spaces can reduce depression, anxiety and mental health problems.

Prof. Peter Valentine, a professor at James Cook University who lives in Queensland, first came to Queensland to study tropical forests 50 years ago and has been here ever since. He lives in the World Heritage Wet Tropics of Queensland’s Atherton Tablelands. The author of World Heritage Sites of Australia, a new book on some of Australia’s special places, he had read extensively about rainforests before setting foot in one.

“I had heard about them intellectually, but I hadn’t been inside a rainforest until I came here,” says he. “From a person’s perspective there are a variety of experiences.” Some people see it as a barrier or wall, and are afraid of it. I’ve heard filmmakers and others complain about the lack colour. And there are some people whose eyes are not open.

The Daintree rainforest is part of the northern Wet Tropics. These play a vital role in the Great Barrier Reef’s life, by filtering runoff from rivers and streams. Image: Tourism & Events Queensland

“Others embrace such diversity of life.” You can compare the attitudes of early European settlers towards rainforests with those of Indigenous peoples who considered the forests their home. Both are still present in our society. Some people enjoy the forests, while others are afraid of them .”

He says that part of the fear comes from the disengagement of nature in our culture. We are dominated by urban experiences, and many of our real life experiences have been replaced by virtual ones.

Valentine says that there are many benefits of engaging with forests. “The first benefit is physical health. To engage, you need to step out of your comfort zones, go for a walk, exercise and breathe clean air. In a tropical forest, the air is saturated with oxygen.

Andrew Solomon, an Eastern Kuku Yalanji from Mossman, north Queensland

“It is very healthy. You are stimulating your muscles and brain.” The doctors tell us that these things are good for us and we feel better. They’re uplifting. Some things can be translated on a spiritual level and how we feel. This can help lift people out from depression and give us a more vibrant life experience. We don’t hear it enough. It’s soul music .”

Scott Buchanan, executive director of the Wet Tropics Management Authority is responsible for managing and caring the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area in Queensland, which lies next to the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

“We are the only place where two World Heritage Areas – the Great Barrier Reef, and the Wet Tropics sit side by side in the same region and are interdependent,” says Mr. He.

“It is a very special part of the globe.” One of the reasons we are so fortunate is that the forests are easily accessible. You can find a place to suit your needs in the Wet Tropics from Cooktown to Townsville. Whether you’re looking to hike in the bush, or take a family stroll by a waterfall, there are many areas to choose from. You can enjoy the rainforest at your own pace .”

I understood the relationship between human and ecosystem health, and this gave me a sense of purpose and meaning.

Forests provide more than just oxygen, beautiful views and feel-good chemicals.

Prof. Jack Gilbert, from the UC San Diego School of Medicine, says soil-associated bacteria and fungi stimulate our immune system.

He says that most bacteria found in soil are not adapted to the ‘environment” of our bodies.

“But if people are exposed to soils regularly, they tend to have microbes on their skin and respiratory tract.”

The immune system is stimulated by antigens in forests (plant, animal, and microbial). The contribution of immune stimulation to overall wellbeing remains an active research area and is difficult to separate from other factors like lifestyle choices, diet and physical activity .”

Wallaman Falls, the highest single-drop waterfall in Australia is owned by the Warrgamay People. Image: Wet Tropics Images

Prof. Gilbert, author Dirt Is Good : The Advantage of Germs to your Child’s Immune System Development, says that humans have suffered multi-generational losses of gut microbes, which are important for our health, over the last 80 years since antibiotics were widely used. Poor gut health has been linked to a number of diseases and conditions, including obesity, chronic inflammation, degenerative brain disease, depression, cancer, and endocrine disorders like type 2 diabetes.

Gilbert says that healthy interactions with nature are part of a preventative life style, and may even be a good addition to a medicine kit.

Doctor Nicole Sleeman is a GP based out of Cairns. She is a member of Doctors for the Environment, a non-profit organisation founded to educate the community and colleagues about the link between natural ecosystems.

Doctor Nicole Sleeman, a member of Doctors for the Environment (a non-profit organisation) that promotes the link between natural ecosystems & human health

Sleeman explains that he first became involved because of his concern about ocean plastic and after learning climate change is a serious threat to human health. “I understood the relationship between human and ecosystem health, and that gave me great meaning and purpose .”

Doctors for the Environment published a comprehensive report last year entitled Trees: the Forgotten Heroes for our Health. The report detailed the health benefits of green space.

Dr Sleeman said that heat kills more Australians than any other natural hazard. It’s negligent for councils to not do more. “We must take care of the Earth’s resources, which are limited.

North Johnstone River is part of the northern World Heritage Wet Tropics north of Innisfail. Image: Tourism & Events Queensland

Andrew Solomon has studied the healing power of Country in a laboratory, but he knows it without even having to do so.

“I feel at home in the bush,” says he. “When I look at the city life, it seems fake and man-made. Mother Nature heals me. I don’t like to be in the house for too long. I feel caged. I feel connected to Mother Nature when I’m outdoors.

“When you love and have empathy for Country, she’ll let you know that she loves you as much. It’s just like not seeing your family in a while. We are all one with the earth, we are her. Country shows you that she loves you .”

He plans to re-establish men’s groups to help focus his tribe on traditional values and to bring back its initiation ceremonies which, he says, “addresses the ego”.

“This society allows your ego to prosper. You should not think about yourself. Instead, you should consider everyone, even the babies. He says that we can sense the energy of the earth.

“It makes us healthier and connects us with Country.”

Andrew McKenna, a journalist at the Wet Tropics Management Authority, is based in Cairns.

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