When life weighs heavy, nature waits with open arms to help you heal.
That’s the philosophy of Nature Sacred, a nonprofit that works with hospitals, prisons, museums, and other organizations to create “Sacred Places” – spaces where community members can visit to appreciate nature and destress.
In 1996, founders Tom and Kitty Stoner created the first Sacred Place in Annapolis at Inspiration Point, in partnership with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Nearly 30 years later, Nature Sacred has helped build a network of more than 150 Sacred Places across the country.
“Part of what is happening in the world that we’re living in with our industrialization and with technology, it’s connecting us in some ways and disconnecting us in other ways,” said Nature Sacred CEO Alden Stoner, daughter of the nonprofit’s founders. “It’s disconnecting us from ourselves and from the world around us, and nature has a way of helping you get centered on what’s real and true for you and for the world.”
Each Sacred Place includes a bench with a yellow journal, where visitors can read others’ written thoughts and add their own.
Over the past decades, Nature Sacred has amassed thousands of journal entries. Last month, the nonprofit released a book titled “BenchTalk,” which compiles a selection of about 200 of those entries.
Some are signed by their authors, while others remain anonymous. Some were scrawled by younger hands, while others were penned by writers who have tallied more years on this earth. Some are paragraphs long, others just a few words or even a drawing.
For Stoner, these journals serve as a great equalizer.
“I think everybody’s story matters,” she said.
“It’s an opportunity for anyone to express themselves, and people from all backgrounds do,” she added. “Great insight and wisdom can come from children. And of course, jokes and hilarity can come from people of any age.”
Essayist Salma Hasan Ali served as the editor of “BenchTalk,” though Stoner said Ali’s role went beyond editing and was more akin to a “journal doula.”
“She read each and every entry that we had copies of, and she did that because she wanted to truly honor each person,” Stoner said. “Even the ones that were difficult to read, she spent extra time.”
Thousands of entries were whittled down to about 200 for the final book. Ali organized the writings into five sections: “on nature’s healing power;” “on hardship and hope;” “encouraging words to keep you going;” “wisdoms and life lessons;” and “on connection and community.”
“We ultimately decided that that would help guide the readers and guide sort of what it is people wanted and needed for that particular session,” Stoner said, “because I think this is a book that of course you could read start to finish, but you’re more apt to pick up when you want a sense of hope or you just need a break or you want to take in nature or you need an inspiration. And so having those categories helped create a little bit of a guide for the reader.”
Some of the most touching pieces for Stoner are the ones in which one writer helps another through a challenging experience.
“My favorite entries really are the ones where people write about having a hard time or a hard day and someone will reply specifically to that and say, ‘you’ve got this. You are loved. You matter,’” she said. “Just those little nudges of positivity is something we all need much more of, and that exists around us. We just often are bombarded by other messages.”
Stoner said she is honored that Nature Sacred can facilitate spaces for people to commune with nature and share what they are experiencing – whether a writer is celebrating a birth, mourning a loved one, worrying about life’s challenges, or simply enjoying the natural world around them. And in turn, those journal entries can help make readers feel less alone.
“When we are having a hard time and there’s any expression of love by someone else, even if it isn’t necessarily directed at you, it can inspire you and can lift up the spirit,” Stoner said.
She added, “These journals are my ‘why’ for why I do this work,” Stoner said. “So all of them inspire me and touch me in some way truly.”
Of all the entries Stoner read during the assembly of “BenchTalk,” there is one that touches her heart the most every time she revisits it. Written at the Healing Garden at Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis, the entry is a letter from a grandson to his grandfather.
Thanks for all the years of wise words and encouragement.
Thanks for keeping an open mind and for saving judgement.
Thanks, most of all, for being an example to follow.
You set the pace. I promise to keep up.
“For me that one is particularly meaningful because it’s about standing on the shoulders of the people who came before us,” Stoner said. “It’s about trying to improve the world in any way we can, and to just strive harder and reach higher…. I can’t actually read it without tearing up.”
In the entry that would eventually become the prologue, a visitor at the Naval Cemetery Landscape in Brooklyn, New York details the natural beauty around them, the pain and destruction caused by COVID-19, and the need for an often-divided humankind to unite as one.
“When I read that entry, I said ‘This is what we do. This is why we do it. This is why this is so important right now,’” Stoner said.