As the majority of Americans have been forced to shut their doors and stay at home in the hopes of keeping themselves and others safe, Daniel Mason—1998-99 Luce Scholar and Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University—describes how his undergraduate course ended as the coronavirus outbreak took hold. In his essay for the New York Times, Mason reflects on nature’s ability to ease anxiety and shares how his final assignment for the semester encouraged his students to seek out comfort in nature while building connections with one another from afar.
Back in January, at Stanford University, where I teach and practice psychiatry, I showed my students a slide of an oak tree from the edge of campus.
At first the photo seemed out of place. The course, “PSYC82: The Literature of Psychosis,” is about the portrayal of psychosis in memoir and fiction, art and film; the lecture that day was a survey of psychiatric history. But there is growing evidence linking green space to mental well-being, and I have become increasingly concerned for my students, who, studies show, are experiencing depression and anxiety at record rates. I wanted them to get outside. The winter had been mild, a new round of rains had just passed through, and the woods were beautiful.
In the three years I have taught this course, this was the first time I thought to show such photos. But as the quarter progressed, I found myself returning to images I had collected over weekend walks. Photos of bay laurels from the Stanford hills, of turkey tail fungi fanning over mossy logs, of gleaming slime molds and iridescent ferns.
They served, at first, as a respite from some of the dense and difficult narratives we were reading, as well as from the darkening mood and news from the world outside our classroom.