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Author: David Donnison
Title: Nature Cure: Triumphant or Dying??

I got rather accidentally involved in nature cure and remain a sympathetic observer rather than a fully paid–up member. As Kay, my wife, who has long been a full member, found it increasingly difficult to drive all the way to her annual “Kingston week” at the Boat of Garten I began driving her there and, before long, was staying for the week. The people I met at the Boat seemed to me to be more students than patients – students of a whole way of life rather than consumers of a particular therapy. We had massages every day and called them “treatments”, but their main purpose, I think, was to enable our “tutors” to reconnect with their students, to monitor their health, and start a conversation which continued through the week - or, for many, a whole fortnight. Throughout this time, the students were learning in the most practical ways about diet, exercise, balance – physical and mental – organic food production, mutually supportive comradeship, hope, serenity… The group was as important as its leaders.

The ideas of this movement have for years been spreading. Because so many of its members joined, years ago, after unhappy experiences with doctors they may not have noticed how far conventional medicine has come in recent years. My doctor and his colleagues offer their patients sound advice about diet and exercise. The seminars I go to in our Medical School welcome complementary therapists of various kinds to rub shoulders with practitioners of “scientific” medicine. The magazines, the newspaper supplements and middle-of-the-day radio programmes are full of advice about natural ways of living, natural child birth – natural death even. More and more farmers are going organic to supply the steadily lengthening organic shelves in the supermarkets. Every restaurant has vegetarian items on its menus.

These things, I appreciate, offer bits and pieces of the nature cure doctrines, not the whole life style. But they are spreading to form recognisable patterns – and particularly among young people who foreshadow the nations’ future. In Britain, as in many other countries, the lessons taught by nature cure are slowly but steadily gaining ground.

So why is the movement itself dying on its feet? What became of all those keen young students attracted by the great JC Thomson in the 1930s and ‘40s? Apart from Sandy Milne, are any of them still in practice? More important, why are there no youngsters training today to follow them? Why did the Kingston Clinic have to close? Why do the lovely people who come to the “Boat weeks” have an average age about as ancient as members of the Tory Party? Why do their children stay away? During the period since the Second World War, when new professions grew faster than ever before – and particularly in the field of health care – why did this one wither away?

Professions, like other human institutions – trades, churches, political parties, sports groups – have a natural history of growth, sometimes followed by decay. They develop and establish a recognised practice for which there is a growing demand. They have a tradition, which is as much a moral philosophy as a technical skill. (Listen to a skilled plumber or joiner talking about the cowboys in his trade if you doubt its essentially moral character!) They have tradition bearers - respected leaders who have learnt the beliefs and skills of the group and pass them on to the next generation. They also have conflicts, which arise as members of the group try to adapt their practice to new ideas, new knowledge and the constantly changing world in which they have to operate. A church, a political party or a profession which has no conflicts or schisms is dying.

These conflicts are not just angry noise. To rejuvenate the group and enable them to adapt to a changing world its arguments have to be rooted in serious thought derived from scholarship, research and writing that inform debate between the movement’s leading figures. Such debates help to attract new recruits to the movement – new practitioners, patients, pupils, clients, parishioners…

It seems to me that it is this last feature of a successful movement that nature cure lacks. It doesn’t do a lot of writing, and what I see was mostly done a long time ago, and never based on systematic research. More important, there is no serious public debate about the tradition – none of that health-giving conflict that a movement needs in order to renew itself (The Labour Party and the Catholic Church show signs of the same disease – due, in their case, to oppressive leadership which regards challenging critics as subversive.)

If I am right about this, the nature cure movement has to make a choice. It can carry on gently with little change, feed its ideas into bigger movements and industries whenever it gets a chance and eventually fade away to become a footnote in the history of our times. Or it can get involved in serious research and writing – randomised control trials and all – provoke arguments within the movement, and contribute to wider public debates.