Beaver dams, antique farming equipment, man-made ponds and an extensive trail system make up the surroundings of The Iris Center, located on Fredericton’s northside, about 10 minutes from downtown.
Dr. Bill Cook wears rubber boots as he balances on muddy marshlands with a hand-carved wooden walking stick while he gives a tour of the centre, which lies along the Wolastoq.
“One of the primary healers for the soul in human beings is being out in nature, whether people believe that or not,” said Cook.
Cook co-founded the centre with his wife, Wendy Carty, in 2010. He was born in Ontario but has lived in Fredericton for the last 43 years, 25 of which he spent as a plastic surgeon. He took a break from his practice due to his own health issues, and it was during that time when he discovered MindBody Medicine.
Cook said MindBody Medicine is a holistic practice that examines a person’s life both physically and psychologically and aims to maintain a healthy combination of both.
“If you want to make any changes within yourself at all, you can’t just focus on one little thing,” said Cook. “We start with the mind to help us build our attention and awareness muscles so we can see things more clearly. And then in the building of that … we [can] begin to make wiser choices.”
When he’s presenting the idea to a group, one of Cook’s first teachings draws on the second law of thermodynamics, using a pot of water as an example. If someone wants it to boil, they need to keep the heat on. If water doesn’t stay heated, it cools to an ambient temperature.
“If you’re not putting energy into a system, the system’s going to fall into chaos to the ambient state — whatever that is,” said Cook. “The point of that is your health and well-being are exactly the same; you have to put the energy in.”
After applying MindBody Medicine to his own life and shifting his practice away from plastic surgery, Cook realized having a medical environment that isn’t a “cold and dark and smelly” hospital or doctor’s office became important to him.
“Creating an environment where people can actually feel like there’s an opportunity and the hope of finding shifts within themselves is important,” he said.
Class numbers are smaller nowadays, but Cook said pre-COVID foot traffic for the centre’s group workshops and one-on-one sessions was heavy. He said that he sees patients ranging from young adults to seniors who deal with any number of chronic health issues.
Cook makes his way through the centre’s labyrinth — rocks make up the winding path. Lawn ornaments and flowers poke through the slightly overgrown grass.
According to The Iris Center’s website, the labyrinth acts as a metaphor for life’s journey and the “inward journey of self-exploration and discovery.”
Cook eventually approaches a man-made pond, fed by an Artesian spring, where people sit by the fresh water, and frogs rest on their lily pads.
“If I’m in a particularly contemplative mood and I just want to be still, I might go by the pond or walk in the labyrinth or come down to the river,” he said. “If I need to be more physically energetic, I just walk like heck and try to walk as many of the trails as I can.”
During his walk, Cook stops to admire the “Alder Arches.” Rows of Alder trees hang over one of the centre’s many trails. In the winter, when the snow sticks to the branches, Cook said it’s “almost like you’re in some type of ceremony or tunnel.”
Cook soon stumbles upon a horse-drawn manure spreader that rests in a patch of overgrown grass closer to the river. It was made by the now-defunct Cockshutt Plow Company in Brantford, Ont. He recalls his father working at the company around the time the equipment was built.
Wrapping up his walkthrough, Cook said he’d like The Iris Center to become readily accessible to the public, so people can walk through the property at will. He expects that could happen once he’s closer to retiring from his MindBody medical practice.
He hopes his patients, who come through his programs, walk away with a renewed appreciation for themselves and what he calls “vitamin G,” the importance of being in green spaces.
“I guess the answer to that is in the name of the property: The Iris Center for Mindfulness, Peace and Healing. Essentially that’s what we’re hoping for people,” said Cook.