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How our mental health is shaped by nature

Stuck indoors, many of us yearn for green spaces. But scientists are only beginning to grasp how the natural world helps us make sense of our own lives. 

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New York’s lockdown coincided almost perfectly with the arrival of spring. On the last day before my daughter’s nursery closed we stopped on our walk home to admire the blossom that had appeared, seemingly overnight, on a spindly tree planted on the pavement just off Second Avenue. A week later on Nowruz – the Iranian New Year, which falls on the spring equinox – New York’s governor announced the lockdown and we celebrated my daughter’s third birthday alone at home. By then all the trees along our street were wearing pink and white petticoats. We live in Midtown Manhattan, a hard-edged landscape of concrete, tarmac, glass and chrome; the trees are dwarfed by skyscrapers, the plants confined to small flowerbeds outside luxury apartment complexes and pulled out and replaced every season. None of this bothered me until my world shrank. 

I took up running again, leaving our apartment just after sunset to jog through eerily quiet streets, down Fifth Avenue, past parked ambulances and shuttered department stores and the armed police outside Trump Tower, and into Central Park. I spent all day cooped up inside with my anxiety, obsessively checking death tolls and refreshing news feeds, either impatient and distracted with my daughters or too affectionate, smothering them with the fierce, greedy love that is inseparable from fear. Then I’d reach the park, heart pounding, where the blossom petals gathered like snow drifts on empty footpaths, and the breeze carried the smell of petrichor and grass, magnolia, something funky from inside the zoo, and I’d feel a surge of joy, an unthinking, animal happiness. I would feel guilty, too, that I could still find such pleasure while surrounded by death. 

I wasn’t alone in seeking solace in nature, or at least in the small pockets of green space one finds in the city. Online, people posted photos of back gardens, woodland, fields, spring flowers, feeling reassured – or was it some naive sense of disbelief? – that all around us the natural world could exist unmoved by the unfolding horror. Now that time outdoors is limited, we hunger for it, surprised at our appetite. We know, instinctively, that it makes us feel better, but we don’t fully understand why. The benefits of experiencing nature may be far greater than is commonly appreciated; scientists are only now starting to understand the hidden mechanisms that could explain why a woodland walk or a wild swim can boost mental and physical well-being, why a leafy view from your hospital bed may aid recovery, why even showing inmates nature videos seems to reduce violence in prisons. 

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In 2016 the political journalist Isabel Hardman, assistant editor at the Spectator, suffered a mental breakdown, an acute attack of post-traumatic stress disorder that felt, to her, like her mind had just stopped working. In the difficult years that followed, conventional medicine – medication, therapy, GP and A&E visits – helped her overcome her deepest crises. But she also credits her rekindled love for spending time outdoors – on daily walks, wild swimming, hiking, bird-watching, orchid-hunting and gardening – with making her want to keep living. Her most recent book, The Natural Health Service, makes an impassioned case for integrating nature and outdoor exercise into mental health treatment.

As Hardman notes, there are signs that this may be happening: in 2018 NHS doctors in Shetland began offering “nature prescriptions”. Alongside the usual medicinal offers, the doctors gave patients with debilitating physical and mental health problems instructions such as “really look at lichen” or “step outside – be still for three minutes”. In recent years, the NHS has encouraged social prescribing, which is when doctors help patients connect to community groups, art and fitness classes or social services. 

Hardman documents a plethora of charities, voluntary groups and NHS-funded programmes that are encouraging those with mental illnesses to reconnect with nature, through activities such as gardening or forest walking or park runs. These projects are helping people to rebuild their lives, still their darkest thoughts or find a new way of engaging with the world. Mental healthcare in the UK is chronically under-resourced, and Hardman underlines that the Natural Health Service is no substitute for NHS care. But we might all be happier and healthier if we could spend more time outdoors. 

“Nature can make a life made grey by mental illness seem rich again,” she writes. The sense of wonder she feels for the natural world is contagious. “Approaching an old tree is like walking up to a dinosaur or a great blue whale to say hello,” she observes, a sentiment I had not felt until she described Britain’s oldest tree, Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, which is believed to be between 2,000 and 3,000 years old. When it comes to the science, Hardman is cautious and hyper-alert to “quackery”. The scientific evidence to support nature prescriptions is still scant, but then again, the effects of mainstream mental health interventions, from psycho-pharmaceuticals to talking cures, are hard to measure and under-researched. 

One difficult lesson Hardman learned is that nature is a balm, but not a cure for mental malaise. “I have now realised I may never close up the black hole inside me,” she writes, with powerful simplicity. Political journalism is fast-paced and competitive, and Hardman has found it hard to be forced to take many months of sick leave. Hers is not always the life she would have chosen, but she writes that the plant and animal life she encounters on her daily rambles are “so memorable as to make me feel that, at the very least, I am not wasting the life I have ended up with”.

The writer Lucy Jones also believes that the natural world played a role in helping her – in her case, to overcome an alcohol and drug addiction that overshadowed her late teens and twenties. During her recovery, she took daily walks in Walthamstow Marshes. “I started to feel that I belonged to a wider family of species, a communion of beings, the matrix of life, from the spiders to the lichen and the cormorants and coots. I felt born again. Nature picked me up by the scruff of my neck, and I rested in her teeth for a while,” she writes in Losing Eden. Her fascinating exploration of the new science of our connection to the natural world emphasises the untold psychological cost of environmental degradation and climate catastrophe. It is written in such lush, vivid prose that reading it – especially while marooned in a big city under lockdown – one can feel transported and restored. “Really, awe is Earth’s signature,” Jones writes. “We may have forgotten but how could it not be? The adorable, terrible, leaky, stinky, gooey, glimmery, furry, bloody, swoony, shimmery, thumping majesty of the Earth.” 

Modern indoor lifestyles are believed to be linked to a global rise in myopia among children, and, in a sense, we are all becoming short-sighted; our horizons are shrinking unnoticed. Jones writes of the problem of an “extinction of experience”: as every passing generation becomes a little more detached from nature, they feel less personally invested in preserving plants and animals they have never seen and cannot name. We do not fully understand the psychological cost of mass extinctions and a warming planet, or the psychic suffering inflicted in a world where access to green spaces is often a luxury. Soon it may be too late. 

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The emerging science on the benefits of connecting to nature challenges the Cartesian distinction between mind and body, or the idea that humans exist in some realm distinct from nature. We are creatures, and we mingle with the Earth and its ecosystems in ways we cannot yet grasp. Some studies suggest, for example, that regular exposure to M vaccae, a type of bacteria found in the soil, can protect people against forms of inflammation that are linked to depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. Phytoncides, the chemicals released by trees and plants in the forest, are believed by some scientists to increase a person’s natural killer cells, lowering their risk of cancer and other diseases – a finding that has led to the rising popularity for “forest bathing” in parts of Asia. 

The Attention Restoration Theory suggests that the gentle stimulation created by viewing natural landscapes can help us overcome the mental fatigue generated by our unending digital distractions and make us more resilient to stress. Another theory gaining support is biophilia, the idea that humans are evolutionarily hard-wired to prefer certain natural landscapes. Maybe modern urbanites are like tigers raised in reptile terrariums: our habitat is all wrong and it is hurting us in ways we aren’t even able to articulate. 

Hardman and Jones cover many of the same studies and both argue forcefully that access to outdoor space is a pressing social justice issue. But Jones calls for a more fundamental overhaul of how humans relate to the world around us. She argues that we need a new language: too often the words we use encode a false dichotomy between humanity and our surroundings (nature, the environment) or define nature only in terms of its value to mankind (natural capital, or even terms such as ecotherapy). “It’s time for a new cosmology, a new love story,” Jones writes. The natural history writers Jones grew up reading were all straight, white, educated men; she says she is hungry for different stories, ones that do not view nature as something “out there”, waiting to be tamed. 

Like Hardman and Jones, the journalist and gardening expert Alice Vincent is a millennial woman (as am I). We are the first digital natives, our early adulthood was shaped by the 2008 financial crash, ours is the first generation in modern history to earn less than our parents. When Vincent took up gardening in her mid-twenties, it was considered an unusual pursuit, but millennials are now driving a surge in demand for houseplants, and particularly for Instagram-friendly succulents and photogenic varieties such as fiddle-leaf figs. Vincent sees the gardening revival as a second-wave Arts and Crafts movement, one “driven by a similar desire to slow down and turn our backs on the technology that has left us as one of the most overworked and vocally anxious generations yet”. 

In Rootbound, Vincent is less interested in untouched landscapes than in the green oases one can find, or create, in the city: parks, community gardens, greenhouses, balconies, houseplants. This is a book about the life-affirming joy of tending to nature: planting, pruning, digging and weeding. Part botany, part memoir, Rootbound is an exploration of how gardening helped Vincent in the aftermath of a painful break-up, as she learned to let go of the future she imagined for herself and navigate the uncertainty and instability of millennial adulthood. Through gardening she learns to accept impermanence and to relinquish control. She becomes aware that nothing good (or bad) can last forever. 

All three writers are attuned to how observing nature helps us make sense of our own lives, and offers a way of understanding the tenacity of life and the inevitability of death. We cannot stop ourselves from searching nature for meaning, or seeing it as a metaphor. And perhaps that’s why as I ran through Central Park recently, with these books on my mind, I thought about how the pandemic was serving as a reminder that mankind cannot exist apart from nature. Whether we work the land or live mostly indoors, behind LCD screens, in hermetically sealed, air-conditioned offices, we cannot escape our biology. We will all return to the earth one day. But until then we cannot help but put down roots and grow; we can only strain towards the light. 

The Natural Health Service: What the Great Outdoors Can Do for Your Mind
Isabel Hardman
Atlantic, 336pp, £16.99

Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild
Lucy Jones
Allen Lane, 272pp, £20

Rootbound: Rewilding a Life
Alice Vincent
Canongate, 368pp, £14.99

Sophie McBain is a special correspondent at the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor. 

This article appears in the 01 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The second wave