May 7, 2020

Why nature is the antidote to our modern ills


None of us will forget the spring of 2020, how green and gold and beautiful it was, how alive and various, how the parables of sunlight, as Dylan Thomas called them, lit the horizons, the trees and blossom.

With the menace of death comes a richer focus on the minutes and moments of life. Mornings are brighter now that we notice them, afternoons longer, evenings more languid. There is birdsong and blossom in London every spring but these now seem significant and sustaining. This week the swifts returned. Photographs of goats in Llandudno, cormorants in Venice and boar in Bergamo have been shared around the world. The speed of nature’s return to cities has delighted and consoled us, though it is always there. This is an apposite and interesting time for the publication of three books about our relationship with nature, written in the old world, that speak to the new.

Will the virus reconnect us to nature? We had surely lost touch. The National Trust reports that while 30 per cent of eight- to 11-year-olds could not identify a magpie, 90 per cent can spot a Dalek. Alarmingly, Isabel Hardman reports in The Natural Health Service, many children spend less time outdoors than do prisoners. Hardman makes a vigorous case for nature as the great healer we have overlooked. In Wild Child, Patrick Barkham mounts a passionate argument for giving children more time outside. In The Well-Gardened Mind, Sue Stuart-Smith explores gardening as a therapeutic activity. All three are British authors but their lessons are universal.

Not coincidentally, in this time of shrunken horizons, there have been references to Voltaire’s injunction to cultivate our gardens. According to the Horticultural Trades Association, the British spend £10bn annually on gardens that put together would cover an area the size of Somerset — or Tokyo, twice. The virus highlights a gulf of wellbeing between those with ready access to nature, and those without.

Stuart-Smith, a psychiatrist, sets her book in a fascinating overlap between the still stumbling science of psychiatry and the ancient art of gardening. Nebuchadnezzar II built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon around 580BC for his wife Amytis, who pined for hills. In 1812 Benjamin Rush noted that poorer patients labouring in asylum gardens recovered better than richer ones allowed to stay inside. In the 1950s psychotropic drugs began the medication of mental illness, a trend that many sufferers and professionals now regard with suspicion; thankfully, gardens are back.

A Danish study published in 2018 found that 10 weeks of gardening produced similar benefits to 10 weeks of cognitive behavioural therapy. Stuart-Smith visits the prison complex on Rikers Island, New York, where 8,000 people are incarcerated, 90 per cent black and Hispanic, 40 per cent suffering mental illness. Its reoffending rate of 65 per cent falls to 10-15 per cent among those on the gardening programme. “Here you speak a different language. Inside it’s all negativity, commotion, and violence. Out here you can find yourself again,” an inmate named Martin tells her. Soldiers in the trenches of the Great War had no physical escape from commotion and violence but creating small gardens provided some relief, Stuart-Smith discovers.

Gardeners know gardening is good for them; Stuart-Smith explains why. The vitamin D we produce under sunlight boosts serotonin. Endorphins and dopamine are elevated by exercise. Mycobacterium vaccae, found in soil, raises the serotonin of the gardener who inhales and ingests it, improving cognitive function and memory.

Three books on the healing power of nature

Front cover of 'The Well-Gardened Mind', by Sue Stuart-Smith

Sue Stuart-Smith advocates gardening as a therapeutic activity. She cites one study’s findings that 10 weeks of gardening produced similar benefits to 10 weeks of cognitive behavioural therapy

Front cover of 'The Natural Health Service', by Isabel Hardman

Isabel Hardman suffered an ordeal that led to breakdowns and PTSD. Though prescribed antidepressants, she throws herself into botany, gardening, birdwatching, outdoor swimming and horse riding

Front cover of 'Wild Child', by Patrick Barkham

Patrick Barkham is distressed by nature’s absence in modern childhoods. His book suggests how, in the post-pandemic future, we might do better by our offspring by exposing them more to the natural world

Patrick Barkham expands on our microbial relationship with the world in Wild Child, citing Finnish studies of skin microbiota comparing town and country dwellers. “There were no differences in the levels of domestic hygiene . . . but there was a correlation between the proximity of the home to agricultural land and a healthy lack of allergic sensitisation. The crucial fact here was not a person’s ‘hygiene’ but their exposure to biodiversity,” Barkham writes.

Isabel Hardman notes that therapeutic gardening takes place worldwide. “In Singapore, some hospitals have been designed so that plants are visible throughout. Its Institute of Mental Health has won national horticulture awards for its patient gardens.” She is rigorous too: “A 2013 review concluded that ‘at present there is . . . insufficient evidence that relatively brief gardening-based interventions can have long-term effects for people experiencing mental health difficulties.”

But all three authors are engaging when it comes to the immeasurable but tangible benefits of physical contact with nature. Hardman finds wonder in an orchid, Epipactis helleborine, in a Glasgow car park, and she writes, “I’ve thinned the young fruits on my espalier apple tree as an explicit way of calming myself down from a panic attack: the slow search for the tiny apples, and the methodical act of pinching them off their stems turned into a soothing rhythm for me, and by the end, both I and the apple tree felt lighter.”

Exposure to natural beauty, Stuart-Smith says, stimulates our reward pathways in similar ways to music and romantic love. The scents of roses and lavender reduce adrenalin and increase serotonin. But metrics only go so far in accounting for deeper pleasures. Planting a bulb, Stuart-Smith says, is like setting “a time bomb of hope”. She documents many examples of gardens that heal and rejuvenate war veterans, and people recovering from injury, abuse and breakdown. The Oxford Textbook of Nature and Public Health estimates that for every pound the NHS spends on gardens and gardening therapies, five could be saved through reduced care costs.

Among the compensations of this extraordinary and otherwise cruel time are the lucent air and the return of sharp colours, due to a fall in traffic pollution. I keep telling my young son to remember this time, when we were largely freed from the disruption of cars.

The most alarming statistic in The Well-Gardened Mind — that Americans on average spend 93 per cent of their time indoors or in a vehicle — would not surprise Patrick Barkham, whose elegant and moving Wild Child is aimed at everyone with children. The author of outstanding books on nature, Barkham is distressed by its absence from the modern childhood. Here he writes about the upbringing of his own children and his experiences volunteering at a forest school nursery called “Dandelion” in Norfolk.

The school’s directors keep the children outside in all weathers, place mud and philosophy at the heart of their curriculum, and obtain outstanding results. It comes as no surprise that boxing children in classrooms and giving them plastic toys to fight over does not bring out their best. Keeping them outside, making them think of hundreds of ways a stick might become any kind of toy and allowing them to be led by their interests and personalities dramatically improves their conduct, their wellbeing and their attainment. Parents will recognise Barkham’s worries and wonders at his three children — Esme, who shares her father’s love of nature, Milly who is a more indoors sort of person, and stalwart Ted, who eventually takes to forest school. The author shows how fields, gardens and graveyards expand their horizons and unite the family. Allowing children to lead outdoor activity liberates and fulfils them, as I noticed when I stopped making expeditions with my son conform to an adult sense of time and let him take charge.

A teacher of children, nature is also a tutor of attentiveness and imagination in adults. Barkham writes beautifully about it, describing a frog’s eye “surrounded by a socket of gold, giving them an affluent, monocled look”. The book brims with tender scenes and small epiphanies. I was struck by the idea that conventional schooling forces children into a miniaturised version of the rat-race, doing them a great disservice. Remove the classroom’s walls and diktats and you remove the worst effects of ADHD, for example. Wild Child suggests how, in the post-pandemic future, we might do better by our offspring despite having less capital to spend on them.

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Perhaps the Romantics were right, and we really are all children of nature. Relative access to it may account for disparities in mental illness between rich and poor. The search for better mental health has led to huge spending on psychiatric drugs, but numbers suffering continue to climb. We need the therapy of nature, argues Isabel Hardman, a political journalist and confidante of the powerful, who — one hopes — will read her book The Natural Health Service.

It begins with a summary of a terrifying ordeal, leading to PTSD and a series of breakdowns. Concealing the details of her trauma, she plunges into her self-treatment and recovery. Though prescribed antidepressants, she is fortunate in having a GP who “listened, and told me that I should arrange riding lessons and running sessions that it would be hard to duck out of”. What a difference a progressive doctor makes.

Hardman throws herself into botany, gardening, birdwatching, walking, outdoor swimming, horse riding and running. She researches options, examines how each activity is supposed to work and tests them. In each case, research suggests measurable benefits. Hardman describes the ways they help her. While she does not argue for people to throw away their pills, she identifies the central problem with our current treatment model: “people with mental illnesses are being short-changed, taking drugs that shorten their lives and make enjoying what time they have harder.” She demonstrates that building a human need for nature into planning decisions, design principles, employment practices and personal routines would unquestionably improve our wellbeing.

Entering the restorative theatre of nature often takes an act of will. Throughout, Hardman is frank about the off-putting aspects of facing happy strangers at a park run, of getting up early to jump into ponds and about the way an unfulfilled routine can become one more failure in a depressed life. The book is resolutely practical. “If you have a friend who is struggling with their mental health but really has no money at all to buy the basic items they need to go for a forest walk, then the best present you could ever give them is a pair of cheap trainers,” she writes.

There is an exhilarating chance, these three books suggest, to reset our relationship with nature. Teachers, doctors and researchers are convinced of the practical and spiritual benefits of attentive time outside. For all its freight of fear, the current crisis has brought clarity. We knew our lifestyles were isolating and our mental health declining. Now we see that the natural world is fundamental to healing and happiness. The rush and thrust of the past seemed to demand that we plunder nature’s resources while paying little heed to her gifts. Let us hope the spring of 2020 sees the flourishing of a renewed friendship.

The Well Gardened Mind: Rediscovering Nature in the Modern World, by Sue Stuart-Smith, William Collins, RRP£22, 352 pages

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

Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature, by Patrick Barkham, Granta, RRP£16.95, 352 pages

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