This Wooded Sanctuary

Nature is not just a pretty diversion to be indulged in every now and again, it’s an essential element to achieve a healthy body and a sound mind. Emma Johnson explores how – and why – we need to get back to our roots

In 1919, in a speech to Harvard University, the UK’s Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey shared with students what had brought him comfort at a time when the world was facing down the horror of unprecedented events. ‘In those dark days I found some support in the steady progress unchanged of the beauty of the seasons,’ he told the students. ‘Every year, as spring came back unfailing and unfaltering, the leaves came out with the same tender green, the birds sang, the flowers came up and opened, and I felt that a great power of nature for beauty was not affected by the war. It was like a great sanctuary into which we could go and find refuge.’

Man has always sought out nature. Initially, we lived amongst it – by the water, in the woods and on the earth – because we needed it to grow our food, build and heat our homes and nourish our bodies. This is no accident of fate. Our bodies typically contain more microbial cells than human ones, along with a diverse microbiota – created by exposure to elements in nature – which helps us fight heart disease, inflammation, mental illness and chronic conditions. 

Original Home

We don’t just need nature, we’re part of it. We feel better when we stand in the woods because our bodies are literally healing as we breathe in the air. And we used to know this instinctively. Ancient man drew paintings on the walls of caves, depicting important flora and fauna. Our ancestors built shelter in small clearings, the trees a protective canopy, around and above. Later, we created ornamental gardens, monks planted green spaces around their monasteries and when we moved into cities, we built parks and planted in allotments. 

‘Nature is our original home,’ explains author Horatio Clare whose book The Light in the Dark charts the importance of nature in his mental health journey. ‘From those first footprints found in Laetoli, Kenya, made 3.6 million years ago, to one of us walking in a wood or field today, humans are from and of nature and at fundamental level at one with it.’

Nature is all around us, and yet, despite this, we are more disconnected from it than ever before. Modern life – working long hours, materialism, over-population, over-development, fear, apathy – all of this has cauterised us from the natural world, ripped us out at the roots. Three out of four children in the UK spend less time outdoors than prisoners; we have lost close to 100,000 miles of hedgerows and 90 per cent of our wetlands, a rich and biodiverse habitat. Since the Second World War, our wild flower meadows have been reduced by 98% and since 1966 we have lost 40 million birds from our skies.  

The Point of Disconnection

Part of the problem is that we have to actively seek out nature now. ‘We have never been at this point of disconnection with the rest of nature before,’ writes Lucy Jones in Losing Eden. ‘Our behaviour has changed as the landscape winnowed. Simply put, we’ve moved inside. We live in cubicles, cars and tower blocks, spending on one to five per cent of our time outdoors. We’ve come used to surviving outside the rhythms of the natural world.’

We have developed ‘nature-deficit disorder’ – a phrase coined in 2005 by American writer Richard Louv, who used it to explain the impact that our increasingly indoor life was having on people’s health. And it’s no surprise that this alienation from nature has caused a severe and worrying mental health crisis. ‘If we are disconnected from the natural world, we are missing out on nourishment for our minds,’ continues Jones. ‘We are living in cosmic and social exile from other species and elements we’ve evolved alongside.’

Safe and Well

And yet, more and more evidence is emerging that we need nature in deeply fundamental ways. The more we connect with nature, the safer and happier we feel in it, and the more it becomes a sanctuary for body and mind. Science has shown that when we are in nature, and feeling safe and relaxed, our body diverts vital resources to growing, building and supporting our immune system. 

There is an actual chemical relationship between our wellbeing and our natural environment. ‘We need the vitamin D we get from sunlight, and the bacteria in the soil which elevates our levels of dopamine,’ says Clare. ‘And also the smell of pines and other trees and flowers which boosts serotonin and dopamine, as does listening to bird song or whales singing, being present at sunrises and sunsets.’

Warmed by the sun, soothed the breeze, drinking in colour and beauty, listening to the birds, we kickstart those neurons of joy in our brains.  American naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote about the power of nature in the 19th century, referring to it as a tonic. ‘We need the tonic of wildness,” he said. “We require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us. We can never have enough of nature.’

A Natural Sanctuary

Nature has so much to give us back if we could only return to it. In the first instance it brings an incredible level of perspective. Climb a mountain or walk along a river and you realise you are part of something huge and timeless. ‘That understanding, that we are only tiny pebbles in the vast and incomprehensible river of life, is invaluable. It is true perspective, it is deep harmony, and above all it is sanctuary. This frees you, wonderfully, from the misconception that we are at the centre of the world,’ says Clare. ‘The greatest consolation of nature, I find, is its power to say – look, you are tiny, your lives are short. You don’t really matter. Now, enjoy.’

And from freedom comes hope. Nature reminds us that this too shall pass. Anyone that has seen a weed break through the concrete of a tennis court knows that resilience and strength can be found throughout our natural world, and also in ourselves. While planting things reminds us of the future, of the possibilities ahead. In the trenches on the battlefields of WW1 soldiers planted flowers. Why? ‘To plant seeds is to believe you will get to see them grow,’ writes Lucy Jones. ‘The leaves would uncurl, the birds would sing, the flowers would open. Nature would endure long after the war had ended.’ For people recovering from stress and PTSD, as well as depression, the sanctuary found in horticulture is very real. 

Nature also reminds us of patience, trust and the importance of slowing down. Nature can be slow and steadfast, or quick and striking, but either way it doesn’t fight against its destiny. The wisteria blooms and fades – a dazzling few days of glory; while the oak sends out roots and settles in for entire centuries. ‘To stand with an oak is a lesson in patience, in the slow-burn, in trust, in taking things one day at a time,’ says Jones. ‘It is to be in the presence of eternity and infinity… aspects of the natural world also change and morph and have renewed significance in tune with the unfolding narrative of a person’s life.’

The Necessity of Wildness

In the end, returning to nature is about returning to where we came from. And reconnecting with that wildness offers both the sanctuary of familiarity and belonging, but also the knowledge of a world unconstrained by walls or maps or one-way systems. ‘Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity,’ wrote John Muir in Our National Parks, published in 1901. 

Now is the time to go back to what we know. Walking in the woods, swimming in the lakes, paddling in the sea, digging in the garden, climbing the mountains, touching the trees, thanking the earth for our food, looking up to the stars and down to the beetles. Even if you live in an urban location, find a tree, a plant outside of your window, and acknowledge it, connect with its pattern of growth and change through the seasons, see it as part of your life. Get wet- and cold-weather gear and get outside every single day, feel the rain on your face, the wind in your lungs, see bright sunlight and dark clouds. Take your round-the-block run to a park, meet friends to walk along the beach, breathe deeply and look around you, be still, observe, wonder. 

‘Walking, looking, listening and being fully present in the natural world gives the priceless gift of sanctuary,’ says Clare. ‘Even when it’s freezing and blowing and pelting down, nature strips away the deadly illusion of being human… gently, mightily and eternally, she teaches us our absurd insignificance, and our extraordinary, random fortune in being alive at all.’

THREE WAYS YOU CAN REGULARLY CONNECT WTH NATURE

Wild Swimming

Cold-water or wild swimming in lakes, seas or rivers is one of the best ways to quite literally immerse yourself in nature. Wild swimming activates our sympathetic nervous system and gives us a feeling of endorphins, but also reduces inflammation and stress hormones, while the lapping of the water and the rhythmic movements of swimming can be very meditative.

Forest Bathing 

Popular in Japan, shinrin-yoku – or forest bathing – is about engaging the senses and involves spending at least two hours in the forest, inhaling the scents of the trees, listening to the sounds of the leaves falling, animals moving and so on. 

Grounding

Grounding or ‘earthing’ is a therapeutic technique designed to reconnect you to the earth.  Scientists believe that certain electrical charges from the earth can have positive effects on your body. Grounding can be as simple as walking barefoot through grass or mud, or actually lying on the earth – it could be sand, grass or pebbles – the sensory element is important. Or simply a session of wild swimming (see above). The important thing is to get your body physically close to the earth, and to let the sensory experience of sight, sound, smell, touch – and even taste – be a meditative moment of contemplation and connection.