A natural environment influences our health and wellbeing. Science can prove this, but you don’t need that – you know it. It’s deep in us, like so many things a throw back to our hunter-gatherer days. There is a recognised name for it, eco-therapy.
In a 2016 report by Mind and the University of Essex there were three forms of eco-therapy or “green care” recommended to the UK government to support mental health. Those were care farming, environmental conservation and horticulture. Earlier this year Friends of the Earth added to a report from the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) highlighting the dynamic between health and nature. Mind have published a short paper on eco-therapy, including the overall benefits and some simple, great ideas on increasing exposure to nature.
So you may now be thinking that eco-therapy sounds slightly off-putting, clinical or even a bit bit hippie, tree hugging sounding.
Its not. It’s an overall term used to cover a range of activities that allow you to get closer to nature. It’s free, accessible self-care and one we probably take for granted. Just consider how mindful an experience cultivating a plant is, from planting it in the soil to watching it grow.
Awe inspiring nature, simple yet complex.
For some it’s the sea or mountains – for me it’s trees. To be in a wood or forest, to watch the dappled sunlight through a canopy is a simple joy. Nothing planned, nothing judged – just observe the light filtered by the green leaves.
I am lucky that my house is surrounded by trees, which can be seen from every window. You can tell so much from them, as they change with the seasons. The branches weighed down with snow, the way the sunlight changes through them as a summer day goes by. Their movement, gentle in a breeze or lashed by a strong wind. I love the way the wind sounds through them, almost like a tide, as it pulses through the leaves.
To look at a tree and wonder how long it has stood there. To consider what human activity it has witnessed. What natural events have resulted in the way it’s grown, the shape of its branches, the influence it has upon the things growing around it and the animals which live their lives from its safety.
And then, without thought or planning, you are aware of your “now”, of how things are connected and interdependent upon each other. The essence of being alive.
That connection was something depression stole from me. The good news is that the rat only hid it and as I manage the depression the brilliant news is that the connection is coming back stronger. This is a similar experience that I have read and heard from other people with depression. As they progress along recovery they find or rediscover things they thought they had lost in the darkness. Which in itself is pretty amazing.
A tree also represents to me certain behaviours I know would help manage depression:
- To be patient, to let things unfold as they will.
- To be strong to withstand the buffeting of the wind, deeply rooted with the knowledge that the storm will pass.
- To be able to flex and adapt to the changing environment.
So here is the thing. Next time you are in a natural environment, even for only just a few minutes, stop and look around. Just observe. You may spot or hear something you’ve never seen before – in fact you probably will do. Don’t question or judge (no “oh look a weed” – that isn’t helpful and a weed is just a plant, we have decided we don’t like it). Just look for the simple beauty. Don’t reach for the phone or camera to take a picture. Allow yourself to connect with whatever is happening.
My belief is that not only is that kind of connection with the natural world so beneficial to health , it helps to understand more deeply what a fragile and interrelated environment we live in. One where our actions can cause so much damage and perhaps it may strengthen our feelings of responsibility to the shared environment.
Let’s finish on a connected song. Way back in December 1993 I had the privilege of seeing an unknown band who were supporting the wonderful James on their Laid tour. It wasn’t until a few years later that I really “got” Radiohead and especially in the last couple of years I have found so many connections within their songs. There is one song, The Numbers, which I especially like, as while it’s about the environment I interpreted the song lyrics in relation to mental health:
The future is inside us, it’s not somewhere else, one day at a time
Next time you can, when in a natural environment, take a few minutes to simply enjoy whatever is happening near you. It will be good for you.
Lyrics copyright of Radiohead