A sense of place and health

A visit to my homeplace recently while my parents were also hosting my brother’s kids had me wandering with a fresh eye around some places I first discovered aged 11, newly transplanted from city living in Dublin. My niece, at 8, is madly curious about everything and adores being outdoors, so I was quickly conned into giving up my mug of tea to go on a mini adventure over to one of the two ráths in the field next door to look for “things”. Her love for the big open space, scrambling walls, oohing at flowers and buds, poking at the stones and picking up sticks reminded me a bit of me at a similar age.

Ideas about place, landscape and access to the natural world have been tossing about in the back on my head, churning like some forgotten laundry back in for another turn in the machine. Where I started out curious about the impact of separation from nature on our health I also realised I can equally point to the downward trend on the health of the natural world as we separate ourselves from it. As we become increasingly urbanised we separate more and more from nature, become less able, collectively, to appreciate it, or even recognise it. I read a really interesting paper Global Urbanization and the Separation of Humans from Nature (BioScience, Volume 54, Issue 6, June 2004) which described most of our overall population, world wide, as living in biological poverty. It spoke of “generational amnesia” – the way in which each successive generation is less able to assess ecological health as the ecological conditions they are exposed to grow steadily poorer. “Native biodiversity, for example, can contribute to sense of place and belonging; loss of biodiversity may thus negatively affect both well-being and community identity (Horwitz et al. 2001). Likewise, appreciation and understanding of biodiversity are more likely to flourish with greater diversity close to home and to suffer with greater separation of humans from nature (Hough 1995). For example, reducing the separation between individuals and natural features can foster human concern for such features (Schultz 2001), and children who play in wild environments show more favorable perceptions of such environments later in life “

If you live in a space where you don’t see much of the natural world you don’t have an internal catalog of what to value. A hedgehog as an idea is just as distant as a unicorn, all very lovely and nice to think about, but in a vague not really real way. Seeing one snuffling around in a pile of leaves outside your window makes you look up how to make sure they’re happy and healthy, they become immediate and properly alive. If you grow up with only daisies, buttercups and dandelions then that’s what you think wild flowers are. You end up with books like “The Lost Words” by Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris. That book is an absolute thing of beauty but it *shocked* me that such a book might be a needful thing. Jackie Morris herself at
http://www.jackiemorris.co.uk/blog/book-list/the-lost-words-a-spell-of-words-by-robert-macfarlane/ describes how the book came about thus

“It had come to the attention of some who work in the world of words that certain words were slipping out of common usage. As a result when it came to amend the junior dictionary for a new edition these words were gone. The letter was a request for words culled from the Oxford University Press Junior Dictionary to be returned. These words included bluebell, conker, heron, acorn and perhaps the one that cut the deepest for me, kingfisher.

It wasn’t the fault of the dictionary that these words were not included, but the culture in which we live which seems to give more importance to the urban than the wild. The dictionary was a symptom of this, and a timely reminder that we should take a good, long look at what we value.”

To this day I am deeply, deeply grateful to my parents for moving us out into the middle of nowhere, even if we all secretly hankered for mountains and ended up with bog instead. I enjoy having two distinct senses of place – I have amazing memories of growing up in an estate in the city too – but it is very hard to describe the impact moving a city kid to a semi feral life with no particularly immediate neighbours has. My own personal universe expanded rapidly to fill all that newly available space; where my mother had been strict about letting us stray from the street outside and called us in out of the smog in the early evenings in Dublin, we suddenly ranged over huge distances under all kinds of skies. We were sent to gather dead wood for lighting the fire in huge armfuls, suddenly aware of the insects that scuttled off as we revealed them to the sky. I made friends first with the oak down the garden and then the ash on the ráth, the huge holly with the seat in the back field I was able to read in, the circles of gnarled blackthorn on the far ráth, and the elder that we used as the gateway into the field next door. Sometimes we had to hold our noses against that very distinctive odour, sometimes we took thin straight branches to squidge out the spongy centre and make blowpipes on our way past. In a huge semi circle at the back of the fields behind our house was a grass centered road, barely used by anything mechanical. It was edged by the most incredible quantity of wildflowers, insects, butterflies and bees I had ever seen before then, swishing waist high and buzzing rather than sizzling in much more benign sunshine. There were generations of frogs, grasshoppers and flashes of damselflies and dragonflies in the much less frenzied flightpaths of the flitting butterflies. It was glorious.

Another paper Biodiversity, Endemism, Sense of Place, and Public Health: Inter‐relationships for Australian Inland Aquatic Systems warns “Biodiversity, and its endemic features, contribute to a person’s attachment to a particular place and become part of a person’s identity. Loss, destruction, or change in a location has the potential to affect an individual’s psychological well‐being, and challenge a community’s identity and image of itself. “

I have lived between city and country, back and forth all my life between childhood, my teens, college years back in Dublin, and returning to Offaly when I had my own kids. A great deal has happened over the course of my adult life and I have come to depend on trips to nearby woods and to the grass verges of waist deep flowers and grasshoppers to help me restore my sense of self and balance.

I’d really like to point you at a podcast on TreesaCrowd that I heard recently, not long after after I started trying to put these ideas in my head together for here. I feel it better explores a lot of the same ideas while also being a gorgeous interview with Mark Firth about a particular and fabulous project of his, detailed in the National Geographic It is a beautiful example of how his landscape has inspired him and how he in turn is moved to try to protect and highlight it.

I was pointed at the following article on Quartz not long ago and I think it fits here:
“Disconnection from nature can be bad for our mental health. But there was no name for this particular malaise until Australian sustainability professor Glenn Albrecht coined the term psychoterratic, creating the beginning of a vocabulary to discuss the relationship between mental health and environment. “

I have traditionally been a bit of a skeptic about a great many things and I admit I came to the idea of “the healing power of nature” with a suggestion of the threat of an eye roll. It is quite strange that I’m here, tapping frantically on my crumb infested keyboard advocating a return to nature for what ails you. The Quartz article touches on some options(including walking barefoot which I’ve done as much as possible all my life), but I’m solidly throwing my weight behind what Robert Macfarlane tweeted recently

“Word of the day: “skovstilhed” – “peace of the woods”, “forest tranquillity” (Norwegian). The calmness of spirit brought about by being among trees in number. “

Wood wandering, also commonly referred to as shinrin yoku, or “forest bathing.” as an official therapy practice began in Japan in 1982, introduced by the government who urged citizens to make use of the country’s 3,000 wooded miles specifially with the aim of improving their health, happiness and wellbeing. There are numerous well funded Japanese studies from the first two decades of this millennium into the health benefits. Japan now has 62 designated therapeutic woods, attracting about 5 million visitors annually.

basically if there are trees with all that entails and, if I’m lucky, a stream or river I’m going to figureout how to get to a better state of mind. It may not be quite the same fit for you, maybe you’re more about beach-combing, marshes or barren rocky outcrops on farflung islands. I’ve already mentioned bird watching as written about by Birdtherapy in a previous post. I’ve also today come across Into the Wild Bliss, a site that talks about healing anxiety through wildlife gardening. I’d love to hear about some more, so if you happen upon this post and have s recommendation I’d love to hear it.

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