The way my twitter feed is now I seem to have spent the last week constantly alerted to the fact that reports say people need at least two hours in Nature to be happier and healthier. It’s that kind of story that all the papers and news streams seem to latch on, probably as vaguely neutral filler. They tend to say things like “A study released this week…” and often I sort of absorb the information without really thinking about it. These kind of studies are a staple part of radio “interest slots” – “a glass of red wine a day is good for your heart” went around at one stage, without too much examination. The small amount of research I have done into this latest seems to point at more than one report, including one by The Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment (MENE), funded by Natural England surveying 20,000 people in the UK and first published in 2014.
The thing is, I don’t much mind not having the exact specifics to hand on this one, (unless someone needs me to pass them on), I am satisfied of the truth of its premise, in that I am very sure we’d all be happier and healthier with more access to green spaces and natural things, this has long been known if often unheeded, even planners in the Classical period were aware of it. My interest for today is in just how much we seem to resist the advice.
There are times when I am in the middle of a wood, particularly with great company, where I might joke about staying there forever. It’s very hard to describe that feeling of intense comfort I get in a wood without coming across as somewhat zealous, or maybe under the influence of something of dubious legality. On the other hand I also can’t under sell how much I like my comforts. I like living in a modern house with insulation and heating and clean surfaces, hot and cold running water, great sanitation, I like largely not sharing my sleeping space with critters, I like not spending every morning lightly or heavily sodden and smelling faintly of fungus, I like very comfy armchairs on which to sprawl, presses containing food not tunneled into by rodents and insects. And I love the Internet. I love my bed.
Inertia is a terrible thing. There are days when I am comfortable at home but mildly discontented and I cannot persuade myself to get going on the things that I want to do or get out of the way. I have any number of hobby related projects that would give me great joy to get properly stuck into and/or complete. I *know* I would feel better doing things or going for a walk but I don’t do it. Instead I continue to scroll another few tweets on twitter or stare at the wall or ceiling and kind of fester.
It is astonishing how much better I feel in a wood than anywhere else. At home I can generally fend off stupid thoughts that arise from lonliness or imposter syndrome or anxiety that I’m just plain screwing everything up, but over time they seem to coat my brain with a sticky ooze through repetition. Not many steps into a wood and it all seems to unravel and float away like something in a Studio Gibli film, a dark miasma trailing off while I wander and hum gently to myself, my cleaner brain open to all manner of observations and musings.
When I was first coming to terms with depression it pissed me off, completely and terribly, when people would go on about exercise or going outdoors as a cure for the way I was feeling. I resented the way I felt the people making such recommendations were trivialising how utterly terrible I was feeling. Sure yes, walking in the woods might help with a spot of angst or feeling a bit naff after a row with someone, but how the hell would it make the slightest impact on a big, black, all devouring, all numbing beast that was tearing up my brain from the inside out? I thought maybe people were trying to simplify things just to be practical without knowing or even caring how any of it felt. It is completely possibly that they mightn’t, indeed, have known, but that wasn’t the point. In the same way as we collectively pass down the awareness that certain berries and fungi will kill us presumably we pass down that brain demons can die by being forced to live outdoors. We neither have to eat the berries or defeat the brain demons to pass on the knowledge.
So rush on many years. Going outdoors doesn’t fix me like a shot to the leg when things are really bad, but it does sooth, and repeated doses lessen the grip over time. Instead of a constant circle of recriminations feeding the thing, I’ve developed my brain to be receptive, maybe even over receptive, to the good but tiny things my senses start telling me. The sudden plash of wet as a first raindrop hits skin, the fizz of birch on an upsurging breeze, the machinegun cackle of magpies all draw my thoughts outward to a greater other. I keep my phone to hand to keep watch for beautiful things or unknown things that I can chase up later. Gradually my thoughts are present focused – the colour of this sulphur tuft fungus, the weird alien nature of bluebell seed heads – and sometimes future focused “I will look up what that pretty pink flower is” or “I must remember to tell x that I found that lichen”. Gradually thoughts free into interesting things friends have spoken about recently, or things I’ve read or even things I picked up in college ages ago and are all gently mixed in to browse over and thoughtfully digest. The examination of the catalogue of every stupid thing I did since age 4 that I do in my car or at home at 3 am gets drowned out in the smell of moss and beech mast. The fact that I also benefit from increased oxygen, decreased cortisol, decreased blood pressure and all of that is sort of just gravy.
I started typing this evening with intentions to write a completely different thing. I am aware I even have said most of this stuff already. I suppose I am just remembering how utterly convinced I was that going outdoors could be of any help whatsoever and now how utterly convinced I am that it saves me and my sanity on a regular basis. Seems like information I should be trying very hard to pass into the collective consciousness of “Things People Should Know”