By Nigel Boldero FRSA
Convenor- Norfolk Green Care Network
‘I love to see the summer beaming forthJohn Clare (1793-1864)
And white wool sack clouds sailing to the north
I love to see the wild flowers come again
And mare blobs stain with gold the meadow drain …’
John Clare, considered by many as the finest poet in the English language, had a troubled life. His love of ‘mare blobs’ (Marsh Marigolds- see picture above) and many other dimensions of nature was not enough to prevent him developing mental illness, and he ended his days in a ‘Madhouse’ in Northampton.
But there is a wealth of historic observation and a growing body of research evidence to show that connecting with nature can be a powerful way of promoting mental (and physical) health, helping to treat ill health and aiding recovery. Our love of nature goes back a long way, as these quotes from the celebrities of their time demonstrate…
“Nature itself is the best physician.”
“To sit in the shade on a fine day, and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment.”
– Jane Austen
“All my life through, the new sights of nature made me rejoice like a child.”
― Marie Curie
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”
– Albert Einstein
Why do we love Nature?
The causes of mental illness remain largely a mystery; our understanding of physical illnesses is much greater and has spawned a wide range of scientific and medical specialties. Despite the growth in research that shows the benefits of connecting with nature, theories on why this is so are limited.
Some think it goes back to our early existence as humans when, as hunter gatherers and as early farmers, our relationship to the natural world was more direct and integrated. Somehow the traits developed then still permeate our lives today.
Other theories suggest that natural environments promote feelings of “being away” from routines and thoughts that dominate our attention and cause stress. Features such as clouds and sunsets that attract attention without requiring mental focus help to restore our minds from ‘attention fatigue’.
Robert Ulrich thinks that spatial openness, the presence of pattern or structure, water and other features of the natural world trigger feelings of interest, pleasantness and calm that allow us to recover from stress. American poet Sylvia Plath illustrates this ‘fascination’:
“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, This is what it is to be happy”.
Another explanation is simply that we appreciate nature because we are part of it. As time has moved on and we have ‘progressed’ into new ways of surviving, with an emphasis on controlling and directing nature, so we have become less connected with it. What Richard Louv has described as ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’-especially for children who have particularly suffered from ‘more screen, less green’ in their lives.
What are the benefits to mental health?
Being in nature- either passively sensing it (e.g. with a walk in a wood) or actively engaging with it (e.g. through gardening) can promote positive feelings and help to promote mental health. Things like:
- Reducing anxiety, stress and fatigue
- Improving mood
- Raising self esteem
- Improving emotional well being
- Reducing hyperactivity and inattention
- Improving resilience
- Building supportive relationships where some sort of communal activity is involved
And seeing or otherwise connecting with nature can aid treatment and recovery- ‘social and therapeutic horticulture’ and other therapeutic activities can target particular health needs.
Even just seeing nature can help recovery; studies have shown how patients in hospitals with east facing rooms or ‘green views’ need less pain killers and recover quicker, and hospital gardens are increasingly important features of hospital design; something that hospices have long known.
And, to an extent, some of the benefits of nature connection can be secured through indirect exposure. I recently discovered that those laying prone whilst undergoing a body scan at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital can view moving images and sounds from nature to help relax them (see above- they are even offered a variety of different films!)
How can you connect with Nature?
There is a wide range of options. At Norfolk Green Care Network, we like to define ‘green care’ as all sorts of nature connection. This diagram summarises the six main dimensions (my inadvertent use of a ‘beehive’ diagram was gratefully received by a beekeeper at one of our online workshops recently!).
As you can see, from anything that enables you to ‘sense’ nature (it might be just a view from a window or walk along a beach); through more directed activities that could involve other people (e.g. community gardens and conservation projects are wonderful ways to meet other people and build relationships); to different ways of interacting with animals (e.g. riding or engaging horses, tending to them on care farms or through special projects that use ‘pets as therapy’ by visiting people in long term care, or helping children build relationships and self-confidence).
What are the challenges?
Access– research shows that those living in areas of deprivation have generally less access to open space- can we take positive action to increase green space in these areas and improve connectivity in all communities?
Modern lifestyles- as already mentioned our lifestyles are becoming increasingly urbanised, with greater online and home-based activity- what can we do to make it ‘normal’ for people to connect with nature?
Neighbourhood planning and design- awareness is growing of the importance of access to green space as part of designing new developments that are more environmentally friendly, less car dependent and safer to walk, cycle and play in- how do we influence developers, architects and planners to design with nature connection in mind?
Care for nature- there are signs that we are becoming more aware of the importance of protecting biodiversity and taking positive action to ‘re wild’ our environment- how can we ensure an active, coordinated approach to nature protection and enhancement?
The pandemic- opportunity or threat?
Well, I think it’s potentially both….
On the one hand research has shown that the pandemic, with its associated restrictions on movement, has enabled people to appreciate nature more, (especially that ‘on the doorstep’) and to seek out green (and ‘blue’) places to connect with it. Families have been visiting these places together and with others; walking and cycling have been boosted as a part of many people’s daily routines.
But it is also clear that the direct and indirect impacts of the pandemic are still yet to be fully felt; significant increases in unemployment, the mental and other stresses and strains caused by disruption to normal family routines and social contacts and so on.
So, the need for nature connection has never been greater; how do we expand the opportunities, channel and manage this activity so as not to destroy nature?
At the Norfolk Green Care Network we are not only helping our members to connect with each other but are actively finding ways to promote the growth in ‘green care’ …..and care for nature.