There is now a growing body of research into the role nature plays in our physical and mental health. Here is a selection of articles that I’ve enjoyed.
Gardeners know how much pleasure there is in tending to plants and growing a garden. The connection we have to nature and the love of gardening goes much deeper than aesthetics. There is now a vast body of research that confirms that nature is something we cannot live without. The great neurologist Oliver Sachs noticed the impact gardens had on his patients and lead him to comment:
“I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.”
The effect is both calming and energising, perhaps because the kind of attention we have to pay to our day to day lives is narrow and exhausting whereas in nature our attention shifts to a more broad and relaxed form of attention. It is a different sensory experience – and one we were designed for – to hear the birdsong, taste the air and observe the patterns of nature. It slows the brain down and calms the anxious thoughts.
There’s a growing body of scientific evidence for the health benefits of spending time in nature. Health professionals are increasingly joining forces with ecologists in recognition that human and ecological health are not separate disciplines. Forest bathing has been a tradition in Japan since the 1980s and is commonly prescribed to people who are overwhelmed by the city and in need of stress relief. Numerous studies have shown that time in nature – at least 2 hours per week – lowers blood pressure, reduces stress, reduces anxiety and improves immune function among many things. Forest bathing is so well established in Japan that it has been adopted by the Japanese health system and there is increasing interest in the UK at developing guided forest bathing sessions as a form of self care and healing. We are deeply connected to nature and while we may know this intellectually, it is only by being immersed in it that we experience the retuning of our minds and souls in harmony with the living world. As the great naturalist John Muir says,
“when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe”.
This all serves to affirm the biophilia hypothesis – that we have an urge to connect with other forms of life and love the process of life. And plants appear to be more than just an environmental backdrop, they really are alive and aware in more ways than we had imagined. Trees have been also been found to communicate with each other and pass around nutrient via mycelial networks underground. Trees are the longest living entities on earth and contain within them the history of the environment where they grow. They adapt to the environment and drive terrestrial biochemical cycles on the planet in a way that only humans can rival. Trees and the environment are engaged in reciprocal causality on a massive temporal and spatial scale in such as way as to challenge our ideas about autonomy – precisely where the tree ends and the environment begins is not altogether clear.
At the time when we most need to restore the ecological health of the planet for the sake of our own survival, it is also time to reassess our ideas of what nature is. The reasons to preserve nature are not because of a rational utilitarian need for natures services, but because we cannot be ourselves or know ourselves without it.
To cherish what remains of the Earth and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope of survival (Wendell Berry)