My daughter is six and is called Eden. She has been looking at me suspiciously for the last few days. But this is not a book about how to successfully lose your child in the woods. It’s about the deep connections between nature and mental health, and why our disconnection from the natural world has real consequences for our health and happiness.
In the Western world, our relationship with the natural world is at a low ebb. We appear to be vaguely aware of terms like the ‘sixth extinction’, or the statistics about wildlife decline. And yet in Britain we aren’t even capable of protecting our parks or street trees, let alone global biodiversity. Our indoor, pre-packaged lives don’t require us to engage with the natural world, and we undervalue the life support systems that we depend on.
However, we need the natural world and the human pyche knows it. A large and growing body of research demonstrates, time and again, that exposure to nature improves our health and wellbeing. Patients who can see trees out of a hospital window heal faster. Crime rates are lower when abandoned lots are turned into community gardens. Re-offending rates fall when prisoners have access to growing spaces and green space.
Of course, the very fact that we need scientific studies to tell us this sort of thing is proof of how disconnected we have become. But it bears repeating, again and again, because we could be making life so much easier for ourselves. Some joined up thinking would save us so much heartache. Budget cuts in the parks department are paid for in the health department, as trees are removed and mental health suffers. There’s no net saving, and nature has been destroyed and people are miserable. We have to do better.
Lucy Jones explores the science of nature and mental health, investigating the topic across a range of different areas, such as education or architecture. There’s an important chapter on inequality, showing how poorer areas tend to have less access to green space. Since poverty is a major cause of unhappiness and mental health issues, green space should be all the more important in those areas. Investing in parks and gardens in low income areas would have multiple benefits, and looks like a real opportunity.
Another theme in the book is ecological grief. If nature is important for our mental health, then there will inevitably be consequences from the massive decline of wildlife, and the devastation of climate breakdown. What will this mean for us, and our sense of place in the world?
Alongside the psychology and science, the book includes some wonderful nature writing, and Jones also writes movingly about her own struggles with addiction and depression. Re-engaging with the nature she loved as a child played an important role in recovery, and it puts a personal spin on the book’s key messages. There are elements of travel writing, as the book takes in visits to various gardens, forest schools and wild places, including the seed vault at Svalbard. She has also spoken to a wide variety of experts, ranging from familiar names in nature connection such as E O Wilson or Richard Louv, to more unusual figures, such as Britain’s chief druid.
“My research has convinced me that alienation from the natural world is a factor in the mental health crisis in the West” writes Jones. “If we are disconnected from the natural world, we are missing out on nourishment for our minds. We are living in cosmic and social exile and in isolation from other species and elements we evolved alongside. We would be happier and healthier with a richer, fuller, less destructive relationship with the rest of nature.”
I really enjoyed this book, and I hope it finds a wide audience. It has prompted me to start planning the pond in the garden that’s on the to-do list for the spring. And I shall endeavour to take Eden to the woods more often, and try not to lose her there.