‘Our origins are of the earth. And so there is a deep seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity’
It seems silly, beyond the age of seven, to think about your favourite colour. But lockdown has, on certain days, reduced me to conversations of equal banality. Not long ago, and I am not making this up, I started a conversation with my twenty year old daughter with the words, ‘If I was a sheep…’, so pondering favourite colours is highbrow by comparison.
If anyone were to ask me, I’d say my favourite colour is blue. The deep blue of Sydney sky and sea, the longing for which I have become used to carrying around with me, with the inevitability of a shadow. England has, admittedly, done an unparalleled job in serving up every equal to that usually unrivalled Antipodean blue. The coincidence of our lockdown days with the gift of an unprecedented spring almost warrants suspicion. Is it a reward for our resilience? Or god given to fashion it in the first place? Whatever the reason- and there probably isn’t one- it has certainly helped.
But for all a blue sky’s majesty, it is the green of the English countryside that has most bewitched me in the last few weeks. Watching the monochrome landscape become increasingly green- washed, and now wallowing in its almost insane lushness. My daily immersions in the natural world have been accompanied by little prayers of thanks, to no one in particular, for the tonic that is the green of nature.
And that it is a tonic is not imagined. Just the colour itself is said to be the most restful of the whole spectrum as it is is most easily seen by the human eye. Psychological research shows that just looking at the colour green stimulates the pituitary gland, which is responsible for cultivating feelings of calm and relaxation.
Literature is littered with references to writers and thinkers who have sought solace in nature; to ease melancholy, to provoke thought and to inspire creativity. Thoreau, Kant, Nietzche, Darwin, Hemingway- and that list is by no means exhaustive- all used walking in nature as means to order their thoughts and provoke more positive thinking. Scientific findings now abound which back this instinct to seek out the natural world as artful help to living. In one study in 2015, researchers compared the brain activity of healthy people after they walked for 90 minutes in the natural world, as compared to those who walked in an urban setting. Those in nature were found to have much lower prefrontal cortex activity- which is the part of the brain most active during rumination and catastrophist thinking -so anything that reduces its activity is beneficial. Spending time in nature has also been also shown to lower blood pressure and cortisol levels- so much so that holistic medicine in Japan includes ‘forest bathing’ ( known as shinrin-yoku). So potent is the simple act of sitting or walking in a forest that it is prescribed - successfully and widely - as an antidote to depression and anxiety. And so compelling are the findings as to the impact of the natural world on our mental health, that the psychologist Oliver Sachs said quite categorically, that after 40 years of medical practice, and alongside music, gardens were the single most vital non pharmaceutical therapy for patients with neurological illness.
It sounds simplistic, but if you are feeling blue, then immersing yourself in green - by walking, gardening or even simply lying on a grassy spot and staring up at the trees- would be a potent first port of call.
For those for whom green spaces are further afield, all is not lost. Even simply listening to natural sounds - real or recorded- has been shown to provoke the same soothing brain connectivity that naturally occurs when we are in wakeful rest or daydreaming.
None of this should come as a suprise. And yet for many, it has taken so much else being stripped away for us to realise that much of what we truly need is actually already within easy reach. And free. Our disconnect from nature- stifled as it is by our indoor living, our rushed commutes and our pavement pounding - is only a relatively new phenomenon. This communion with concrete and cities, and with screens and their neon lights- which we up until now have taken for granted- is only really several generations old. For far longer we were farmers, our lives tied to the rhythms and actuality of the land. And for milennia, some 50,000 years or more we were hunter gatherers.
The truth is, our disconnect from nature is only surface level, whereas our need for it, and our deep-rooted connection to it lies deep within our DNA.
If the gift of lockdown has been that we have been given a chance to re-explore this deep rooted need, then we can be, at least in part, thankful for the lesson. And as we emerge from lockdown, little by little, we would be wise to make sure a daily interaction with nature is the very last thing we give up.
WAYS to COMMUNE with NATURE
Walk- on the doorstep for rural dwellers, but still entirely within reach for city-slickers too, whose green spaces are now entirely open and beckoning. Footpaths is a brilliant app to help you devise walks from your door.
For Londoners this Green Chain Walk is an amazing resource https://tfl.gov.uk/modes/walking/green-chain-walk and this article contains a host of ideas for green London walks.
And whilst long walks hold a particular charm, even twenty minutes a day walking in a green space is said to be notably impactful on the mind.
Listen to the natural world - the dawn chorus at this time of year is a pleasure, and even those living in cities have attested to the fact that the birds have been louder under lockdown. Sleep with your windows open, and use it as an early alarm clock.
This soundscape created by the Guardian has also completely captivated me - I have listened to it and scrolled down more times than I can count, and is lovely to show to children.
Get Your Hands Dirty - It has been shown, in countless studies that exposure to a bacteria in soil, known as MYCOBACTERIUM VACCAE has been shown to encourage the production of serotonin in the brain, which is the chemical responsible for happiness. Planting up a herbs in pots to put in a sunny windowsill or tending to indoor plants will have the same effect.
Watch these videos - the weekly videos by the florist Willow Crossley are one of the most soothing things I have found in lockdown. Utterly enchanting as well as so useful to the budding gardener. Follow her on instagram @willowcrossleycreates and scroll back to find the whole archive.
Her book, The Wild Journal, is equally magical. Perfect for reading under a tree and inspiring you with countless ways to ponder & enhance your connection to nature.
Take your yoga mat ( and perhaps one of my recorded sessions) outside and practice under a tree. You might be more off balance if you are grappling with grass and root systems underfoot ( as I was this morning), but there is something entirely magical about doing yoga whilst immersed within the elements. And the breath is definitely more potent. It is best to follow the advice of the yogis and not practice in full sunshine if possible.