When I worked with the wise and delightful Monty Don on Radio 4’s Shared Planet, I remember him saying someone had asked him the secret to being happy and content. His answer struck me as worth spreading around – wear loose clothes and spend time outside. Now that is sensible. Wearing tight clothes can have the effect of making our brains feel constrained too, I certainly can’t relax or breathe so well when I am aware of edges, buttons, belts – things that inhibit. I think it is harder to give out to the world when your body feels drawn in.
And going outside – well how much more evidence do we need to show that breathing outside air, feeling soil, smelling the scent from trees, grass and flowers, feeling rain and sun, seeing green and grey and blue – all calm our emotions and help healing. I only wish major international meetings on war, weapons, refugees, the environment and so on happened outside in a meadow or wild garden, instead of inside constraining rooms. I think we would come to different decisions.
Some trees are particularly good at helping. In days gone by German village elders would hold judicial meetings under lime (linden) trees, and that is not a surprise. Lime trees were said to evoke wise thoughts. The scent of lime, particularly in the summer, is intoxicating and was said to help cure epilepsy, headaches, insomnia and bad nerves.
This poem is by Wilhelm Müller.
By the fountain, near the gate,
There stands a linden tree;
I have dreamt in its shadows
so many sweet dreams.
I carved on its bark
so many loving words;
I was always drawn to it,
whether in joy or in sorrow.
Today again I had to pass it
in the dead of night.
And even in the darkness
I had to close my eyes.
Its branches rustled
as if calling to me:
“Come here, to me, friend,
Here you will find your peace!”
The frigid wind blew
straight in my face,
my hat flew from my head,
I did not turn back.
Now I am many hours
away from that spot
and still I hear the rustling:
“There you would have found peace!”
The Japanese have a word for the sense of peace you get from a woodland walk - “wood air bathing” shinrin-yoku, breathing in the healing, enriching oils emitted from trees that lowers blood pressure, boosts the immune system and calms thoughts. Throughout Japan there are shinrin-yoku walks where families have picnics and be together to de-stress.
Last week I seemed to come across yet more horrible stories of young children increasingly suffering panic attacks, depression, stress and low self-esteem and many other words for a mind in turmoil. Teenagers too. I know of a few young people now who have dropped out of university recently because of depression. How much of this is related to the increasingly indoor, removed-from-nature life so many of us lead today is unsure, but it is hard not to draw some connections between the two. Children live virtual indoor lives, not real out door ones.
I watch the school kids from the local secondary school walk home each day along our very city-centre street right in the centre of Bristol. They are bursting with that feeling of wanting to run, shout, mess around, kick balls or whatever. But in the middle of the city there is nowhere to do that – just cans to kick, and swear and shout and lots of pushing each other around, which annoys middle-aged people who shout at them and complain to the school. I wish they had a big field to go to, somewhere to let off steam, and maybe even find something interesting to look at that for a short while takes the mind to other realms. But this doesn’t happen, instead all of this youthful energy gets bottled up and who knows where it goes.
So – would a GCSE in Natural History help encourage kids to go outside? Get them to really look, smell, touch, sense the world they live in – even a local park? Would it help give their minds a break to think where swallows come from or how snakes shed their skin and why an egg is the shape and colour it is? And if it taught the connection between well-being and nature – would that help? And if, through having access to nature-literature, they learned ways of expressing feelings that only natural things evoke – would that go some way to stemming this awful spread of youthful angst? Concentrating on awe, wonder, joy, beauty, mystery, fear, trepidation, etc. Those are the feelings that come from knowing the natural world. Re-engagement with who and what we are on a living, breathing, vibrant planet can only ever be good. We are a long way from that at the moment - let’s do something to try to change it.