How are you feeling today?
I’m feeling grateful for family, health, books, the NHS, our garden. I’m looking forward to getting out for my daily walk.
What are you doing to stay positive in this current climate?
I’m controlling the amount of news I consume up to a point. My default is that I think I can control my anxiety about the situation by reading everything and trying to gain some sense of control in that way. But of course I can’t, so often putting on an old episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm or reading a novel (I just read Bev Thomas’ A Good Enough Mother which was excellent) is better than watching or listening to the news.
I am at home with my three-year-old and 11-month old, who obviously have very little idea of what’s going on, and we have to be positive and fun and creative for them, so that is a helpful and rewarding focus, too.
Most of all, a daily walk in our local cemetery park, or in the nearby woods, looking for moss, lichen, bird song, beetles, butterflies, trees in bud, helps hugely.
We have just finished reading your book, Losing Eden – it is a must-read for all global citizens of the world. Do you think we will see some improvements to help strengthen the argument to put our nature & planet at the top of the agenda, once we come through to the other side of all of this?
Thank you very much. I’m seeing a real outpouring of love and interest in the living world. People are growing things at home for the first time, buying seeds and plants online. Others are sharing photos of blossom, trees or insects they see on their daily walks on social media. It feels that we are all finding a solace and comfort in springtime and many more people are visiting parks and other green spaces because of the daily exercise rule. It seems that social change often comes from a place of love, as well as anger or grief, which the climate crisis certainly elicits in many, so I hope that this new reconnection might lead to a greater care and prioritising of planetary health.
You mention Attention Restoration Theory (ART), which talks of too much attention focused on one thing causing mental fatigue, stress, irritability, trouble concentrating. Can you tell us more about that and perhaps share some tips on how we can avoid it in the current circumstances - if we are at home, perhaps in a house with a garden but also in an apartment with no green space to call our own?
You know when you’ve been working at a screen, or doing something which requires a lot of thought and concentration for ages? Your brain feels kind of scrambled afterwards. You might even feel a bit irritable and tired. Then, think of that moment when you’re in a trance just looking at some leaves moving in a breeze or raindrops on a still lake. Your capacity for attention feels like it’s being restored; the brain feels like it’s being give a drink. One of the central theories of why being in nature has positive mental health benefits is Attention Restoration Theory which suggests that there are elements of nature which allow our brains to essentially have a rest. If you don’t have a garden, you could tap into it easily from home if you have a tree outside your window that you can watch/
Here in the UK, we are lucky that we are able to get out for one form of exercise each day, can you tell us how important this is for our mental health and the benefits to doing so?
My research for Losing Eden showed me that we’re overlooking as a society how crucial contact with the natural world is for our mental health. From our heads to our toes, spending time in nature has therapeutic benefits. For example, species of bacteria found in soil impacts the brain and increases stress resilience. The science of awe tells us that awe and wonder promote healthier levels of an inflammation biomarker. We recover from stress quicker and more completely after exposure to nature compared with built environments. The sounds of nature - birdsong, for example - are linked to decreased stress. Even if you’re not someone who would seek out birdsong or likes getting their hands dirty, studies suggest ‘background’ nature can enhance mood. Walking through a tree-lined street reduces activity in the brain associated with rumination and brooding for example.
For anyone not in the UK, and currently isolated at home and not able to leave, you mention the benefits of looking at Fractal Shapes, like seashells, broccoli, clouds and even mountain goat horns, could you tell us more about this and the advantages we can receive from them?
Fractals are amazing and once you start seeing them, you’ll see them everywhere! There’s a reason why we might find pleasurable or restorative to look at. A scientist called Richard Taylor, at the University of Oregon, observed brain activity while people were looking at different types of fractals. He found that those with a fractal dimension usually found in nature provoked brain waves associated with relaxation and focus, suggesting they could reduce stress levels. The coolest part? It turns out the structure of the eye is fractal in itself, so when we look at a fractal image, it locks into place.
We were saddened to read about the removal of words like ‘Acorn’ & ‘Buttercup’ from the Children’s Dictionary a few years ago, only to be replaced with words like ‘Broadband’ and ‘Cut and Paste’. What can we do after this lockdown is over to reconnect with our world and the nature around us?
As a society, we clearly need a reappraisal of our relationship with the rest of nature, judging by the climate and nature emergency, the trends of habitat loss and species decline, the air pollution levels, the tangible disconnection of people from nature, especially children. Access to nature in Britain isn’t equal, disadvantaged areas tend to have less access to high-quality to green space and adressing that, as well as creative and mindful programming in public parks, will be crucial. Otherwise, education, housing policy, planning, the way we use our gardens, agriculture, these are all areas which could be considered in a more nature-centred way to improve our dysfunctional relationship with the planet and to enable more people to discover the awe, wonder and soothing of the natural world.
Your book covers everything, from your own love of Wild Swimming (alongside the sad fact that all rivers in England are now deemed unsafe to swim in due to pollution), as well as your journey to the last truly wild forest in Poland, from Forest Schools to the strong link of depression with urban lifestyles. What are the small simple things we can do today, to reconnect with nature around us?
Got for a nature mooch, as the nature writer Nicola Chester calls it. Go slow, slow down. Keep an eye out. Look for colours. Use the senses. What can you smell? What can you hear? What shapes can you see? What does that tree feel like? I’ve been visiting the same patch of cemetery park for three years and in the last few weeks I’ve noticed so much more just from taking the time to see. You don’t need any kit or anything, sometimes I find it better if I leave my phone at home.
If we’re unable to get outside, reading nature poetry, drawing or painting images from nature, watching nature films or even listening to nature sounds have been found to have mood-enhancing benefits.
How are you prioritising your connection with nature in this time of national lockdown?
I’m going into my garden first thing, before I start work, to get some sunshine and natural light. If I wake in the night after 4 or so, I’ve been going outside to listen to the dawn chorus. I find it really peaceful and awe-inspiring. I live in a busy town but it can sound like a rainforest at that time. The daily walk to our local cemetery or a canal or wood nearby are essential. Sometimes I’ll go out with binoculars or my pocket microscope. I’m also bringing flowers inside from the garden and enjoying smelling things like lavender, rosemary or Daphne in my garden to ground me.
Have you discovered anything new about yourself during this period of isolation?
I’ve started painting for the first time in 20 years! I’ve become obsessed with Etel Adnan and I’m attempting to paint copies of some of her paintings. They are terrible but I am enjoying it very much. I always thought words were my only tool but I’m excited that I’m finding a creative outlet in something I thought was closed off to me.
Other than Losing Eden, do you have any other book/ podcast recommendations which are nature-based that you enjoy reading/listening too?
I’m loving Melissa Harrisons’ new podcast The Stubborn Light Of Things. I’ve also been loving listening to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass on Audible, and it’s out in the UK for the first time this month.
We know you have grown some of your own herbs and vegetables, do you have favourite recipes/ comfort food dishes you can share with us?
I really like this kale and apple salad that my friend Kate shared with me. It’s raw curly kale (scrunched up and cut up), cubes of feta, cubes of apple, blitzed almonds and quinoa with a honey, mustard dressing. Really fresh, tasty and satisfying.