Monday, October 31, 2011

Out into the sunlight and the pure wind

The "What is nature for?" debate at the Battle of Ideas put me in mind of an article I wrote for Open Mind some  years ago. Perhaps it was no more than an excuse to chain together some of my favourite quotations - and if I were writing it today no doubt I would be quoting Richard Louv - but I remain fond of it.

Out into the sunlight and the pure wind

In 1883, the writer and naturalist Richard Jefferies published The Story of My Heart, his spiritual autobiography. It begins with a rapturous account of an ascent of Liddington Hill in the Wiltshire Downs:
Moving up the sweet short turf, at every step my heart seemed to obtain a wider horizon of feeling; with every inhalation of rich pure air, a deeper desire. The very light of the sun was whiter and more brilliant here. By the time I had reached the summit I had entirely forgotten the petty circumstances and the annoyances of existence. I felt myself, myself.[1]
For Jefferies, experiencing the beauty of the natural world was not just a source of great pleasure. He saw it as intimately connected with human health and happiness, as he showed in his essay "The pageant of summer":
I seem as if I could feel all the glowing life the sunshine gives and the south wind calls to being. The endless grass, the endless leaves, the immense strength of the oak expanding, the unalloyed joy of finch and blackbird; from all of them I receive a little. Each gives me something of the pure joy they gather for themselves.[2]
It took another century for medical and psychological opinion to come around to this view. No less an authority than Florence Nightingale wrote as long ago as 1859 that "variety of form and brilliancy of colour in the objects presented to patients are an actual means of recovery".[3]

But the modern, scientific interest in the connection between the natural world and human well-being is usually dated to 1984 and the publication of an academic paper by Roger Ulrich, who was then a young researcher at Texas A&M University.

That paper looked at the fortunes of 46 patients who underwent gall bladder surgery at a Pennsylvania hospital between 1972 and 1981. They had recovered from their operations in one of two rooms, the first having a view of trees and the second looking out on a brick wall. Ulrich found that the patients who had recovered in the room with the view of the trees spent less time in hospital after surgery, had fewer minor complications like nausea or headaches, asked for fewer painkillers and, judging by the nurses' notes, were more cheerful and optimistic.[4]

Today, Ulrich is a distinguished professor of environmental psychology whose ideas influence the design of hospitals around the world. And all sorts of people are showing an interest in the idea that contact with the natural world is good for us.

Some make great claims for gardening. For instance, in his new book Saving the Planet Without Costing the Earth, Donnachadh McCarthy speaks of it as re-establishing "a psychological link with the cycles of nature".[5] Certainly, increasing numbers of health providers are planting therapeutic gardens for people to work in or simply enjoy. And the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers promotes Green Gyms, which are local gardening projects aimed at people who need to become more active or to regain their confidence. The Trust says that people referred with anxiety or depression can show significant improvements, and some have even gone back to work after spending time in the "gym".

Meanwhile, in harsher landscapes around the world, "wilderness therapy" is thriving. This involves taking delinquent or disaffected teenagers on hikes lasting for days or weeks. Again, some people swear by this odd mixture of touchy-feely and "a spell in the Army would do them good" thinking (although it is worth pointing out that there are critics who claim that since 1990 five teens have died on these expeditions in Utah alone).

The difficulty with gardening, wilderness therapy or any other activity is to know how far it is the contact with nature that is doing people good. Gardening projects may benefit people because they make friends or get more exercise. Wilderness therapy may work by removing a troubled teen from a difficult background or showing spoilt youngsters that the world does not revolve around them.

There are two contemporary thinkers whose ideas may help us understand what is going on: Edward O. Wilson and Theodore Roszak. In 1984, Wilson coined the term "biophilia". He defined it as "the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life," and argued that human beings have an innate need to associate with other living things because they have lived alongside the natural world for so many millennia.[6]

This may sound fanciful, but it is in line with approaches based upon evolutionary psychology, and these are the flavour of the month in hard science. They see the traditional English love of parkland, for instance, as having evolved long ago when we all lived on the savanna. Humans prefer a view with scattered trees to one of bare grassland, because those trees give us somewhere to hide from predators and keep a look out.

Graham Harvey makes the same point more poetically: 
Grass is a reminder that we have a history older than our lives. We come from some faraway place, and that soft, green vegetation beneath our bodies has made the journey with us. When we touch it, when we walk on it and play on it, lie on it and make love on it, that is when we feel intensely alive.[7]
Theodore Roszak’s contribution is the concept of "ecopsychology".[8] Roszak came to prominence in the counterculture of the 1960s and has kept himself at the fashionable edge of radical thinking ever since. Ecopsychology is less of a clearly defined concept than a bundle of ideas for further investigation. It takes Wilson's insight and seeks to extend it by associating it with some of the more interesting ideas from the environmental movement.

Roszak is interested in the "traditional healing techniques of primary people, nature mysticism as expressed in religion and art, the experience of wilderness, the insights of Deep Ecology". It can sound terribly vague, but it is hard to resist a writer who reminds us that "salt remnants of ancient oceans flow through our veins, ashes of expired stars rekindle in our genetic chemistry".

With environmental stories featured in every news bulletin, you might think that the ideas of people like Wilson and Roszak are carrying the day. But there is a paradoxical danger that environmental campaigning will estrange us even further from the natural world. For so much of that campaigning emphasises the threat the environment poses to us, whether it is global warming or chemicals in our food. The environment is sometimes made to sound like the Communists were supposed to be in 1950s America. It is all around us (you can't argue with that) and it is out to get us.

 In this urgent concern to "save the planet" it is easy to overlook the need to protect the beauty of the countryside and to ensure that more people are given the chance to enjoy it. Graham Harvey reminds us that, not so long ago, the downland landscape that Richard Jefferies loved was available to all. "For the child growing up in Southern Britain as recently as the last war," he writes, "the life and sounds of the chalk grasslands would have been as familiar as the shopping mall to the modern child."

And wonderfully attractive Harvey makes that life appear:
As the spring deepens into summer the sounds of this ancient landscape grow louder – grasshoppers, crickets, bees buzzing between the bright chalkland flowers. Butterflies like the skipper and the common blue, drift over the short-cropped grasses as sklylarks climb on the summer thermals. Chaffinches and willow warblers haunt the gorses and brambles, stone curlews call shrilly in the evening air. And badgers, foxes and hares play out their flawless roles in a drama as old as the earth.[9]
When Roszak writes that "Ecopsychology seeks to heal the more fundamental alienation between the recently created urban psyche and the age-old natural environment", it is the recovery of this sort of richness that he has in mind.

Or as Richard Jefferies put it:
Let us get out of these indoor narrow modern days, whose twelve hours have somehow become shortened, into the sunlight and the pure wind. A something that the ancients called divine can be found and felt there still.[10]
Published in Open Mind 128, July/August 2004


1 R. Jefferies (1883/1979) The Story of My Heart, London: Quartet Books.

2 R. Jefferies (1884/1983) The pageant of summer, in The Life of the Fields, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

3 F. Nightingale (1859/1957) Notes on Nursing, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.

4 R. S. Ulrich (1984) View through a window may influence recovery from surgery, Science 224: 420–21.

6 E. O. Wilson (1984) Biophilia, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

7 G. Harvey (2002) The Forgiveness of Nature: The Story of Grass, London: Jonathan Cape.

8 T. Roszack (1992) The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology, New York: Simon & Schuster.

9 G. Harvey (1997) The Killing of the Countryside, London: Jonathan Cape.

10 R. Jefferies (1879/1973) The Amateur Poacher, Rhyl: Tideline Books.

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