Nature, wellbeing and literature have always been connected for me.
My childhood memories of discovering the natural world are entangled with the fictional worlds that I was also exploring: the landscapes of Wind in the Willows, The Famous Five and the enchanted forests of fairy tales. At the present moment, the relationship between nature and wellbeing, and creativity and wellbeing, are better understood and supported through an increasingly number of outdoor wellbeing centres and activities, and writing groups. As a literature scholar, I’ve been considering how to bring creativity, fiction, and imaginative worlds together with nature, to ask what can literature tell us about the connection between ecology and good mental health?
Connecting Ecology and Good Mental Health
My project, Culture of Nature and Wellbeing, explores how literature represents the affect nature has on mood, emotion, and the imagination. I’m interested in how writers describe the phenomenology—the moment by moment physical and psychological experience—of woodlands, moors or wild places, and also encounters with living nature in cities and suburbs. What I’ve discovered is that the nature-wellbeing relationship described in literature has a fascinating and long history: as long, in fact, as the modern history of ‘nature’ and psychology itself.
Ancient cultures connected health and restoration with sacred springs and groves, while early modern herbal healers looked to the garden as a site of healing. Trying to recreate a lost Eden, physicians believed that all ailments—including mental illnesses—had a botanical cure. In Classical and Renaissance theatre, forests and farmlands were seen as restorative spaces, but were also associated with rule breaking and revelry, as is so perfectly captured in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Gratitude, joy, loss: Exploring Our Relationship with Nature
At the close of the 18th century, a new generation of Romantic writers radically reimagined the relationship between people and nature. From them we inherit the sense of ‘Nature’ as educator, shaping the character, moods and imagination of childhood. In his autobiographical poem, The Prelude (1799/1850), William Wordsworth describes how:
‘thus from my first dawn
Of childhood didst thou intertwine for me
The passions that build up our human soul;
Not with the mean and vulgar works of man,
But with high objects, with enduring things –
With life and Nature, purifying thus
The elements of feeling and of thought.’
Romantic literature emerged at a moment of agricultural and industrial change, as the explosion of new manufacturing technologies forced mass migration from the countryside to expanding towns and cities. Poets like Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge explored how industrialisation severed relationships with the land and brought about the destruction of rural places. Wordsworth’s poetry captures the feeling of claustrophobia and disconnection from nature in the city, ‘where I long had pined / A discontented sojourner’, and also the feeling of gratitude and joy experienced on his return to wild places (The Prelude).
Of course, Wordsworth was a wealthy traveller, who could easily move between the city and the countryside. In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s This Lime Tree Bower my Prison (1797), a different kind of relationship with nature is formed when the poet is ill. Trapped in the ‘prison’ of a little garden, on a bed placed under a tree, he still finds ‘Much that has sooth’d me’. His wandering attention focuses on ‘the shadow of the leaf and stem above’ and the ‘song’ of a bee moving from flower to flower. As wellbeing practitioners explore ways to make nature engagement accessible to people with disabilities or illnesses that restrict them from taking walks, much can be learnt from Coleridge’s early version of mindfulness practice, and his ability to ‘employ / Each faculty of sense and keep the heart / Awake to Love and Beauty!’
Empowering Young People to (Re-)Connect with Nature
Literature gives us access to multiple worlds, and helps shape our relationship with our own. I have a strong sense that the love of nature that has inspired and revitalized me since childhood has been given depth and meaning by the books and poetry that I have also loved. However, studies suggest that children are now spending less time reading for pleasure, and less time out of doors, with particularly worrying rates of both nature engagement and literacy amongst lower income communities, including BAME children. This is set against a rise in mental health crisis amongst young people, which has seen an increase in recorded rates of depression and anxiety.
Projects like The Lost Words (2018)—a new dictionary of ‘nature’ words compiled from those cut from the Oxford Junior Dictionary in 2007—try to unite curiosity about language with a love of nature. It is a wonderful project, giving a sense of how much more can be done to engage young people in nature and environmental issues through language and culture. In the future of the Cultures of Nature and Wellbeing project, I’m hoping to work with writers and community leaders to help create resources that empower and engage young people.
Nature engagement and reading alone cannot solve a crisis in mental health and wellbeing connected to complex social factors and injustices. However, both reading and nature engagement provide opportunities for young people to step away from social pressures, to reflect on their place in the world, and to find inspiration and strength from both natural and creative worlds.
Find out more about Cultures of Nature and Wellbeing via https://culturenaturewellbeing.wordpress.com/.