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The best books that explore how nature benefits our mental health

Now, more than ever, we understand that the natural world can help us feel better and think clearer. Here, Anita Sethi rounds up some of the best reads that teach us how and why.

Anita Sethi

Whenever I open the pages of a book I remember how books are literally made of trees, and this I remembered too when I sat down to write this piece celebrating the role nature has played in literature throughout the ages, and how writers have shed insight into nature's ameliorative effects on our mental health.

The importance of nature to our wellbeing has become more apparent than ever during the long, gruelling months of lockdown during which for many of us our daily walks have been an absolute lifeline. I’d say my lockdown walks have been life-saving and crucial for my mental health – and with each footstep many of us have learnt to appreciate nearby nature anew.

The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is nature and, crucially, access to nature. Lockdown has also shown glaring inequalities in access to nature, with a disparity between those posting pictures of lovely lockdown walks in nearby woods and forests, and those trapped in flats without gardens, for example, without much nearby nature at all. 

'We want to challenge the disparities in who is and who isn’t able to experience nature'

“There is something to be wondered at in all of Nature”, said Aristotle, quoted by Mark Rowland, the Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation which organises Mental Health Awareness Week who revealed research from the organisation that showed inequalities in access to nature and said: “We want to challenge the disparities in who is and who isn’t able to experience nature”. The foundation is highlighting evidence demonstrating the powerful benefits of nature to our mental health, and “nature’s unique ability to not only bring consolation in times of stress, but also increase our creativity, empathy and a sense of wonder. It turns out that it is not just being in nature but how we open ourselves up and interact with nature that counts”. Contact with nature can reduce feelings of social isolation and be effective in preventing mental distress. “Nature is not a luxury”, points out the foundation. “It is a resource that must be available for everyone”.

There is of course another way to experience nature, from the armchair – interestingly, research revealed that websites which showed footage from webcams of wildlife saw hits increase by over 2000%. Of course, there is also reading about the wild in the glorious array of books through which nature grows and flourishes. 

My book, I Belong Here: A Journey Along the Backbone of Britainthe first in my nature writing trilogy, has the connection between nature and mental health at its heart as I chronicle how walking through nature after being victim of a race hate crime helped to alleviate my anxiety, depression and panic attacks.  

There is a long history of writers who have explored the effects of nature on our minds. In more recent years this has been dubbed ‘the nature cure’ after Richard Mabey’s now classic book Nature Cure first published in 2005 which movingly explores the solace he found in nature following a mental breakdown.  Nature and mental health have combined in literature in interesting ways as writers have explored the ways that nature can variously cure, heal, help, or alleviate mental suffering. Writers have shared how they have found relief for mental ill health from nature-based activities ranging from outdoor swimming to gardening to training a hawk. 

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (2014) explored the author’s experience of grief, depression and how training her hawk Mabel helped her through this challenging time. In Wild by Cheryl Strayed, the author’s epic journey through the natural landscapes of the Pacific Crest Trail was also a journey through her grief at losing her beloved mother to cancer as well as the breakdown of her marriage. 

Losing Eden by Lucy Jones (2020) is subtitled “Why Our Minds Need the Wild” and powerfully explores nature, the wild and mental health, reminding us that Florence Nightingale raised awareness of how green spaces can help with recovering from illness.  There’s the beautiful Rootbound by Alice Vincent which looks at the glories of gardening and also bringing something of the wild within. The Outrun by Amy Liptrot delved into the author’s experience of alcoholism. Bird Therapy by Joe Harkness explores how birds and birdwatching helped his depression. Isabel Hardman’s The Natural Health Service also shares fascinating research about the important role nature plays in our mental health, as does Emma Mitchell’s The Wild Remedy: How Nature Mends Us.  

'I prefer the term ‘nature care’ – which also conveys the fact that we need recurrent access to nature; not simply a single quick-fix dose'

It’s important to point out that despite the ‘nature cure’ tag, several of these writers also emphasise other factors that have helped them including medication and therapy. I personally prefer the term ‘nature care’ – which also conveys the fact that we need recurrent access to nature; not simply a single quick-fix dose, and that we need to care better for nature. Many of the finest writers point out that the climate crisis is threatening the natural world upon which we rely not just for our health but to exist at all. After all, it is trees that create the oxygen that fills our lungs and enables us to breathe and flows through our veins; it is always salutary to remember that we are not apart from but a part of nature.

Of course, writers have been exploring the effects of nature on the mind for centuries, and it is interesting to consider nature in various cultural traditions.  Recently reissued in a beautiful Penguin paperback is Robin Wall Kimmerer’s excellent Braiding Sweetgrass also author of the great Gathering Moss. She powerfully points out: 'In some Native languages the term for plants translates to “those who take care of us.”'

Delving further back into history, we see how nature has grown through the pages of literature for centuries and writers have shared the positive effects it has on our minds.  There is Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, for example. There is William Wordsworth’s famous poem about a daffodil easing his loneliness and bringing pleasure. For Emily Dickinson, hope is a bird singing. And I’ve long loved Keats’s 'Ode to a Nightingale'.

As lockdown continues to ease, I hope the world will be recalibrated into one in which the importance of nature to our mental health is recognised and respected; that each and every one of us is able to access nature, and that every budding nature writer also feels that their experience of nature can one day find life in the pages of a book.

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Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin

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