I Need Nature For My Mental Health – That’s Clearer Now Than Ever

Photographed by Anna Jay.
The sky gets bigger as I walk to the end of my road in northeast London. Two, three-storey homes and blocks of flats give way to the horizon after I cross a green metal bridge which takes me over the canal and out onto Hackney Marshes and the Lee Valley. From there I can leave the city and walk out to Essex, traversing miles surrounded by nature – through woodlands, listening to birdsong, Instagramming videos of cows like I’m the first person ever to encounter one and smirking at the revellers who have just discovered a not-so-secret river swimming spot known colloquially as Hackney Beach, where you’ll probably catch Legionnaires' disease. 
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For the last five years, I have lived deliberately near this open space, walking for as long as I can at least three times a week in all seasons. It’s one of the few in London which is genuinely wild and expansive, not manicured or controlled. I’m not the only millennial who finds themselves craving nature; even before a viral pandemic turned our lives inside out, we distracted ourselves from the spin cycle of anxieties about climate change and late capitalism by nurturing house plants, reading books about wild swimming and taking pictures of the sky. Whenever I walk, I knowingly catch the eye of other people – usually women – who are on their own, doing exactly what I’m doing. 

When the world around us is changing, when we feel anxious, when things are uncertain, we feel a primal human impulse to look to the natural as opposed to the man-made world for answers.

Whether you post about it or not is of course a personal preference. But you don’t have to look far online to see that nature is a digital currency for driving engagement. Instagram is an ecosystem where you’ll find 10.2 million posts tagged 'blossom' and 504 million tagged, simply, 'nature'. 
We millennials like to think we’re reinventing the wheel but ever since the West industrialised, people have looked out at the world we inhabit and tried to capture it. John Ruskin was obsessed with architecture being "a model of environmental integrity". Later, Frank Lloyd Wright tried to design buildings that brought the outdoors inside. Today, do an Instagram story and remark with what often seems like genuine wonder that "no filter is needed" while apologising for being "basic". 
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When the world around us is changing, when we feel anxious, when things are uncertain, we feel a primal human impulse to look to the natural as opposed to the man-made world for answers. We yearn (for reasons we aren't always conscious of) to own a piece of it, to carry it with us. The poet Emily Dickinson, who retreated from love and life in her father’s house during a period of great industrialisation and conflict in America, would look out and write "bring me the sunset in a cup" – she wanted to control all that was uncontrollable, to own a stake in the world. Like her, we read articles about the climate crisis before tending to our shop-bought peperomias so we can update our followers on their progress. 
We laugh at ourselves for being cliched but all cliches exist for a reason. Before COVID-19 spread across Britain, a little-noticed study was published by the National Trust and the University of Derby. They found that being connected with nature – noticing natural phenomena every day – is actually linked to higher wellbeing.
In the report, Professor Miles Richardson remarked that "the kind of connection that makes the difference involves more than simply spending time outdoors – instead it's about actively tuning in to nature, regularly spending simple, bite-size moments relating to nature around you."
Just a few weeks later, everything changed. Like so many people, I began feeling unwell. I was out of breath in a gym class. My entire body ached. I couldn’t think. I began to cough. I brushed it off, my period was due. 
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What I didn’t know was that I was about to be knocked out for 10 days, that I would have multiple COVID-19 symptoms and that neither I nor my colleagues (one of whom ended up in hospital) would return to our office for months to come. Was it the virus none of us can see but all fear or was it PMS? Because there was no testing, I’ll never know. 
While I was confined at home alone in the week and a bit that followed, I craved not so much human contact as my walks. Like a Jane Austen character recovering from a chill, I wanted to hear birdsong, to see wildflowers. I wanted to take videos of the river that I’d never put on the internet but replay in the toilets at work whenever I felt overwhelmed. 

The kind of connection that makes the difference involves more than simply spending time outdoors – instead it's about actively tuning in to nature, regularly spending simple, bite-size moments relating to nature around you.

Professor Miles Richardson
Without my solitary forays out into nature, without walking until I got lost and ignoring my phone, my skin suddenly felt thinner. 
Then, as the virus really took hold, lockdown was announced. Going outside, nature was suddenly and abruptly rationed. Only leave the house once a day, we were told. Drones flew over the Peak District, shaming people for walking in an area of outstanding beauty when they should have been at home. Parks were closed. We were forced to confront how desperately we need to connect with nature as time outside became a luxury. 
The National Trust’s study echoed what researchers at Stanford University’s Institute for the Environment have long been saying. In 2015 they reported one very important prescription to boost mental health: nature. In a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they provided quantifiable evidence that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to participants who walked in a high-traffic urban setting, showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression. Or as they put it: time in nature reduces "rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation". They even went as far as to say that the rise in depression and anxiety could be linked to increased urbanisation. 
People are dying. Economies are collapsing. The coronavirus crisis is not a bucolic retreat (unless you happen to have a second home in the country), our lives have not suddenly become snapshots of a pastoral idyll for the hour a day that we’re allowed to be outside. 
But as the natural world – the thing we need most after shelter, oxygen, food and water – is cordoned off and rationed, as we navigate a crisis whose implications we haven’t even begun to understand, there’s time to think about our relationship with nature, our consumption of things which harm it and how we might better engage with it in the future – not just to boost our own wellbeing but to ensure that of others, too. 

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