Every day at 3:10 p.m. I head out the door pushing my 1-year-old in the stroller to pick up her sister from school. It takes me 20 minutes to walk there, striding along the sidewalks past the small terraced houses packed together like eggs in a cardboard carton, then crossing the road at the traffic lights, before heading down a long and leafy road past the larger houses with lavender-lined garden paths and roses spilling over their fences.
We walk the same route on the way back, but it takes us about an hour as my daughter ambles slowly along, stopping to pick up whatever interesting leaf, feather, acorn, or other little treasure catches her eye. Quite often, she literally stops to smell the flowers.
This walk has become a kind of daily meditation for me, and it’s not at all uncommon that my heart swells with intense gratitude, tears filling my eyes as I notice new details about the natural world around me as I walk. Whatever my mood — however stressed or blue I’ve been that day — it all seems to fade away in a flood of quiet peace.
Mystics and philosophers have long known the secret that being connected to nature can bring us a deep sense of peace and help us feel more connected with the divine. When we quietly observe the natural world around us — even for a short period of time — it’s not uncommon to experience a subtle shift in our bodies, minds, and spirits.
In her book, The Wild Remedy: How Nature Mends Us, Emma Mitchell shares her journey with depression over the course of a year as she seeks solace in the natural world around her cottage. “This year of using nature as a remedy has convinced me that humans may need to be in natural landscapes regularly in order to be fully well,” she writes. “There is an ancient and potent connection between us and the land: we evolved to live in wild places. Perhaps it is the displacement from nature in modern life that is causing so many of us to struggle with our mental health.”
With diagnosed incidents of mental illness on the rise, Mitchell wonders whether “our disconnection from nature holds a critical role in this story.” The book shares her own experience of having her suicidal thoughts interrupted by the sight of some green saplings on the roadside, and the way she feels her mind let out “a sigh of relief” as she steps into a leafy wood. And she reveals the science behind these restorative effects of nature.
Research shows that spending time in nature, particularly among trees, helps lower the stress hormone cortisol in our bodies, and decreases blood pressure and pulse rate. When our skin and eyes come into contact with sunlight, our body releases higher levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitting chemical associated with happiness.
Serotonin is also released when we come into contact with some types of benign soil bacteria. There’s also evidence that a special kind of white blood cell that helps fight viruses and some cancerous cells becomes more active when we spend time in the woods, and that breathing in the smell of a fresh hedgerow gives our bodies a chance to absorb compounds called phytoncides that can have beneficial effects on our immune and circulatory systems.
This all makes sense — for most of human history, we lived in close contact with nature. Living in such artificial environments and being so far removed from the impact of the seasonal cycle is a peculiarly modern phenomenon, and so it seems right that our bodies and spirits would find relief when we reconnect with nature. As the great Joni Mitchell line goes, “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”
The daily repetition of sights, sounds, and smells on my daily walk makes me more aware than ever of the changing seasons: The tree I never noticed until mid-October, when it suddenly burst into golden-yellow flames; the wisteria vines that climb up a street light and drop fragrant confetti on the sidewalk for a week or so in May; the patch of forget-me-nots and wild strawberries that crops up in one particular spot by a red brick wall under the shade of a lime tree in early June.
And as these seasons shift, I find relief in the knowledge that all things were made to move in cycles — that life all around us ebbs and flows. It helps me to make sense of my own emotions and energy. Just like a seed underground in the winter, some things need time to germinate in my heart, and during some seasons I move slower than others. I start to see patterns in the petals and leaves, in the birdsong, the movement and shape of the clouds, and I recognize those patterns within myself, too — in the spiral of my fingerprints, and the way my spirit lifts and opens up when the sun shines on my face.
Being aware of the details in the natural world around me helps me to appreciate the fact that I’m a physical as well as spiritual being. Sometimes, as a writer spending hours hunched over my computer, I can start to get a bit stuck in my own head, seeing my body’s need to take breaks, to stretch, to eat, to sleep, as irritating interruptions. Walking a familiar path every day, come rain or shine, and noticing the shifts and changes of that particular environment makes me feel grounded in my body. It also makes me grateful for my body, and for the beauty of the created world around me. I understand in my bones that this material world is good, too, and that I need to respect my body’s needs as well as the needs of my mind.
At some of the most difficult points in my life, gardens have been a refuge for me. They are places I can go to cry and shout out in my pain. In a garden, I’m surrounded by a green and growing world that’s unperturbed by my angst because it contains and reflects the same cycles of birth, growth, destruction, death, and rebirth that I hold within myself. I can’t help but see a personality behind it all, one creative mind, who, like many a great artist, returns to certain themes again and again, slowly revealing more with each creation.