Depression, and mental illness more broadly, is the great plague of twenty-first century life. Does nature and increasing our contact with the natural world offer at least partial relief to mental distress? The healing balm of nature is part of Emma Mitchell’s thesis in The Wild Remedy – How nature mends us. Essentially a diary of Emma’s year documenting how the changing weather impacts on the management of her depression, how by engaging with nature she can ameliorate some of the worst of the effects, but by no means all of the effects of depression. Emma’s natural world consists of the gentle woodlands and meadows of rural England, which is a very different natural environment to my own, she records the changing seasons and the flora and fauna encounters that lift her mood and impact on her ability to deal with life.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) increases the severity of depression, for Emma the winter months are the worst, at one point triggering a major depressive episode with suicidal ideation. I actually found that part of the book a bit difficult to read as it seemed to feed my own black monster. Emma refers to hers as the “grey slug” and as anyone who has lived with depression knows that is a fair description, it is an illness that can feel like it is eating you alive. Partly in an effort to manage the worst of the condition Emma forces herself out to seek encounters with the natural world, including travelling to see murmurations of starlings or the auditory pleasure of nightingales or the visual pleasure of glow worms but perhaps the real pleasure of the book is Emma’s recording and close observation of nature close to home. Accompanying the descriptions are Emma’s sketches and photographs making this a visually pleasing book to peruse. The descriptions are lyrical and demonstrate the value of observation, and the kind of mindfulness that nature leads us towards. Emma wonders if it is our alienation from the natural world that is contributing to the rising tide of mental health issues.
While Emma lives for the spring and summer, she does discover that the arrival of heatwaves also drive her indoors, something I can very much relate to, as summer is my time for cutting myself off from the outdoors, because of the heat. I have wondered if there is a variation of SAD that is related to extreme summers like we experience here in Australia. Since the weather has turned hot, we have not ventured out on camping excursions and I am starting to feel the effect of withdrawal from those weekend adventures. I am the kind of person who will go camping in the freezing cold, who will go bush walking in a downpour and simply loves the colder, wilder weather but summer that is a different story. In summer I hide away out of the burning sun, usually in a darkened room just waiting for the heat to end. Right now if it was not for the fact that I have to go out and walk Ada in the morning and afternoon I may not get outdoors at all and even then on a really hot day I do the walks in the evening, there is much to said for having a dog, they make you go out for walks whether you want to or not. Emma also has her hound Annie to keep her going for walks in the woods.
One of the interesting and useful elements of the book is the bibliography that Emma provides which allows you to look up some of the evidence for the value of nature in managing mental health. There is a growing body of evidence for the importance of nature in maintaining good mental functioning and it is a useful reference if you wish to read further.
This is the first book I have read for 2020 and the first book for the 2020 Gaia reading challenge, which challenges you to read at least one book on the theme of environment/nature or climate or one book a month on those themes for 2020. I suspect I will have no trouble in reading at least 12 nature related books this year. A fairly easy read, beautifully illustrated, The Wild Remedy reminded me very much of Bird Therapy by Joe Harkness a book I read last year that also demonstrated the ways in which simple bird watching can ease the symptoms of mental anguish. In our scorching, fire ravaged summer The Wild Remedy was a soothing English, rural, fantasy for me. While Emma might dread the bleak winter months, I long for them. How about you, what is the season you love and the season you would just like to sleep through? Do the changing seasons and changing weather affect your moods? And do encounters with the natural world make you feel better, happier, less anxious?