Currently reading and enjoying ‘The Happy Kitchen’; I was drawn to a tweet on World Poetry Day, by Rachel Kelly the author, in which she shared a page from her book featuring an extract from ‘The Darkling Thrush’ by Thomas Hardy. In the tweet Rachel said ‘the healing power of nature is a perfect companion to the healing power of food’; and it really struck a chord with me.
In my own journey of living with depression for a while now I have been quietly considering how the different activities in my life affect my mood with their relative healing powers. Exercise clears my head and gives me energy. Music and drama help me get lost and then find comfort. Cooking and eating food can do all three. Work, TV, writing, gardening, and more; all have relative merits and obstacles. But it is the great outdoors and being consciously aware of nature and wildlife that give me the most in terms of mental clarity. When I am outside in nature I can find a calm in my mind that I cannot find anywhere else.
In the same way The Happy Kitchen asks us to consider our food, what we want from it and how it makes us feel; as ‘The Happy Wanderer’ I want to ask the same of our free time in general, and the Hardy tweet prompted me to write my first ever blog about the healing power of nature.
Walking and Watching
My journey through depression has been a long one, and I have learnt so much about myself and the illness. Different treatments and approaches work for different people and there is no substitute for professional help, medication and therapy. But in most people’s thinking on the subject, and certainly throughout my own experience, being outside and having a walk is regarded as a useful activity. But it is not enough to simply be outside (though for some it will be the first brave step), it is the actual noting and noticing of the nature you are in that helps me be present and mindful and ultimately notice my own feelings much clearer.
Fresh air for me just seems to breathe some clarity into my mind. Brisk walk gets the blood flowing. Most of us can manage to be outside for at least a small part of the day, whether it is a step to the bus stop, walking the dog or hanging out the washing. I would say we need at least 20-30 mins of fresh air each day to really begin to feel the benefit. And you don’t have to go far and drive to Lakes or the Highlands or the North York Moors, we can simply walk as near or as far as we like from our own front door, even just out to our own garden or street.
First, look out your window and what can you see? I would say most people can see at least one piece of nature, even in the middle of the city. The tree in your garden, the grass next to the pavement, the rosemary bush in the window box, the neighbours’ plants, the moss on the back wall. Spot it, walk out to it, touch it, and look at it. Ask yourself, what colour is it? Does it have a scent? How does it feel to touch? Is there a sound? What words describe it? Give it a name! Be present and familiar with your own world. Repeat this each day for five minutes and you will find so much on your door step you had never noticed, or you might return the same one again and again, like an old friend. I often go to my thyme plant in the garden border when I need to find some time.
Next, walk a little further from your home, and there may be a green with cracked flags and a bench, a bramble bush or roundabout with daffodils on. Without planning or preparing we can interact with the nature near us and it begins makes us feel better.
Once you have the bug for exploring you can go further afield, make a plan. Look at a map and find a hilly spot. Go for a walk, but go up high. Hike up to the top and look out. I’ve always liked climbing up high and find that being above it all and looking out can really shift your mental perspective.
So when you feel like you need to get on top of something, or clear your head, or simply find yourself some get up and go; then head out on a walk up… (and don’t look back until you reach the top). At the peak you can slowly turn and see the view behind so save it and then savour it, take time.
Sit quiet, look out and note. What do you see? How many? What colour? What is the most interesting sight? What can you hear? How do you feel?
In ‘The Darkling Thrush’ Hardy meditates on his surrounds in great detail, he notes the colours, textures, the views, and of course, the sounds. He picks out the song of the thrush for analysis and finds hope in the bird’s merry tune despite his own feeling of hopelessness. Now, we don’t have to write a poem when we get there but just as Rachel uses an extract from ‘The Darkling Thrush’ to open her ‘Beating the Blues’ section of ‘The Happy Kitchen’ – I believe that taking the time to consider our surroundings and how they make us feel is something that can help us to beat the blues.
When you are taking the time to explore new places, follow new paths, note the surroundings and count the barns and the walls and rocks in the river below. When you look for birds and study the spots. Touch the trees and listen to the leaves. When we take the time to actually notice nature, then being in nature is essentially a mindful act and the more mindful moments we can find in our day the better our well-being.
Who does not enjoy the silence of a hill top pause? or the trickle of the stream slinking through rocks to a mossy pool? Or seeing the yellow fanfare of daffodils on the roadside? Or the feel of a purple pinprick blackberry bush? The smell of rosemary? Hearing the sliding squeak of a Curlew speak on the moor (Ilkley Moor is ripe for spotting these). These are all moments I have noted on my journey. Recently, on the top of local coal stack, five minutes’ walk from my house, I observed a Kestrel hovering hunting a mouse, and the poem below came out.
One of the first big birds outside of the garden you learn to identity
Spotted out of the car window on a motorway journey
Mottled on its front in a downy barcode
Yellow beak and feet, dappled brown back
Eyes down wings up tail splayed out
Majestic and calm
Watching waiting weightless
Silent hovering shimmering vibrating on the wind
Gaze fixed while hanging in the air
The wait the wait the wait…
“I think she’s doing me a favour just letting me sit here and watch her” as Billy Casper tells his teacher in Ken Loach’s 1969 film ‘Kes’; and in nature and outside you can do yourself a favour by sitting and watching just as ‘Casper’ does.
The Kestrel feels like she is mine, like me, up on high, she reminds me of me, keeping quiet. And I sigh, thinking and watching and waiting and I wonder what is going through her head, hovering in the air – and I really I don’t care. Her thoughts are unknown and it reminds us though it’s good to talk, our thoughts can sometimes just be thoughts and remain our own, and will blow away with a walk.