Down in the subterranean gloom, in the Chauvet Cave of Southern France, lies an unexpected treasure. Not a dragon’s hoard, or a bizarre blind biological marvel swimming in the silent sunken waters. Instead, we find something distinctly human, a vast mural of animals, surviving as a time capsule from a long-forgotten world.
On the stone walls, cave lions and hyenas, leopards and bears, and herds of horses, aurochs, and mammoths painted in charcoal and ochre — once illuminated by our ancestors, they would have danced upon the walls in the flickering firelight. The filmmaker Werner Herzog christened this sanctuary, ‘The Cave of Forgotten Dreams’. Poetic, but we’ve forgotten not only the dreams but the people themselves.
Embroiled as we are, in this literate epoch we call ‘history’, we forget most of our ancestors lived in the midsts of deep time; honed by millennia hunting and gathering, contented by what they could carry, living together amongst the immanence of nature. Ignorantly, many assume disease and hunger plagued the lives of these early peoples. Thomas Hobbes characterised them as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’
He was mistaken.
Hunter-gatherers were — and are — paragons of health, being taller, fitter, and less disease-ridden than the agriculturalists which followed. The agricultural revolution occurred not out of a burning desire for the plough, but as an adaptation to climatic upheaval — one which cost us our health. We never returned to the forests and grasslands; over the aeons our habitat dimmed from view, becoming the lawless Hobbesian vision of wild, untamed lands, in whose shadows wolves and monsters lurked. But such wariness is not shared by our foraging brethren, for whom it remained merely home.
Today, cocooned in our metropolises, our interactions with nature grow ever scarcer, resulting in further deleterious effects upon our health. Around the world, scientists and researchers have awoken to the vital need for nature in our lives, illuminating the astonishing benefits such a relationship has on our wellbeing.
Drag a lion from the savannah and leave it in a carpark, tempt an eagle from the skies and trap it in a cage; the results of such cruelty are entirely predictable — first, confusion, then panic, followed by the gnawing of depression and even madness. It’s a familiar pattern. To state the obvious, wild animals belong in the wild. Bizarrely, we expect humans to behave differently. But we’re wild animals too! Yet, we must live our lives devoid of the characteristics which predominated our evolution. Put simply: the concrete jungle is no substitute for the real deal.
Proponents of the ‘biophilia hypothesis’ argue that biodiversity and nature are essential for humans to thrive. Not just for the water, food and air imperative for survival, but as a lynchpin in our lives, a habitat for us to inhabit. It seems increasingly apparent, given the growing catalogue of evidence in support of the idea. Still, this critical insight was ignored for too long, especially when tackling the exploding mental health crisis.
For instance, people who exercised in nature saw greater improvements in mood and self-esteem than those in non-natural surroundings. Proving the gym is no substitute for the park. Those who do visit urban parks report fewer visits to physicians and access to nature increases social interaction, enhances cognitive functioning, reduces mental fatigue, and improves stress amelioration. Nature provides us with a moment of reflection and contemplation, a chance to slow down. If a pill did all that, we’d all be on it, at least judging by the numbers prescribed Prozac.
But nature is even better; it’s free!
As mental health services across the developed world creak under growing demand, nature-based therapies offer a cost-effective solution. Research by MIND found 71 per cent of respondents reported decreased levels of depression following a simple green walk. A study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology found exposure to anything non-human-built, e.g. a tree or a houseplant resulted in improved mental health. ‘This wasn’t about spending hours outdoors or going for long walks in the wilderness,’ explained lead author Holli-Anne Passmore. ‘This is about the tree at a bus stop in the middle of a city and the positive effect that one tree can have on people.’
We’re anaemic for nature, yearning for a dose of greenness, the water in our concrete desert.
Nature writer George Monbiot suggests we’re suffering ‘ecological boredom’. Once we roamed the land, across foss and fell, hooked to the thrill of the hunt. Today we ferry ourselves to and from work, lobotomised by the mundanity of the routine commute. The Maasai of Kenya fight lions, while we do battle at bus stops. Back then, spiritually at home, we never questioned our purpose or our point. It was obvious, to survive, to be or not to be. It’s an experience many of us still gleam from our momentary interactions with the fractured wild still lurking between the crevices.
In southern England, researchers examined the relationship with our neighbourly garden birds. They found a preference for species richness over more numerous but homogenous individuals. The more participants were informed about nature, the stronger their connection — suggesting the viability of informative therapies teaching about the wonders of the natural world. Cold is the heart which does not tremble at the sight of a grey heron or marvel at the capercaillie’s courtship. And in such moments, does it not pay to know what you’re looking at; to be able to discern true gold, from the stuff of fools.
Another study in Sheffield highlighted the severe lack of wildlife knowledge in the developed world, and how it devalues the full effect of a dose of nature. In the study, individuals who estimated a high level of biodiversity correlated with improved mental and physical health. But such estimations were often highly inaccurate, limiting the benefits.
In the inner-city, many have insufficient access to green spaces, and some are never exposed. Distressing to learn, especially when individuals born into urban environments without such areas are 50 per cent more likely to suffer from schizophrenia. Though rare, the condition is vexatious, a life-sentence for the afflicted, and one we should endeavour to prevent.
Many might be wondering, what creates this synergy between mental health and green spaces? Scientifically, the answer is likely holistic, encapsulating a web of interacting factors and feedback cycles. But philosophically, the answer is simple: we’ve lost our home.
Australian Philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term ‘solastalgia’; not to be confused with nostalgia, the melancholic longing for a time and place long gone; instead, it is the distress caused by the alteration of one’s home into a disquieting new normal. Schizophrenics and depressives are not the aberrations for failing to adapt to a maladaptive world. They are the thin edge of the wedge, like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, a warning against our current mode of living.
Aldous Huxley, in the introduction to his dystopian novel Brave New World, hit upon this idea.
‘The real hopeless victims of mental illness are to be found among those who appear to be most normal. Many of them are normal because they are so well adjusted to our mode of existence because their human voice has been silenced so early in their lives, that they do not even struggle or suffer or develop symptoms as the neurotic does. … These millions of abnormally normal people, living without fuss in a society to which, if they were fully human beings, they ought not to be adjusted.’
We’re the lions settling into the car park, the eagle who finds a superficial comfort in the safety of the cage. Below the surface, the fragile veneer, the disquiet grows, an irksome restlessness. Nature is the release, like the peace at the end of a long, arduous day.
The first gods were animalistic, strange hybrids, half-man half-beast. We never truly abandoned the practice. You can be free as the soaring eagle, or be a wise old owl. You might be cunning as a fox, or proud as a lion. These creatures embody our highest ideals. Through them, we access the wild world at large, engaging in meditation once familiar, acting without thought. At one with ourselves, free from the anxieties of modern life. At least for a time.
The body can benefit as much as the mind. Hunter-gatherer’s lived longer than agriculturists, and naturalists do too. An ecological analysis of the entire United Kingdom found higher greenness was associated with lower cardiovascular and respiratory mortality among males. Females saw no such link. However, another study, utilising a database of US nurses — who were predominately female — found a strong association between higher levels of greenness and decreased mortality. The closer to home the vegetation was the greater the effect. Those with the highest volume of greenness within 250 m of their home had a 34 per cent lower rate of respiratory disease-related mortality, 13 per cent lower rate of cancer mortality, and a 41 per cent lower rate of kidney disease mortality than those with the least greenness.
What explains such miraculous results?
Commonly, we repeat the fallacy that the mind and body are separate, with the latter merely the vehicle for our existence. When we do accept our corporeal reality, it extends as far as the brain, trapped as it is in the bony cage of the skull. However, our personality, our core being, is governed as much by hormones, what we last ate, and the bacterial slime hitchhiking around in our guts, as it is by our neural architecture. We are our bodies; they’re our prison or our home — depending on your perspective. And there’s no getting away from that — literally.
Ecology teaches us that connections often exist in subtle, almost imperceptible ways. What is true for nature, is true for humans, we’re one and the same. Therefore, by improving our mental health, we exploit the mind-body axis, indirectly impacting upon our physical wellbeing. We reduce life-shortening stress hormones, lower our blood pressure, and boost our immune system degraded by a hectic life. Greenness promotes social interaction, and loneliness is now considered a significant risk factor for disease, greater than smoking or obesity. Humans crave each other even more than we crave nature. Combine the two, and kill two birds with one stone — albeit not the most environmental metaphor.
Furthermore, nature makes us desire to exercise, getting our blood flowing and our hearts pumping. It also compounds the positive effects as we saw earlier. Finally, scientists hypothesise that urban greenery could mediate air pollution, which kills 5.5 million people annually — a leading global risk factor for diseases.
No more excuses. No longer can we ignore the science. We must embrace nature again, not just for its own sake, but for ours. We’ve done it before. The national park movement, pioneered by John Muir, set aside the wild for posterity; for our health and humanity, a refuge from a changing world. Now we must take the next step, no longer can we leave nature on the reservation, a long-forgotten friend; the prodigal son must at long last, come home. It will do us some good. As Muir himself said, ‘climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.’
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