I’m standing on the lip of a perfectly circular pond at the base of Pan y Fan, one of the modest peaks that make up Wales’ Brecon Beacons. In the water, my oldest friend’s head is bobbing up and down as he glides through the water, casting ripples that fan out in concentric circles all around him. He’s been doing this wild swimming thing for a couple of years now. For him, the best cure for melancholy has always been to lose himself in nature, to find somewhere away from the urban sprawl and sink into the landscape as though he were made of root and bark — and he’s not alone. The forced isolation induced by the pandemic has opened many people’s eyes to the way the natural world can positively impact their mental wellbeing. Take a look through any bookshop window and you’ll find all manner of titles advertising the healing properties of nature, whether they be herbal remedy guides or philosophical meditations on overcoming grief in the Scottish Cairngorms. But how much can a brisk walk in the Lake District or the Brecon Beacons really cure us, and at what cost?
The idea that nature can cure human suffering isn’t anything new. In fact, it goes back for as long as we’ve regarded ourselves as separate from other forms of life; an intellectual development likely prompted by the invention of ranged hunting tools that allowed us to kill animals from a distance. However, the concept was truly popularised by the Romantics. With the arrival of the industrial revolution, the likes of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge retreated into the gradually disappearing natural world, finding solace and spirituality in the Lake District, a national park that, today, teems with walkers and swimmers on the hunt for a nature fix. Indeed, the Lakes takes in so many visitors during its peak season that the mountains themselves are starting to erode under the strain of all the footprints.
As Europe continued to fill with smog and the sound of whirring cogs in the 1800s, the Victorian’s retreated also; embracing a range of outdoor activities, from fossil-hunting to swimming and butterfly-collecting – all of which were encouraged as ways of counteracting the destructive power of the modern world. In America, Henry David Thoreau took this one step further. In 1854 he conducted a social experiment that saw him leave New York City and haul up in a woodland cabin on the shores of Walden Pond. His goal was to form a oneness with nature that would allow him to transcend the desperate existence he saw so many people willingly submit themselves to. The observations he made during his two-year stay in the cabin were eventually collected in his book, Walden, the central idea of which is that nature provides us with a remedy for the alienation bought about by a life spent behind the bars of the capitalist cage.
Then, there was Octavia Hill, the social reformer and co-founder of the National Trust, whose campaign to reserve portions of the urban landscape for green spaces is the reason that London is today one of Europe’s greenest cities. It was her belief that these green spaces would prove to be much more valuable than cheap housing in the long run. “To my mind they are even now worth very much; but they will be more and more valuable every year,” she argued, “Valuable in the deepest sense of the word; health-giving, joy-inspiring, peace-bringing”.
In 2020, the accuracy of Hill’s predictions became startlingly apparent. But, as Richard Mabey, author of Nature Cure, noted in 2020, treating nature as some sort of therapy retreat implies that: “if there’s anything wrong you just go out and look at the pretty flowers and you’re going to be marvellous. That’s a tall order if the natural world is in a state of crisis with the insect apocalypse and British songbirds collapsing all around us.” Mabey has a point. While the Romantic poets venerated nature as an escape from the modern world, their attitude towards it was imbued with the idea that nature was there to do something for them rather than to them. In a sense, people like Wordsworth and Thoreau treated the natural world in the same way that the industrialists did: as something that could be mined and quarried, but for its spiritual and health benefits rather than its natural resources. It is this idea that has stuck with us right up to the present day. We continue to treat nature reserves and national parks as a sort of informal health service, where we can detach from the “real world” for an hour and leave feeling reinvigorated.
Now, that’s all well and good, but nature should not, as Mabey notes, be reduced to a “service provider”. But, that seems to be the way things are going. More and more GPs are prescribing nature retreats, woodland walks, and other nature-based activities where they would once have prescribed Lithium or Prosac. Of course, this is much better for those suffering from serious mental health issues as it cuts out the middle man, meaning that individuals don’t have to deal with the various side effects of those drugs. But Mabey seems to be speaking more generally; interrogating the way nature is treated by the majority of the population as a sort of unreal space where we can dump our problems, just as we dump our waste into the ocean. At the heart of activities like wild swimming or mountaineering is the belief that participants are forming a oneness with their surroundings, but is it possible that nature is just providing the background for a transactional drama that places the human ego above all other life? Rather than relying on nature to provide us with everything we lack, is it time we started approaching it as something with an agency of its own?