The pandemic has been a time of grief, loneliness and anxiety for people across the world. Our opportunities to see loved ones have diminished and our ways of living have been turned upside down. In a bid to seek solace and de-stress, many people are experiencing a new-found appreciation of the natural world: in the birdsong, which sounds richer and louder; in the roses blooming in a neighbour’s front garden; in the trees bursting into acid green leaf.
We’ve discovered how much life there is out there, even in our urban areas. With extra time on our hands, people have started to notice the living world in their neighbourhoods. I have come to know my local urban cemetery in Hampshire much more deeply: the swifts wheeling in and fresh oak leaves; the smell of lilacs and the walnut tree leaves; the deep crimson of the Peacock butterfly.
Many of us didn’t realise how much human activity—traffic, noise, pollution—affected our environment. During lockdown, I’ve heard a cuckoo five times, for the first time since childhood. Stories and sightings of wildlife returning to urban areas, from wild goats roaming through the Welsh town of Llandudno to buffalo walking the highway in Delhi, have proliferated online. Other, similar, reports—such as swans returning to Venice—have turned out to be fake, which perhaps speaks to our innate desire to see nature flourish, despite the destructive societal systems we inhabit.
Mountain goats roam the streets in Llandudno, Wales, March 2020 © Photography Christopher Furlong / Getty Images
The pandemic has also starkly shown how unequal our access to green space is, especially in towns and cities. Lockdown has been easier for people with gardens or residents in affluent areas who are more likely to have access to high-quality parks and green space.
It means that incorporating nature into housing and urban city design is essential and urgent, rather than a tick-box exercise. Green spaces aren’t a frill or a luxury. Feeling connected to the natural world should be a basic human right. We are starting to remember that it’s an essential part of good human health.
Nature works as a healing tool
I started researching the connection between nature and human mental health for my book after finding walking on London’s Walthamstow Marshes powerfully therapeutic during a period of addiction and depression. Newly sober and in need of healthy ways to soothe the subsequent rollercoaster of emotions, I found myself drawn to nature for the first time in adulthood, for healing and recovery. Connecting with the natural world became a regular activity I needed to do each day, alongside the psychiatry, psychotherapy and support of friends, family and other addicts.
© Photography Jonathan Raa / NurPhoto / Getty Images
The effect was so powerful that I soon began to investigate exactly how and why contact and connection with nature affects our psychological and emotional health (and conversely, whether our modern-day estrangement from nature is bad for our mental wellbeing).
My mind was blown by a variety of scientific evidence. Nature affects us from our heads to our toes via different pathways. We recover from stress more quickly and more completely after exposure to nature compared with built environments, and our immune systems benefit from being in this relaxed state. Meanwhile, the sounds of nature—birdsong or flowing water—are linked to a more balanced nervous system. Walking down a tree-lined street reduces activity in the brain associated with sadness, rumination or brooding.
Many of us will know intuitively that we feel better after spending time in the woods (what the Japanese call ‘forest bathing’) or by the sea. Now, modern science is showing what humans have always known: we need a relationship with the rest of the living world for the benefit of our mental health.
Understanding our place within nature
The pandemic is causing many of us to consider our relationship with the rest of nature in other ways, too—not least because we are currently in the middle of a climate and biodiversity crisis. For quite some time, we have needed a major reassessment of our relationship with the living world, from the impact we are having upon other species to the way we use and dominate the land.
Bluebell Forest in Sussex England. © Photography Sam C Moore / Getty Images
The virus has shown how connected we are with the ecosystems and species around us, and how our actions can have catastrophic outcomes. To help prevent threats such as coronavirus in the future, our societies must take this seriously. COVID-19 is likely a zoonotic disease, meaning it’s transmissible between animals and humans. The risk of such diseases is increased by humans encroaching on ecosystems, enabling pathogens to spill over. “In COVID-19, the planet has delivered its strongest warning to date that humanity must change,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN’s environment programme.
For too long, we’ve forgotten that we, too, are part of nature. Even though we live inside, away from the processes that are our living support systems, we only eat and breathe and live because of plants and soil and other creatures. We must remember that and find a new way of relating to our environment that makes us good house-guests for the time we are here on earth.
Beyond this pandemic, we need to consider how we can live in more sustainable, regenerative ways and have reciprocal relationships with the living world around us — ranging from simple to more structural changes. Can we leave our road verges unknown so the pollinator species that are in decline have food and habitats? Will we take the climate crisis seriously and cut our CO2 emissions to stop further damage being done? Can we finally give nature the respect it deserves?
We are nature, nature is us. We have to recognise that in order for us—and our planet—to thrive.