A Pincer Movement of Words and Nature for Mental Health

by Charlotte Moreton
31st May 2020

Tsundoku:  a Japanese word meaning amassing around us more books than we can possibly read in our lifetime.   

The Read Now pile, extracted from under my pillow by the dozen, occasionally gets tidied away to become another layer of the Beautiful and Currently Relevant Words mountain.  These are my dreaming spires; never mind the red hue of the bricks I studied among.   Rather than thinking of these tomes of good intention as paving the way to hell, it’s better for the sanity to see them as stepping stones to discovery, reassurance, possibilities, inspiration, directions old and new, a back up to an imperfect memory and to share, a place to snuggle in to when retreat is called for.

During this time in lockdown these mental resources are a great support, helping to alleviate frustration and loneliness, offering comfort in bleak times.  We have just been through Mental Health Awareness Week (18th-24th May), with its theme of Kindness, and since 1949 the United States has observed the whole of each May as Mental Health Month.  The mental health benefits of storytelling are well known.  Shared kindness in the form of words during these last difficult few weeks have made a great difference to me personally, and it has been a privilege to offer healing words to others in turn, rummaging to find particularly pertinent treasures.  My sister sent a beautiful Navajo prayer, Walk in Beauty, and several of our favourite childhood volumes.  A friend who deals in vintage books gifted her three favourite go-to comfort reads, of which she keeps spare copies for friends in need.  I have scoured online suppliers of old books for favourite old fashioned, gentle authors of well-mannered tales: Violet Needham, Elizabeth Gouge, Naomi Mitchison.  I read magical spells from Robert McFarlane and Jackie Morris’ The Lost Words down the phone to a friend afflicted by COVID-19, able to listen but not speak, and played favourite-book battleships with another.  I share favourite works of Mary Oliver – the reassuring Wild Geese and utterly cheerful Why I Wake Early.

Nature writing has a special role, transporting us to other worlds that thrive (we hope) oblivious to our current concerns; uplifting, and often local.  Immersing ourself in nature is proven to be an effective medicine for mental health.  While we can’t get out as much as we would like, the books we know or would like to have read are happy to oblige, and there are plenty more waiting in the wings.  Hot off the press is Dara McAnulty’s Diary of A Young Naturalist, available from all good booksellers.  Following the young nature writer and campaigner’s journey through the writing and publication of his book has been an absolute joy.  His path from bullied school boy to published author in a couple of short years is inspiring to all.  The intense awareness of autism and scientific desire to find patterns give an uncanny lyricism that tingles the soul.  In conversation with Steve Silberstein in the Hay Festival (18th-31st May ) and available to watch on the Hay Festival website, McAnulty refers to myths and legends as well as Eyewitness guides and science and to understand the structure of the natural world.  He finds humans so much more complicated to deal with, while offering a huge encouragement in his work to those wanting to be part of positive change for nature.

Another fascinating talk is by Jonathan Bate about William Wordsworth – The Poet Who Changed The World.  He certainly influenced the core direction of Romantic poetry, sharing ideas with others and being the first to write about the feelings of rocks and stars (as observed by William Hazlitt).  The 250th anniversary of Wordsworth is all around us, reminding us of old lines learnt and introducing us to undiscovered verses.  The Festival event An Evening With The Wordsworths gives us a collection of lovely and loved voices reading from his works, including Monty Don, with Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, which Bate deems the best poem ever written in the English language.  The philosopher John Stuart Mill attributed his recovery from a nervous breakdown to the beauty of Wordsworth’s poetry.  Wordsworth was aware of the ills caused to society by industrialism, and so valued the restorative powers of immersion in nature that he encouraged people to visit the countryside, and the Lake District in particular.  This ultimately led to the formation of the National Trust – originally more about access to nature than to stately piles.  One of the first acquisitions was the field that contained that “host, of golden daffodils” .

Maria Popova, creator of the beautifully researched blog that roams expansively through science, arts and minds, Brain Pickings, posted recently with yet more inspiration on the very subject of nature writing as an antidote to depression.

The Natural Health Service is a notion at the heart of the AONB ethos – we nurture our landscapes and they nurture our mind and body.  This is highlighted by projects such as the Chase and Chalke Landscape Partnership, which offers a myriad of creative ways to celebrate and connect with our natural and cultural landscapes and with each other.  New ways to explore, discover, create afresh and derive inspiration from others who have paved the way.  It is beautifully described by My Surrey Hills, a sister Landscape Partnership scheme, below.  

“Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.” (Mary Oliver).

Charlotte Moreton works for the Chase & Chalke Landscape Partnership.