Tussilago farfara, or coltsfoot, from Hermann Adolph Köhler’s 1887 book “Medicinal Plants”

This article is a preview from the Winter 2019 edition of New Humanist

Joe Harkness’s staggering new book Bird Therapy opens with the author standing over an open loft hatch with a knotted bedsheet looped around his neck. What follows is an inch-by-inch scramble towards a recovery from mental illness that Harkness attributes primarily to birds and birdwatching: “of all the therapies I’ve tried,” he writes, “nothing has had the prolonged and positive impact that birdwatching has.”

It’s nearly 15 years since Richard Mabey published his landmark meditation Nature Cure. Plagued by listlessness and depression, Mabey – one of the greatest post-war nature writers – experimented at first hand with the idea of the “nature cure”. It was a timeworn notion. Frederick Law Olmstead, the architect-in-chief of New York City’s Central Park, wrote in 1865 that “it is a scientific fact that the occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character is favorable to the health and vigor of men and especially to the health and vigor of their intellect beyond any other conditions which can be offered them” – and in less scientific forms the concept goes back much further. Mabey glosses the premise wryly: “If you expose yourself to the healing currents of the outdoors, your ill-health will be rinsed away.”

It was, he learned, more complicated than that. Readers of Bird Therapy soon learn the same thing: that recovery is not simple, that wellness is not easy (indeed, it is often impossible – we’ll come back to that). Harkness hauls himself hand-over-hand out of his darkness. His book is only partly a memoir; it’s also a handbook, an honest and affectingly generous how-to guide that sets out to show “how birdwatching has helped me, and how it could possibly help you”. He pegs his “bird therapy” programme to the “five ways to wellbeing” developed by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) and endorsed by the mental health charity Mind: to take notice, to connect, to give, to keep learning and to be active. Harkness finds ways within birdwatching to do all of these things – take time to notice the intricacies of feather patterns, try to talk to people you see when out birdwatching, engage in citizen science and so on. This is a book about doing – it’s a book about a therapy, not a cure.

But we want a cure. We are sad and tired, depressed and anxious; our medications do only so much; we are lost, we lack control, we are overworked, underpaid, stressed, knackered, stultified.

Since Mabey’s 2005 book, a number of major works of nature writing have explored non-human worlds through the lens of grief, depression and malaise (Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk and Rob Cowen’s Common Ground are perhaps the best known). These are usually complex and nuanced stories of recovery, but they’re part of a more general subcultural conversation in which nature almost invariably promises a cure.

The poet Polly Atkin, who lives with a hereditary connective tissue disorder and genetic haemochromatosis, has spoken critically about the way in which these ideas are framed in mainstream discourse.

“Wordsworth wrote, ‘Let nature be your teacher’, not ‘Let nature be your only recognised healthcare system’,” she says. “The thing that frustrates me most is that really simple language changes would change the narrative so much. They just need to stop lobbing the word ‘cure’ around, so the ‘and I also take medication and have therapy’ bit doesn’t get lost.”

The obvious fact that there are very many things that nature will never cure, no matter how many times you swim the lake or climb the tree or hike over the hill, too often gets trampled out of sight by the irresistible narrative.

“There is very little published work which points out how problematic it is – largely because it’s mainly people with incurable conditions who understand the problem, and they’re often too busy being incurable to write books about nature,” Atkin says. “More importantly, mainstream UK publishing is so attached to the ‘nature cure’ narrative that it can’t imagine another story to tell about how we relate to the world around us.”

Human perspectives on nature have always been coloured by connotations of recovery and restoration. But in the present century we have been especially busy – obsessively busy – in teasing out and delineating these connotations. The more you examine it, the more our longing for the nature cure seems to smack of desperation.

But there is some solid science informing the search. Harkness references a major 2007 report by Dr William Bird, commissioned by the RSPB, which identifies three mechanisms by which nature can have a beneficial effect on our mental well-being: “biophilia”, our innate, evolved affinity with other living beings, hypothesised and named by E. O. Wilson; Attention Restoration Theory, which posits that exposure to natural landscapes restores our capacity for the hard brain-work of “direct attention”; and Psycho-physiological Stress Recovery Theory, which is based on empirical evidence that the symptoms of stressed bodies (high blood pressure, muscle tension and so on) diminish rapidly in natural environments (possibly partly due, scientist and writer Emma Mitchell explains in her 2018 book The Wild Remedy: How Nature Mends Us, to inhalation of the plant compounds known as phytoncides, which are responsible for the “green smell” of a spring hedgerow, and to serotonin increases associated with exposure to soil bacteria).

Bird’s report cites potential knock-on benefits with regard to crime, child development, patient recovery and community cohesion, and accordingly calls for more nature – more open green space, more gardens, more woodlands – in urban spaces, NHS estates and schools. It’s hard to argue with. It’s a manifesto for evidence-based “ecotherapy” on an ambitious scale.

I’m not as alarmed as some by what has been called “nature-as-medicine”. Mostly, I’m intrigued. Can I, on the dark days, simply snort up a phytoncide nasal spray, spend a minute leafing through the latest National Geographic photospreads and go jauntily on my way, as thoroughly bucked as if I’d rafted the Amazon or hand-planted a sycamore grove? Or must I still, as the NEF’s ways to wellbeing suggest, connect, take notice, give, learn and be active?

The thing is that nature, as we experience it, is not a chemical compound that we can inject into a mouse or drip into a Petri dish. It’s not really possible to disentangle nature from our experience of nature; it is not a thing we look at, it’s a thing we’re in – in fact, it’s a thing we are. We’re not visitors to the gallery, we’re figures in the painting.

Most of us no longer lope after the migrating herds, javelin in hand, or build makeshift shelters from willow boughs, but still, for us, “nature” is a doing word.

The naturalist Matt Merritt wrote in his 2016 book A Sky Full of Birds that birdwatching is “a good cover for spending time on your own thinking about things”.

“Birdwatching,” he added, “is as close as some of us get to being able to consider the big questions in life, to commune openly with something much larger than ourselves, without frightening the neighbours.”

This seems to me to get close to the heart of what we’re often looking for when we look for the nature cure.

For Nick Hornby, football rather than nature was the principal shaping force in his emotional life. He wrote in Fever Pitch that, as a depressed young man, he needed “a place where unfocused unhappiness could thrive . . . I had the blues, and when I watched my team I could unwrap them and let them breathe a little.” Hornby, of course, isn’t exactly talking about a therapy, still less a cure. But these themes of time set aside, space made, a mind given room to move, came to mind when I read Bird Therapy.

What do I think about when I’m out birdwatching? Partly I worry about the work I ought to be doing instead of being out birdwatching – or I worry about money, or friendships, or health, or who knows what else. That’s before birds even start to enter into it, and they’re not always a barrel of laughs, either. I doubt anyone was much perked up by the recent YouTube video that showed a woodpecker hammering out the brains of a nest full of baby doves – much as Darwin saw his faith in a benevolent creator undermined by the parisitism of the ichneumon wasp (as did Mark Twain by the housefly, and David Attenborough by the eyeball-burrowing botfly larva). Werner Herzog saw in the faces of grizzly bears “only the overwhelming indifference of nature . . . a blank stare [that] speaks only of a half-bored interest in food”. Add in the spiralling panic of eco-anxiety – helpless terror in the face of mass extinction and climate breakdown – and we might wonder why the very idea of nature making us feel better isn’t considered an off-colour joke.

It is possible to argue that natural landscapes are having a positive effect on us even when the feelings they provoke are dark or disturbing. (“A Dutch study found that people are more likely to contemplate death in wilderness settings than in urban or cultivated natural environments,” J. B. McKinnon wrote in the magazine Nautilus in 2016. “Thoughts of death may not be positive in a conventional way, but there is surely merit in the contemplation of mortality.”) To say this is pretty much just to say that experience is good – that doing stuff is better than not doing stuff. Connect, take notice, give, learn and be active. Are we still talking about nature?

Most studies of “ecotherapy” in its various forms – from lab-based exposure to images of greenery, to the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” – acknowledge the difficulty of separating the effects of “nature” (whatever we mean by that) from the effects of getting to the nature. We leave behind our bedrooms, houses, streets, we get out of our routines; we stretch our limbs, inflate our lungs; we are steeped in sunshine or soused in rain; we breathe cleaner air; we have time with our loved ones, or by ourselves. If we birdwatch or bug-hunt or forage for mushrooms we put our brains through a workout, using senses and skills that might have fallen into disuse. Could we get the same results by going for a bike ride and then solving a cryptic crossword, doing two dozen press-ups and discussing Finnegans Wake with our book group?

Perhaps we could. And it’s not facile to say so – we evolved to ride bicycles, solve crosswords and read James Joyce just as much as we evolved to live in wild places, albeit more recently. We could no doubt all benefit from doing all the things we’re told are splendid and beneficial in books by people who already think that they are splendid and beneficial. (So often, this could be paraphrased with the old critic’s line that people who like this sort of thing will find that it is the sort of thing they like.)

In an investigation into “ecotherapy” for the Atlantic magazine in 2015, James Hamblin concluded that “if the practice leads people to volunteer in an urban garden or to start a bird-watching club or to fall in love while chained to a redwood, it could legitimately improve their health by giving them a sense of purpose and fostering social connections. The same could be said of so many unconventional therapies (equine, acroyoga, glassblowing) that seem to be beneficial despite the lack of a clear biological mechanism.”

I find being in nature, more often than not, wonderful and exciting, for all the stubborn worry and Herzogian horror. Sometimes I’m contemplating its upleaping beauty and heady complexity; sometimes, like Calvin and Hobbes, I’m looking for frogs (my mandate also includes weird bugs). In any event, I’m doing something.

Very often, nature can be – as it was for Joe Harkness – not in itself a medicine, a dose, a cure, but an opportunity. To connect, take notice, give, learn and be active.

"Bird Therapy” by Joe Harkness is published by Unbound