Wild Medicine

I think it’s good to keep renewing our perspective on things, don’t you? What we view may be similar, but it’s how we see it that might differ; it’s how we value it that could change. When I was a child, my mother was convinced that standing under oak trees was dangerous. At the time I thought I understood what she meant: lightning strikes. But no, for some reason she assumed that the little bits of bark that sometimes dropped on you in a wind, were tics. That seems silly to me now, of course, but for years I felt definitely uncomfortable if I found myself under one. Knowing she was wrong, was not enough -it was the feeling that persisted: an unconscious worry that maybe she was right…

Early experience is often formative, and determines the lens through which later encounters are viewed. I was reminded of this by an essay written by Jeremy Mynott, and emeritus fellow at Wolfson College in Cambridge, UK:(https://psyche.co/ideas/nature-is-good-for-you-that-doesnt-mean-we-should-prescribe-it)

I have to admit that I read it with some trepidation. I have long been convinced -maternal views aside- of the restorative properties of Nature, but I was interested in his ostensibly different perspective, and whether it would have any effect on my own.

He started off reassuringly by quoting a passage from Iris Murdoch, the novelist philosopher, on the transformative power of attention, in this case attention to the natural world: ‘I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings… Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered… There is nothing now but kestrel.’

Exactly, my point, I thought: the restorative power of the natural world. But then, alas, he later alludes to her further thoughts about her observation: ‘A self-directed enjoyment of nature seems to me to be something forced. More naturally, as well as more properly, we take a self-forgetful pleasure in the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones and trees.’ A literary damnation by too faint praise…

Should we view Nature as a medicine, or alternatively, as an addendum to whatever else may have been prescribed for the sought-after restoration to health? Is Nature actually a commodity?

As Mynott asks, ‘can nature really provide experiences that are either a necessary or a sufficient condition of enjoying good health?’ Well, ‘Not a necessary condition, surely, since we can all think of people in excellent physical and psychological health who have little interest in nature. Nor a sufficient condition either, since conversely there are many people devoted to nature who are not thereby protected from serious illness, depression or stress.’ Sometimes, in fact, one already has to be on the road to recovery from, say, depression before the benefits of Nature begin to accrue -before one  even bothers to notice the natural world. And which part of it is the most helpful? ‘Are plants and birds better for us than mammals or insects? Some birds better than others? Wild or tame?’ Or is it somehow only when Nature is viewed as the aggregate?

And then an even more interesting question: ‘How about slime-moulds, snakes and spiders? Or bacteria and viruses – all part of nature? And a key theme in much current environmental rhetoric is to emphasise that we ourselves are also inextricably a part of nature. But aren’t other people part of what we’re trying to avoid in getting more in touch with nature and the wild …?’ I have to confess, that I tend to omit some things when I think of the solace I find in the great outdoors… Put in Mynott’s terms, however, one might be inclined to wonder if I’m just expecting some fungible value from it: ‘medical rewards as just one more of the ‘services’ we receive from the natural world, alongside the pollination of our crops, waste recycling, carbon capture, flood protection, ecotourism and so on.’

I wrote about this subject a few years ago (https://musingsonretirementblog.com/2016/06/26/forest-tales/), and in retrospect I now wonder if I was a little too naïve in my expectations of Nature. By the time I finished Mynott’s essay, however, I began to suspect that he was merely playing devil’s advocate – a favourite game of mine as well. He was holding the popularly held cultural Zeitgeist of Nature’s healthful benevolence to the same mirror we might use for grooming in the morning. ‘The idea is now almost a commonplace: confirmed by the moving testimony of many personal memoirs; supported by scientific research that quantifies the effects on our mental and physical health; and enthusiastically endorsed by all the big wildlife and conservation bodies… Nature is good for you. But is it really so simple? Are they all talking about the same ‘nature’ and the same human needs? And where does ‘human nature’ come into it?’ Sometimes we merely accept what we are told if it seems an easy solution to what ails us. Sometimes we expect too much.

But Mynott was himself a co-author of the book ‘The Consolation of Nature’; he is only sceptical of the more outrageous things that are attributed to the natural world: ‘These might indeed be the only arguments that have decisive political force, but effective arguments aren’t the same as real reasons. These utilitarian considerations are not why we thrill to a nightingale’s song, a peacock butterfly’s fragile beauty or a bluebell wood in spring. As individuals, we respond to such things directly and for their own sakes, not after or because of some financial calculation. To appreciate the natural world in a sense of wonder, awe, curiosity, joy or affinity is to recognise an intrinsic value, not an instrumental one… There’s no point in putting beauty, wonder, inspiration, understanding and the other positive experiences we rightly associate with nature on some sort of ‘to do’ list. They are what philosophers call ‘supervenient’ on the experiences themselves. Try too hard and you’ll fail… It’s the act of attention, as Murdoch says, that takes you out of yourself and so delivers delights that a preoccupation with self would deny you. You have to lose yourself to find yourself.’

Amen to that…


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