Two years ago, I was signed off work, following an extended period of anxiety and depression and was in the midst of adjusting to the new medication I had decided to take. I felt paralyzed by indecision; I felt as though I was at the bottom of a hole. In the context of an on-going propensity for anxiety and low-level depression, my spiralling had been precipitated to a large degree by the challenges I was facing in returning to life in the UK after working overseas and trying to establish myself in new work, without knowing what I wanted this to be.
During this period, I decided that some time with the
trees was overdue and so headed off to a beautiful woodland campsite close to
Brighton, UK, where I live (unknowingly going on International Forest Day!).
The campsite sits in a promontory of woodland that juts out into the
surrounding fields, so that you feel immediately enveloped by the trees and
have a secluded site to yourself.
The point of the weekend was to be still, to be there
alone and to enjoy the surroundings. I read my book; I simply sat, listening
and watching. I’d been learning a lot at this point about the importance of
sitting and being. Just being. I used to find this
extremely difficult and uncomfortable. I always felt as though I ‘should’ be
doing something, or that simply sitting is lazy. How ingrained these concepts
can be within us. My mind would often go to a thousand different places at
I’ve found over recent years that I’m developing a
capacity for being still. Returning to the practice of yoga and meditation,
working on self-compassion, and engaging in nature have helped me to do this.
There is something fundamental and elemental about engaging
in these practices in a natural environment. Of course, you can practice yoga
and meditation almost anywhere, and I would strongly encourage you to do so.
But in nature, your pace slows more easily, your mind calms, you start to pick
up the rhythms that nature presents to you, those rhythms that are sewn into
our DNA and that speak to us when we connect with them. Each evening at my
campsite, I eschewed a fear that someone might see me doing it (oh, no!) and
practiced yoga by the light of the fire I built each evening. And as I did so,
I felt something inside of me that was at once fire and air, passion and power,
with calm. I felt more whole. I breathed and I was. I felt my power. Very
specifically, I felt my female power.
The fires that I made started small and they became
larger and larger. The elemental nature of fire needs no explaining. The sense
of being able to create this source of life for yourself is a powerful one. The
heat, the light, and the feeling of protection that it provides spoke to the
scared, untethered, fractious parts of me.
was March when I camped: spring in the northern hemisphere, a time of renewal
and growth. The woodland was alive with the sound of birds keen to make
new life! I woke up to their song each morning and heard all it day. Over the
days and nights, I heard robins, blackbirds, pheasants, woodpeckers, owls,
pigeons, chaffinch, wrens and more. I woke one morning with full conviction
that I could name accurately every birdsong I heard (I definitely can’t!). The
trees were budding and spring was showing herself.
spent one of my days walking through fields and woodland, along streams and
down winding tracks. I clambered over fallen trees and worked hard to recall
the shapes of leaves for different trees and the name for (I later remembered)
pussy willow. I had conversations with the campsite’s resident pheasant (Phil).
The last night I had at the campsite, I was the only
one there: only the second time I’d camped solo, ever. It was time for some
bravery. A big conversation with myself was had about not running away from it
even though I was scared – and even though I was sure that the helicopter that
went overhead three times that evening was searching for the escaped murderer
who was hiding out in the same woodland! And I stayed. I sat in the fear, I explored
it, I spoke to myself about it, I didn’t run away from it. I went on to enjoy (most
of) the night, and was so proud of myself in the morning.
what of this experience, other than a wonderful few days away? How does this link
with my anxiety, depression and overcoming the obstacles that stood in the way
of finding work that spoke to me?
four days helped me to press the reset button. They helped to calm my fractious
system. My sympathetic nervous system, which had been twitching and being ‘set
off’ so easily, was helped to rest. My brain was offered the opportunity to
rest by what Rachel Kaplan calls ‘soft fascination’: nature presents us with
many things that ‘entice our attention without demanding it, […] that are
compatible with our sense of aesthetics and offer up a bit of mystery’. We test the plasticity of
our brains’ capabilities to adapt to the modern world almost, and sometimes
fully, to breaking point. Sitting in nature enables us to return to a mode of
operating that fits with the natural evolution of our brains. Florence Williams
writes of the importance of providing our brains with opportunities to recover
from the demands of modern life. In my case, I was recovering from what felt
like more than the usual day-to-day stresses, but the same processes
fundamentally hold true.
days in the woodland helped to renew perspective. The oak and birch trees that
swayed above me were there before I was born and would be there after the
carbon that makes me has lost it’s human form. The stars that I looked up at
each night are the most powerful reminder of the fleeting nature of our
existence. That doesn’t mean we belittle our experiences and our obstacles, but
that we are reminded to place them in a larger scheme. In some ways, the
smallness of our existence in the world and universe is far from a pessimistic
view, but instead can unshackle us and create space for a lightness and a
playfulness to what we do.
time away camping was one small part of my coming back to another part of
myself; it was part of the spiral of learning, of being, of thinking; of
feeling what my body was telling me; of embracing being in something bigger
than myself; of feeling held and holding myself; of knowing that this
engagement in nature was destined to play a larger role in how I live my life
and how I work. It wasn’t a revelation but rather a whisper of a reminder: of
what I have within myself and what I can be in the world.
Ralph Waldo Emerson to Florence Williams, from William Wordsworth to Mary
Oliver, and millennia before any of these, there is an extensive lineage of
those who have lived, breathed and written about the power of our connection
with nature. They knew. And we know. We have the connection within us; as with
all connections and all growth, we need to nurture it, to water it. Being in
nature doesn’t mean that we disconnent from the modern world. I am a political
and social animal as well; being in nature regularly helps to equip me for
being effectively in all of these spaces.
So start. Buy a pot plant for your living space; grow
herbs in your garden, if you’re lucky enough to have one; take your lunch with
you to the park; climb a tree and sit in it (hug it, even!); walk through the
woodland for the day, embracing the sights, sounds and smells; camp, alone or
with others who make you feel calm and safe; swim in the sea, jump in the
lakes; climb the mountain; build the fire. There are a plethora of groups out
there that offer opportunities to do this together, if you feel you need
support in doing it. Be in it. BE.
Whatever words I use, I find that the poetry goddess
that was Mary Oliver has created some that encapsulate all I want to say. So,
let me gift you this:
in the forest
thought the earth remembered me, she
took me back so tenderly, arranging
her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds. I slept
as never before, a stone
on the riverbed, nothing
between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated
light as moths among the branches
of the perfect trees. All night
I heard the small kingdoms breathing
around me, the insects, and the birds
who do their work in the darkness. All night
I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling
with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.
Nature Fix, Florence Williams, p49