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 once.
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.
It 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.
I 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.
So, 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?
The 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.
These 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.
The 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.
From 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:
Sleeping 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.
 The Nature Fix, Florence Williams, p49