Rewilding Our Minds

Why nature is so necessary during the pandemic—and how we repay the debt

Nemanja Glumac/Stocksy; below Brian Powell/Stocksy
Nemanja Glumac/Stocksy; below Brian Powell/Stocksy

Almost exactly a year after England locked down for the first time, as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, I was walking down a wild and overgrown abandoned canal with my young family, looking for frogspawn and other signs of spring. I was 10 days overdue with our third child, deliriously desperate to go into labor, and seeking signs and talismans everywhere. When we found the lumpy soup of proto-frogs, it felt reassuring to me: a symbol of renewal, the circle of life, the planet turning on its axis. I wouldn’t be pregnant forever.

We walked on and watched wrens, small and curved as eggs, glide across the path, which was bordered by strongly scented, vivid green wild garlic and freshly unwrapped nettles. We had planned to give our new son the middle name Wren, and I read into the birds another sign he might be on his way, finally. I counted three wrens and thought, well, perhaps it would be three more days. (I am not usually superstitious.)

That morning, I had read online about an observation that women were remaining pregnant longer during the pandemic. The theory was that we were holding our babies inside because of anxiety about safe delivery and the hazardous and uncertain state of the world. I was certainly nervous, and our daily walks were an attempt at loosening some of the tension. At the canal, my four-year-old daughter threw sticks at the hazel catkins suspended strobe-like over the still water and fallen oak trunks, to conjure clouds of golden pollen, which exploded like a wizard’s puff of smoke. We saw the first butterfly of the year—a lemon-yellow brimstone—and heard the tap-tap-tap of a woodpecker. The world was surging forward as the sun returned. The counterpoint of early spring soothed my anxious mind, and instead of worrying about the news, I thought what a magnificent world the baby would be born into.

I had become more adept at finding meaning in the natural world through daily practice over a year of quarantines and lockdowns. In England, for a period of time, we were allowed just one hour outdoors a day. My family and I slurped up as much life as we could find, searching greedily for color and shapes and forms and textures and variety in the local urban cemetery next to our house and in the woods nearby.

It seemed lots of folk were doing the same: leaning on the rest of the living world to cope. People were looking for the opposite of what the virus was doing to our loved ones—degrading, breaking down, isolating, ending. We were searching instead for the motor, the electricity of life, the energy and vim of the living world and its myriad interactions. With restricted opportunities for leisure and restoration, people were reminded of the free and abundant gifts outside. Visits to parks increased in countries across the world. People reported that being in nature made them happy. Online queues to buy seeds were hours long because everyone wanted to grow things. With less traffic, birdsong sounded louder. Our neighbors started vegetable patches in their front gardens. My children became familiar with the song of the cuckoo, which I heard for the first time since childhood. It felt as if there was a renaissance of love for nature, and a desire to connect to a wider world, a place beyond Covid-19 and statistics and death.

This interested me. At the beginning of lockdown, I published in England a book called Losing Eden about the effect of contact and connection with the natural world on the human psyche. Conversely, I was also examining whether our current estrangement from the rest of nature—literally and spiritually—was in some way detrimental to our minds and bodies. I had spent a number of years researching the topic through various prisms following a personal health crisis during which I was surprised to discover just how enormously therapeutic spending time outdoors could be. Walking in a London marshland became as important to my recovery from a period of depression, anxiety, and addiction as medication, psychotherapy, and the support groups I attended. This set me on a quest to discover exactly how and why connection with the living world can bring healing. We all know or intuit that spending time in woods or parks is supposed to make us feel “good,” but what does that mean? How does it work? Good for all people? For all types of unpleasant moods or mental health conditions? I wanted to get under the hood, as it were, and investigate the mechanisms by which the living world affects our bodies and our minds. And, if the evidence was there and nature was so important for human health, why were we paving our gardens, cutting down trees, and erasing whole species?

I didn’t expect that one of the thought experiments from my book might be tested a week after its U.K. publication. I was intrigued by the American biologist E. O. Wilson’s theory of biophilia—the idea that we have an innate, genetic affiliation with the natural world because we spent so much of our evolutionary history in nature—but given the rates of species extinction, the climate crisis, habitat destruction, and the general trashing of the natural world in the industrialized West, I couldn’t help but wonder whether our supposed “biophilia gene” was dormant. Had we gone so far in our alienation from the rest of nature that we had evolved past our biophilic origins? And if a genetic propensity to affiliate to the living world is subdued, and we are content to find our happiness and restoration in Netflix and shopping, does it matter? If the gene is never activated, will it die out?

During the pandemic, however, as people turned to their parks and gardens, seeking solace and escape from loneliness, isolation, grief, and stress, it seemed that, for many of them, love for the living world was just under the surface. As the hard year drew on, people were relying on contact with greenery, blossoms, trees, and other species for sanity and relief. Visiting our local woods to look for scarlet fly agaric toadstools or owls or bluebells allowed us to slip out of ourselves, the chaos of the news, and the despair and sadness hanging heavy in the streets of the town.

But, as I had learned through my research, it wasn’t just the metaphorical symbolism of nature, or the beauty, or even a sense of companionship, that people were responding to. Robust evidence based on countless studies from scientists in various disciplines from countries across the world now proves how and why nature makes us feel good, deepening our understanding of why nature can be a refuge. At a time when rates of depression, stress, and anxiety have increased, the evidence that the presence of nature is highly restorative and therapeutic has never been more urgent.

As we start to deal with the effects of the quarantine on mental health, one of the nature-and-health findings that is especially relevant is the relationship between stress, inflammation, and the nervous system. We were already suffering an epidemic of stress-related illnesses in the industrialized West. Now, as we begin to recover from the pandemic, stress is affecting many more people because of illness, job loss, financial insecurity, separation from family, social isolation, the toll of intensive-care work, neglected health issues, and the challenge of home schooling. Communities of color and those living in deprived or disadvantaged circumstances are already more vulnerable to stress-related illness.

Where does spending time in green spaces such as parks or near rivers and seas fit into our collective need to heal psychologically from the effects of the pandemic? The evidence suggests that we recover from stress quickly and more completely in natural spaces compared with built environments.

Before writing Losing Eden, I knew that when I sat on the bench next to the wild canal and allowed myself to stare entranced at the branches swaying in the wind or a line of ducklings drifting by the bullrushes, I would feel relaxed and calm afterward. You might well have a similar place where you go to clear your head. Studies suggest that when we are in natural areas our parasympathetic nervous system is more likely to be activated. This reaction has important consequences for our health, particularly at this time. The parasympathetic nervous system slows the heart, helps us feel calm, and is associated with better sleep and with feelings of contentment and safety. High resting levels of parasympathetic activity have been found to have many benefits to our health, from enhanced emotional regulation to decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. In contrast, the sympathetic nervous system’s main function is to stimulate the body’s reaction to stress (the “fight or flight” mode). Ideally, we want a balanced nervous system. If the stress response system is activated too much or left on for too long, inflammation can increase, causing physical and mental health problems. We need natural environments to recover from the stresses of life.

One study found that people under anesthetic produced fewer chemical biomarkers associated with stress—such as amylase in saliva—when played a recording of soft wind or birdsong. Amazingly, then, the sounds of nature had a measurable physiological impact even when people weren’t conscious.

Related to the nervous system, and particularly important as we recover from the pandemic health crisis while also facing the prospect of new variants of the virus, is the relationship between spending time in nature and the strength of our immune systems. The enhanced immune function that comes from connecting with nature produces many benefits, from relaxing the nervous system to the reduction of worry or anxious thoughts and a break from the harmful effects of air pollution. Exposure to phytoncides—chemicals emitted by trees and plants—has been shown to significantly increase natural killer (NK) cell activity, which helps the body fight infection and cancer. Even just looking at a natural scene can decrease levels of inflammatory cytokines.

A leading expert in the field of nature and health, Frances E. Kuo of the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign, argues that enhanced immune function may be the central pathway to explain the benefits of nature on mental and physical health. “When we are in nature in that relaxed state, and our body knows that it’s safe, it invests resources toward the immune system,” she says.

Another important—and astonishing—mechanism is the effect of awe on the body and mind. It’s no surprise that experiences of awe increase happiness and can lower stress, or that many of our encounters with awe are elicited by the natural world, as well as via music, art, transcendent or sacred experiences, or extraordinary human achievements or kindness. For awe-inducing moments in nature, we may think immediately of waterfalls, canyons, mountains, and the northern lights, or the smaller wonders found in watching a bee pollinating a flower, or the perfect sphere of a dandelion seed head.

But the new science of awe, led by psychology professor Dacher Keltner at the University of California at Berkeley, suggests that awe has a direct influence on health and life expectancy. A study of cytokine levels—an overactive cytokine response is associated with disease, depression, and ill health, and a “cytokine storm” is an overreaction of the immune system associated with severe Covid-19 cases—and the presence of positive emotions found that only awe reduced unhealthy levels of cytokines to a significant degree.

Another surprising discovery made by researchers in Keltner’s lab was how experiencing awe affected the way people treated each other. Studies suggest that humans are more ethical, kind, and generous after feeling awe. At a time like this of division and uncertainty, experiences that encourage collaboration and cohesion are especially important.

One of the most compelling pathways by which nature affects our health is through exposure to microbial diversity. Microbiologists studying Mycobacterium vaccae, which is found in soil, discovered why you might get a buzz after gardening. In animal models, M. vaccae produced a response in the brain that activated serotonin neurons, which are associated with mood and well-being. The microorganism also increased stress resilience and could suppress inappropriate inflammation within cells.

The gut microbiota of people who live in urban areas and developed countries are less biodiverse than those of people who have profound contact with the land, such as residents of traditional farming communities. Crucially, the “old friends” like M. vaccae that we have evolved with—and are lacking if we live in air-conditioned spaces in nature-poor cities—are able to treat or block chronic inflammation associated with disease, disorders, stress, and depression. Studies comparing people who grow up on farms or in the countryside with those in urban areas suggest that the rise in inflammatory disease in modern societies is due to a lack of exposure to microorganisms.

As my research journey continued, it became clear to me that the human body and mind aren’t a sealed-off entity, but that we are porous to our environment, more than we may realize (well, perhaps until Covid-19 arrived). Another promising area of research has to do with petrichor, the delicious smell of the earth after it has rained, when oil from soil and possibly plants is released into the air. A paper by a team at the School of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences in South Korea found that when a study group smelled petrichor—or geosmin, which is the name of its chemical compound—it triggered brain activity linked with calmness and relaxation.

After learning about this, we bought waterproof trousers for the whole family, to ensure we could keep going out for walks whatever the weather during the pandemic. And I became a lot more sanguine about my toddler son eating soil.

What about those people suffering from mental illness? Can nature help? The mental health toll of Covid-19 is significant, with rates of depression and anxiety increasing everywhere. In December 2020, more than 42 percent of people living in the United States reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, up from 11 percent the previous year. Substance use and alcohol consumption have also risen.

Before I started my inquiry, I thought ecotherapy—formal therapy outdoors incorporating elements of the natural world—or even the more casual therapeutic benefits of being in nature might be powerful in lifting moods and also helpful for those with mild to moderate mental health conditions. But I wondered whether the treatment could help people suffering in the middle of a crisis or from the more severe mental illnesses. Spending time in nature every day had been instrumental in my own recovery, but did the evidence suggest that actually prescribing nature was a good idea? I felt uncomfortable with the idea of reducing nature to a dose. People and nature are heterogeneous; mental illness is complex. But I discovered that nature-based interventions for people with mental illness can be powerful—and thus may help people recover from the trials of the past year.

Plenty of evidence shows that horticultural therapy, for example, works. This is nothing new. Think of the gardening programs offered after the First World War to military veterans with shellshock, or what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Today, there are outdoor initiatives for veterans and ex-service people across the United States and Europe to aid rehabilitation for those with PTSD.

In the United Kingdom, the number of “green care” social prescriptions is growing. Projects include horticultural therapy and outdoor activity in the Peak District (a national park not far from industrial Manchester and Sheffield) for young people who have experienced psychosis. For people with severe and complex mental illness, these units exist across the country. While writing my book, I visited a secure unit (which in the United Kingdom typically houses criminal offenders or people with serious mental illness) to discuss the work with a horticultural adviser and to meet several residents. We passed through the unit, which was very clinical, with high levels of supervision and risk management. It was a stark contrast with the rainbow of colors, textures, and smells we found in the garden.

Sarah, who led the program, told me something that has stuck with me since. She explained that green-care initiatives are always funded in secure units, hospitals, and prisons because “if people are in secure environments without access to nature, they become even more unwell.”

So, nature is good for our minds. But the pandemic also showed us the inequality of our access to the natural world. In Britain, people with gardens and proximity to the high-quality green spaces in affluent areas were able to enjoy the restorative health benefits of the living world. Those residing in flats without outside space, or near parks that were locked, or who had only minimal greenery available to them, were barred from those benefits.

People in lower socioeconomic groups or from racial and ethnic minorities usually have less access to green space and parks than those who are white and affluent. In towns and cities in England, deprived areas have fewer parks, and children who live in these areas are nine times less likely to have access to nature, according to the National Children’s Bureau. When we think of environmental injustice, we might think first of events such as the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, but given what we are learning about nature and health, access to the natural world should also be considered a human rights issue.

One of the saddest elements of the past year has been the suffering of children denied the chance to play, see friends, or learn together. For those living in vulnerable homes, the effects of the pandemic have been even worse. Interestingly, contact with nature seems to help disadvantaged children more than others. In 2003, a study from Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology found that access to nature could provide a buffer to life stresses in children, and particularly to vulnerable children. Nature seemed to moderate or dampen down psychological stress. It was a protective factor, contributing to resilience, which we may need more of to cope with future pandemics.

Teenagers and young people, too, have lost time when they should be out experiencing the world. Studies in the United States suggest that adolescents have also experienced an increase in depression during the pandemic. Can nature help? There is less research into this age group, but in 2018 a study of almost 10,000 American teenagers found that being surrounded by greenness was linked with lower odds of depressive symptoms. Those who were exposed to higher levels of nature (or vegetative density, as the study put it) during childhood and adolescence also had a lower risk of depressive symptoms in later adolescence and adulthood.

We need more nature, especially in urban areas and deprived communities. How can this happen? Thankfully, a movement to green our cities has already started.

By 2050, 68 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas. In North America, 82 percent of people already inhabit urban spaces; in Europe, it’s 74 percent. We need to change the way we live, and how we live. Enter biophilic cities.

The biophilic city movement reimagines a human habitat that allows for nature and incorporates the nonhuman world into all its aspects, with walkable neighborhoods, bicycle-friendly towns, rewilded roundabouts, greened parking spaces, city forests, equal distribution of tree cover, car-free streets where children can play, meadows instead of lawns, and playgrounds and schools filled with greenery, trees, and flowers.

About 15 percent of American urban land—an area the size of Switzerland—is deemed vacant or abandoned. Imagine if that space were rewilded and filled with life: supporting biodiversity, capturing carbon, providing food for communities, as well as peace and beauty.

Some exciting examples already exist: the community gardens and small urban farms of Detroit, for example, and the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital in Singapore, with its radical biophilic design, including birds, flowers, plants, and 83 species of butterfly. The greening of vacant lots in Philadelphia has already been found to reduce crime and fear. In 2020, Milan announced plans to reduce car use and reallocate street space from motor vehicles to cycling or walking.

In light of all the scientific evidence for how connection with restorative natural spaces can affect our health, fairer access to nature as we move out of the pandemic will be crucial.

What will our relationship with nature look like as we recover from Covid-19? We can’t go back to normal, to business as usual, because our blindly abysmal treatment of the earth created the conditions for zoonotic epidemics to thrive, through human encroachment into wild habitats. The warnings are coming thick and fast now, in a world where air pollution has killed three times as many people as Covid in the past year and carbon dioxide levels have reached a record high.

In Losing Eden, I compare our current dysfunctional relationship to that of a teenage daughter with her mother—angry, disrespectful, slamming doors, not realizing what the mother has done for her. Wouldn’t it be good if humanity could now somehow realize what we owe to nature and, shocked as we are by this virus, evolve into people more balanced and harmonious, less greedy? “We have got to remain humble in the face of nature,” said U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, rightly pointing out that the virus is nature, too. The pandemic has shown that it is possible to be more responsible to future generations and to treat the climate crisis and nature crisis as the emergencies they are, if the political will is there.

The morning after we saw the frogspawn, I was in an operating theater. The birth of my son had been difficult, and I needed surgery afterward. I hadn’t spent time with anyone apart from close family for almost a year, and suddenly I was being cared for by numerous strangers—nurses, surgeons, obstetricians, anesthetists, maternity support workers, paramedics, midwives.

I was distressed to be physically separated from my hours-old baby, and by how bad my birth injury might be. I lay there for a couple of hours, under the strip lights, as about 15 masked healthcare workers operated on and cared for me. The anesthetist who administered the spinal block stroked my hair. A maternity support worker buzzed to my baby and husband and back to assure me our son was fine. Another woman (they were all women apart from a consultant obstetrician) made sure I had gas and air to cope with the anxiety. A healthcare assistant held my hand and looked into my eyes, assuring me it was going to be okay. Every few moments someone came over to check on me and soothe my shock. It was one of the most frightening days of my life and a day of the deepest compassion and care I’ve ever experienced. In those moments, because of their kindness, despite the trauma, I started healing.

It made me think about our relationship to the rest of nature, and to each other, in this strange time. I thought particularly about kindness, how much a part of human nature it is, perhaps the greatest, most sacred aspect of humanity, but how lacking it has been in our relations with the earth, particularly in the past few decades. During the pandemic, however, from the service of healthcare workers in particular, we have seen remarkable examples of human kindness. It made me think also about nature, how it can be dangerous—it is brutal childbirth and horrible viruses and brood reduction and volcanic eruptions—but we have lost sight of that, and in our estrangement have lost the necessary humility. Can we balance a respect for nature, a humble reverence, an absence of arrogance, with a new kindness? Not using or saving nature just for our own sakes, but becoming peaceful co-tenants with other species because it’s the right thing to do? Might our renaissance of love for the natural world in the past year, the comfort and solace we gained from walking and gardening and watching birds, lead to a more caring ethic toward the land?

In the wake of this pandemic, which we know will not be the last, a great transformation is needed. We need new ways to imagine a relationship with the earth. We need to see that the health of ecosystems and other species and human physical and mental health are interrelated. There will be so many social benefits to rewilding our world and, in so doing, rewilding our minds—for those of us who are adults today, and for the health and sanity of future generations. There isn’t a moment to lose.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Lucy Jones is a writer and journalist based in Hampshire, England. Her new book, Losing Eden: Our Fundamental Need for the Natural World—and Its Ability to Heal Body and Soul, will be published in the United States in August.


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