The last week has been Mental Health Awareness Week and I’ve seen a great deal of conversation online about the benefits of nature, with experts explaining how spending time in green spaces, or caring for plants or animals, can have a positive impact on our mental wellbeing.
Many business and life coaches have taken to the parks to hold their sessions in the great outdoors and inspire new healthy habits in their clients. My social media feeds are full of posts urging me to pause and take time out to look at buds on plants and the burgeoning leaves on trees.
Which is all very well, but I think there’s a danger in making a habit of stopping to look at the natural world.
Most of us tend to move in a fairly small area and we see the same things time after time. We get to recognise and expect them. They become familiar and, as the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt.
Every year in springtime, I take photos of the dogwood tree in the park when it comes into flower. It’s the only dogwood I know and although I stop and admire the blossoms, I’m not sure I can ever see them in quite the way I did the very first time I walked past the tree.
That day, I was going to go home and look online to find out what it was, so I took careful note of the lack of leaves, the colour of the flowers, the bobbly black button centre, the number of petals and how ridged they were.
This is also the time of year to watch out for bluebells. Again, I know where I’ll find them and I expect them to be there. I know that some of them are Spanish bluebells, some are British and some are interbred. I stop to check what colour anthers they have, knowing that I will find both blue (Spanish) and white (British), and I look for the plants where the bells are longer and slimmer and hang from one side of the stem (British).
But although I am spending time in nature, and looking closely at the world around me, I am not making discoveries and learning new things: all I am doing is confirming my expectations.
It may help me disconnect from the pressures of work or domestic life, but it’s still very much a habit and I am largely operating on autopilot.
We humans like the security of familiar things and we identify patterns to help us cope with the unfamiliar. We have a tendency to become very set in our ways, seeing what we expect to see, and seeing it in accordance with the norms of the society we live in.
I’ve mentioned the writings of Carlos Castaneda before, and the practice of changing our default focus to looking at the spaces between objects rather than at the objects themselves.
Specifically, I think his idea was to stop looking at the leaves on trees and bushes but look instead at the spaces between the leaves. It’s actually very hard to do as we get distracted by the familiar details of the recognisable and we default to seeing what we expect to see.
Yes, I believe that going for nature walks is likely to improve my mental health. But I don’t want to make a habit of it.
I want to walk at different times of day and in different weather conditions. I want to follow a different route each day – even if it’s only going the opposite way round the block or zigzagging along different side streets. I want each walk to show me new things. I want to look at the familiar from a new perspective.
I could show you a planet where creatures
walk upright on two legs. Seeing
a non-existent blue, they name it “sky”, and stretch
towards stale light in ignorance. Oblivious
to gravity which anchors them, they carve
each step through swirling gas as if a vacuum
and breathe in toxins unaware. Insular
as paramecia, they can’t converse
with any of the other untold tenant species
of their world. They know no other life.