• Cathy Crozier-Cole

A Green Recovery

Flowers for a green recovery by Umbel, Bath

If the start of 2020 was unexpected, the ending for me turned out to be less expected still! In autumn I became unwell with long Covid. The recovery’s been slow, and like the snowdrops in my garden, I’m only just re-emerging after months of hibernation. Thankfully I received some help (in the form of something called The Lightning Process), which enabled me to finally turn the tide and get back on my feet. After so many months out of action, it’s unbelievably brilliant to find myself well again, and in the optimistic new pastures of 2021!

Like all roads to recovery, it’s involved a fair about of mulling over what makes for the fundamental ingredients of a ‘well’ life. Among the many books I devoured in this process emerged several knock-out discoveries for me about health. Key amongst which was just how much our proximity to nature, plants and the soil can boost our health and wellbeing. I mean, I knew all of these must be good for us, in a sort of instinctive, non-specific kind of way…. why else would I naturally be drawn to flower growing? But the studies and new findings have been racking up on recent years, and some of them are pretty startling.

One on the books I really enjoyed is ‘The Wild Remedy’ by Emma Mitchell. In her opening chapter she describes how many plant species produce volatile organic compounds and oils, collectively known as phytoncides, which they use to fight infections from viruses and bacteria. It’s these that give a hedgerow in May such a lush aroma. But what you might not realise is that simply inhaling these, we can stimulate similar effects on our own human immune, hormonal, circulatory and nervous systems. It’s like a kind of wild aromatherapy – and it’s free every time we take a walk in a green place!

And while many of us may be familiar with how exercise releases endorphins in the brain (giving us a mild euphoria) – or how sunlight on our skin triggers the release of serotonin in our brains – who knew that something as tiny as bacteria in the soil could produce a similar result? It turns out that contact with the benign soil bacteria ‘Mycobacterium vaccae’ also triggers the release of serotonin – caused by a protein in its cell walls. How incredible that a bacteria can contribute to making us happy. A walk in the woods is clearly more than just a nice view.

The Japanese have taken all this one step further and have developed a national network of what they call ‘Shinrin-yoko’ or ‘forest bathing’ trails – a total of 48 have been set up since the 1980s. The idea is to spend time in a wood or forest to ‘bathe’ in the atmosphere, and around a quarter of their population have tried it. A raft of research has confirmed how simply walking in a green space has a proven positive effect on several systems in our bodies, including reduced blood pressure, pulse rate and cortisol levels – and it can even boost activity of a special kind of white blood cell called Natural Killer cells (which can destroy virally infected and certain cancerous cells).

As Emma Mitchell puts it, “it’s like reaching into an invisible natural medicine cabinet"!

In another book I’ve enjoyed, ‘The Well Gardened Mind’, author and doctor Sue Stuart-Smith gives a wonderfully rich account of how being close to nature can boost our wellbeing. She traces the long history of using time in nature to alleviate illness. Benedictine monasteries, for instance, incorporated enclosed gardens specifically for recovery and convalescence. Saint Bernard beautifully described one of these in the 11thcentury: “The sick man sits upon the green lawn … for the comfort of his pain all kinds of grasses are fragrant in his nostrils… the lovely green of herb and tree nourishes his eyes….the choir of painted birds caresses his ears”. What a perfect sounding place to recover from a bout of Covid.

In Victorian times, the planners of asylums also knew the value of incorporating plenty of green space for convalescence, and often included walled gardens in which patients could do gentle therapeutic garden work to aid their recovery. In the 1950s the focus of mental health treatment shifted away from this towards medication, as new and more powerful drugs were introduced. But Sue Stuart-Smith suggests the signs are that the tide is beginning to turn back towards these more nature-based solutions. Increasing numbers of studies are now demonstrating the benefits of so-called ‘green care’, as levels of depression and anxiety, as well as drug costs, continue to rise. Doctors are now using ‘social prescribing’ schemes to offer patients suffering a whole range of ailments a course of gardening or outdoor exercise instead of, or alongside, medication.

Other studies continue to highlight how time spent outdoors alleviates low mood, how the presence of vegetation in urban landscapes can reduce depression, and how simply seeing a natural landscape from a window can speed up recovery from illness and stress.

As we emerge from a global health pandemic, and square up to a bunch of other big global challenges like biodiversity loss, climate change, soil degradation, poverty and community cohesion, it seems to me that there are some pretty big wins to be had here. The case for local projects, for instance, that offer people a chance to get into green spaces to grow local, healthy, affordable food, together with others in their community, has never been stronger. Can we find new approaches like this that help heal our planet and our communities – whilst also healing ourselves?

For myself, I know that as my health and stamina gradually return, I’ll be grabbing every opportunity I can to be outdoors with my hands in the soil, green views hitting my retinas, and birdsong bursting in my ears. I’m off to nature’s botanical medicine cabinet for my free prescription!

The coming of spring heralds fresh growth and new beginnings, and, after all that 2020 has brought us, spring this year will be a truly welcome friend to all of us. I do hope you can find a way to immerse yourself in it, in whatever way you can, and find some solace in the garden or the wild. And may 2021 turn out to be a healthier and happier one for us all.

“Spring... thaws the frozen fears, mends the wounded heart that Winter has broken”

~ Aarno Davidson