How nature supports my mental health

By Jessica Tett

This may well sound all very weird and ‘out-there’ and not for you.... but bear with me! Over the last couple of years I’ve been part of an environmental art therapy group. We meet every fortnight, for the first year in a community centre with a large garden, and for a lot of the last year outside in land managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. What I have really loved about this group, especially since we have been meeting outside, has been the opportunity to see how my own mood and feelings are so often reflected in the nature around me. It often feels like we really are all connected, and we humans really are part of nature – just like the trees around us.

The group I am in uses the Celtic Tree Calendar as a framework for our meetings. I had never heard of this before, and it turns out that it has its origins in pre-Christian Celtic systems of time-keeping. This calendar has twelve or thirteen trees throughout the year, and associated with each tree are stories, myths and things to think about. As well as thinking about these specific trees, we also look around us and see what is happening in nature around us, and whether we feel anything similar happening within ourselves.

For me the time of year I see most closely reflected within myself is November, December and January. Times when, if I look around outside, nothing is really happening. The trees have mostly lost their leaves, the undergrowth is mainly gone, and the woods look bare. The main activity in this season is going on underground, where next year’s seeds are preparing themselves and the earth itself is quietly composting all the dead matter, ready to feed the new life coming in the spring. What I feel in myself those months is an urge to stay home, get cosy, keep quiet and compost. It’s an important time to do very little, but be aware that inside me, the dead material from last year is composting, getting ready to feed whatever new things I want to grow in spring.

March is a tough month for me: at the start of the month nearly everything is still ‘asleep’, underground – and I am happy to still be on the sofa, under a blanket, trying to ignore the crocuses. By the end of the month though, spring will have most definitely sprung. How and where will I find the energy to spring as well? The trees for this time of year are Ash and Alder. The Celts thought that Ash came from or was associated with the ‘otherworld’, and so can be a sort of bridge from my living room sofa, out into the world – from one world to another, from the darkness into the light. And the other tree, the Alder, is associated with energy, invigoration and delight – which certainly feels a long way away at the start of the month! As the end of March gets nearer, like the rest of the natural world, I expect somehow I will feel a pull back into life, and if not, maybe I’ll seek out an Alder for inspiration.

Year-round, something that nature constantly reminds me – and not just me, as I’ve seen this in all sorts of ‘inspirational’ memes – is to not bother comparing myself with others. When the new leaves grow, they just grow when they’re ready, and when they fall off, they do so at the right time for them. I might have a favourite tree (and I do!) but that doesn’t mean I think the others are a bit crap. There really isn’t the need to judge ourselves so harshly, or compare ourselves so unfavourably – the rest of nature doesn’t appear to be doing this.

If you walk around central Scotland, you have probably come across the John Muir Way. John Muir, from Dunbar, was an influential Scottish-American naturalist, author, environmental philosopher, botanist, zoologist, glaciologist, and early advocate for the preservation of wilderness in the United States of America. As well as enjoying walking his Way across from Helensburgh to Dunbar (or parts of it anyway), his writing is also worth seeking out, as he really understood what value and peace we can gain from connecting more deeply with nature.

So I guess I would urge you, if you can, to track down your nearest section of the John Muir Way, or your nearest woods or forest, even hill or mountain if you feel energetic. Look around you, connect with the trees and whatever is growing around you. I’m sure your mental health will benefit – just like John Muir said, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than she seeks”. Do make sure you’ve got What3Words on your phone though… just in case.

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