Nature: good for the soul

Even though I moved to Exeter two years ago now, I’m still asked, ‘How do you like Exeter?’ and ‘Don’t you miss Cornwall?’ I think because the latter is such an iconic British holiday destination, people assume that it must be wonderful to live there, and that I must have been crazy to leave. It’s true that Cornwall is ruggedly stunning, and that during my time there I frequently thought, ‘I am so lucky to live in a place like this.’ Unsurprisingly, such sentiments were particularly common when I was walking along the duchy’s (that’s right–it’s not a county!) dramatic coastline.

The Cornish coastline at Tintagel
The coastline at Tintagel — where I first fell in love with Cornwall

Cornwall has always reminded me of West Virginia–my father’s home state and one that I have spent a lot of time visiting, working in, and travelling through. Yes, it’s land-locked, but its slogan ‘Wild, Wonderful West Virginia’ deliberately emphasises and tries to capitalise on the same sort of dramatic landscape that makes Cornwall both appealing and endearing…to visit. Yes, it’s beautiful, but it comes with an edgy undertone. It can be harsh, unforgiving, and supremely inconvenient. If different destinations were like the different stages of a facial, West Virginia and Cornwall would be the invigorating but slightly abrasive scrub phase.

The nourishing moisturising phase–the one that leaves you feeling replenished and pampered–is Devon, which, to continue drawing parallels to the motherland, I think of as Britain’s Ohio. The thing I love about Devon is the trees. Yes, Cornwall has trees, but it isn’t easy to find woodlands and forests –big, unbroken patches of arboreal majesty reaching into vales and hollows, creating little sheltered nooks where there is a noticeable hush that falls as you enter into the shadow of the canopy.

A stand of trees seen from across a green meadow
I took this photo while standing under trees, looking out at more trees. Heaven.

There are so many patches of woodland here in Devon, and such variety of sizes, shapes, ages, and species of tree represented; I also can’t help but notice that the majority of those trees aren’t gnarled and bowed over sideways from the constant whoosh of wind blowing in off the sea. There’s something gentler and warmer (literally, as well as figuratively) about Devon, and it is very soothing. I love Cornwall, and I enjoy visiting there, but Devon does feel more like home–not just my home, where I currently live, but the Ohio home where I grew up and still visit. It is the type of outdoors that I crave more than any other.

My Exeter house may be located in a pretty run-of-the-mill suburb, but that suburb backs onto a woodland that, in turn, backs on to countryside, and I cannot overstate just how relaxing it is to look out and see green every day, and to hear very little besides birdsong. I struggled to find a decent place to rent when I first explored moving to Exeter, and the viewing for my current place was the last one I’d set up. I was feeling pretty despondent about my lack of options when I arrived and saw the scenery. I knew immediately that this was not just the place I wanted, but also the place I needed; required the proximity to the pastoral.

Pink clematis in the garden
I even have my own garden! With plants and birds!

At the time I moved to Exeter, I was dealing with a number of challenges in my life: divorce, cancer, a soul-destroying job. I’m a pretty pragmatic and robust person, but everyone’s fortitude has limits. I was craving the comfort of the countryside–not just to visit for a long weekend or even a two-week holiday, but to have as a consistent presence in my daily life. I could feel an impatient tug, a certain constriction in the vicinity of my heart, pulling me towards greenery. This was assuaged at first by moving in to my new home, spending time in my garden, strolling along the stream at the boundary of my neighbourhood, and visiting the local nature reserve, but I’d become so hollowed out that I could only be filled by exposure to more proper countryside.

That is how I came to discover the Blackdown Hills Area of Natural Beauty (AONB); I asked Google to tell me where I could go hiking, and Google delivered. The Blackdown AONB website has a handy selection of PDFs guiding you along circular walks of various length through different types of habitat. I downloaded them all and set out to explore my new territory–and I was not disappointed.

A dignified oak tree stands on a hill
One of the many dignified trees I’ve seen while walking in Blackdown Hills

My reaction to Blackdown is a difficult one to describe because it stems from such a complex tangle of emotions, experiences, and beliefs. The outdoors has always been a profound component of, influence on, and inspiration in my life, and being able to visit the very type of outdoors that I’d been longing for, after having been away from it for too long, was almost a relief; I felt like I’d been holding my breath, and was finally able to release it and draw in fresh air (an especially appropriate analogy since I was also, in fact, literally getting fresh air).

A brief tangent may help explain this sentiment. For almost as long as I can remember, when I feel particularly sad or stressed or generally unhappy, I have felt overwhelmed by the desire to go outside and lie in a ditch. I know how that sounds, but I don’t mean it in a depressing sort of way. If you think of how someone’s arms curl around you when they give you a comforting hug, you can, perhaps, see how lying in a depression in the earth might feel like receiving an embrace from the outdoors. I wish I were an artist so that I could properly translate this mental image I have of a benevolent, flower-covered Gaia-like entity cradling me in the palm of her hand.

Plant-covered earth sculpture shaped like a head rising out of the ground
Flower-covered magical earth creatures: they do exist

This is, of course, a metaphor, but it helps convey the sense of restoration I get from heading outside during life’s rougher moments. I haven’t ever actually laid down in a ditch—they’re generally pretty wet and filled with things I don’t want to touch—but I have, nevertheless, sought consolation and revitalization from the pastoral, and often this has actually included some tactile experience such as stretching out in the grass, running my fingers across leaves or flowers, or, I’ll admit it, even hugging a tree. Of course, touch isn’t the only sense that helps create a firm link to nature—I am particularly affected by the smells of damp earth and growing greenery, and of course the sound of birdsong—but it helps complete and confirm the connection; it helps reassure me that I am home.

As an ecologist, I am well aware that nature is neither benevolent nor a single unified entity, so I realize the potential hazards of oversimplifying and anthropomorphising. However, given that my particular specialism is human-nature interactions, I’m also familiar with the ever-growing body of evidence that spending time in nature is, to put it colloquially, good for the soul. I’m glad that there are sturdy scientific data verifying the psychological benefits of being in nature (and I’ve written about quite a few of these studies on my blog Anthrophysis), but these external sources say nothing that my own heart and mind hadn’t already told me: Being outside is therapeutic.

A statue of Buddha sits on a stone garden wall
One of the Buddha statues in the monastery garden

Interestingly, my very first walk in Blackdown took me through the grounds of a Buddhist monastery, which inspired some reflection on the relative benefits of different types of calming, meditative activities. I have meditated for years–I am particularly fond of active, or dynamic meditation, which dovetails very nicely with the types of rhythmic, repetitive exercise I tend to favour–and, more recently, have taken up both yoga and tai chi. I find all of them extremely pleasant and highly beneficial; when I am feeling low or listless or lacking in energy, they all restore a feeling of groundedness and focus. That said, nothing gives me a boost like spending time in nature.

I have most recently felt the positive effects of the outdoors during the last couple weekends, when I visited the Quantock Hills AONB and Killerton. I’d been feeling claustrophobic after being shut up during so much of this long winter, along with feeling physically unwell from migraines, and stressed from juggling an intense workload at the office. I’ve whisked myself off for hiking, birdwatching, plant identification, and general basking in the fresh air, and what a difference it has made. I feel calmer, happier, clearer, stronger. Better.

Sheep in a pasture in the Quantock Hills
Nothing is more restful than sheep, otherwise we wouldn’t count them while lying in bed at night. Right?

I know that we are all different, and that what works for me won’t necessarily work for everyone else: Not everyone loves marching up slopes and slogging across muddy fields; not everyone appreciates locations so remote you can’t even get a mobile signal (yes, these places still exist!); not everyone would prefer Devon to Cornwall (or the South West to the South East, and so on). But the evidence shows that nature is good for humans, period, so it’s probably worth it for each person to figure out what their favourite version of nature is. A city park, such as Hyde or Regent’s? More cultivated gardens like Kew or even the Tuileries? A sun-drenched beach or a snow-covered mountainside in a distant country? The rolling hills of Blackdown or the Quantocks? Whatever it is, embrace it. It may not literally embrace you back (I really do know that my Gaia imagery was just an analogy, I promise!), but your health and wellbeing will undoubtedly still benefit, leaving you feeling as though you’ve just received a comforting hug from an old friend.

And what better time of year to reacquaint yourself with nature? Leaves are returning to trees, flowers are emerging, migratory birds are returning. Earth Day is right around the corner and, here in Devon, we’re about to celebrate Naturally Healthy Month. Whether you’re a seasoned nature-lover reaffirming your appreciation of the outdoors or someone who would normally prefer to spend down time in front of the PS4 (no judgment here–I love it, too!), spring is the perfect season to dust off the cobwebs and head out for some fresh air. Your mind and body will both thank you for it.

New leaves bud from a tree branch

 

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