Of the many changes and sacrifices we’ve had to make to our lives this year, forgoing a holiday or two is hardly the biggest ask. But while the ‘stay at home’ message may have expanded beyond four walls, it’s fair to say many of us will be feeling restless without our usual summer escapes. When the scent of coconut or the sound of a cawing seagull conjures up a yearning for far-flung adventures, another walk round the park just won’t cut it. Read more about reconnecting with nature.
However, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the curative potential in our own backyards.
Over the past few months, gardening has seen a global boom unlike any other in recent history. Seed suppliers around the world have reported overwhelming numbers of orders. Regenerating spring onions on windowsills became one of the unlikeliest lockdown trends – a symbol of resourcefulness and renewal, or “a small gesture of hope”. The horticultural rush was born partly out of worries about food scarcity and partly as a way to stave off boredom, but there was more to it than just sustainable living. In a time of panic and uncertainty, getting back to nature helped us feel more grounded.
Countless studies have proven what poets and painters have been telling us for centuries: that spending time in the great outdoors is good for the mind and soul. The growing scientific area of ecotherapy has found strong links between time spent in nature and improved cognitive functioning, more positive moods and reduced anxiety and depression. Most recently, research at Cornell University found that just 10 minutes spent in nature can be enough to lessen both the physical and mental effects of stress. A change might be as good as a rest, as the saying goes, but outdoor experiences could be as helpful as a holiday to recharge our batteries.
Just ask Alice Vincent, author of three gardening books including Rootbound: Rewilding a Life, a verdant memoir about the restorative power of nature. “There is so much freedom and escape to be found right on our doorstep,” she says. “It’s amazing how actually just looking at the broad expanse of sky or the dense green loveliness of woodland can really transport you away from the homes where we’ve all spent a lot of time this year. Engaging with the scenery of nature can be as interesting and as fascinating as those city breaks we all wish we could be on.”
As a Londoner, Vincent has become adept at finding pockets of greenery amid the concrete and chaos. During the pandemic she’s been taking twice-daily walks in nearby woods, climbing hills and spending time on the plant-filled balcony that stars in her Instagram account, @noughticulture. “Even if you can only be in your back garden, spending a couple of hours on a bright sunny day, tending to the earth, putting your phone in your pocket and engaging with nature can be as much of a novelty as a trip away,” she says.
If you’re able to venture further afield, even just for a day or two, the benefits of rugged landscapes and wide-open spaces can be all the greater. A study on the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku or ‘forest bathing’ found that walking in a forest promotes lower concentrations of cortisol, a lower pulse rate and lower blood pressure than urban environments.
Travel companies like the Butterfly Mark Certified Balance Holidays are leading the way with luxury wellness breaks that use nature as more than just a photogenic backdrop. The company’s upcoming Yorkshire retreat includes immersive experiences like woodland walks, wild swimming and forest bathing, while artificial light indoors is kept to a minimum to help regulate the body’s natural circadian rhythms (because sleep should be a staple part of every good holiday). “Mother Nature and the gifts she provides are undeniable,” says Livia Manca di Villahermosa, founder and director of Balance Holidays. “As we look out of our windows to see a happy display of clear blue skies and skittering wildlife, thriving and flourishing, I hope people will learn to appreciate the simple joys of being in the company of nature… all the while respecting local communities and biodiversity.”
Of course, like holidays, engaging with nature works best when we disengage with something else: technology. One 2012 study found that four days of hiking in the US wilderness with no access to electronic devices increased participants’ performance on a creative problem-solving task by 50%. Would the same result be achieved if viewing those spectacular views through a smartphone screen?
Back at home, even the presence of an extra houseplant can help us breathe a little deeper and relax a little more. According to NASA research, plants can remove up to 87% of airborne toxins from a room in just 24 hours, with peace lilies – like these from the carbon neutral, Butterfly Mark Certified Arena Flowers – among the most effective. Then there are blooms. Multiple studies have found that flowers can do more than just say ‘I love you’, with evidence that their presence can have a positive impact on mood, stress levels, memory, productivity and even recovery from illness.
In lieu of a holiday, a floristry workshop with Butterfly Mark Certified McQueens Flowers could help nurture that nature connection. The world-renowned floral designer is constantly striving to reduce its carbon footprint, with recyclable and biodegradable packaging and renewable energy sources. Meanwhile for every bouquet sold, Arena Flowers plants a tree in an area of the world experiencing deforestation. One small pick-me-up can help protect the world’s greenery for future generations. And when the time comes, we’ll all be able to enjoy those landscapes again.
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