In our hectic lives, can we really find enough time to smell the roses?
- Credit: Archant
Prof Jules Pretty reckons we can. But he also has a warning for us about what we’re doing to the world
I’m in step with Prof Jules Pretty. Who wouldn’t be, when he rightly recognises the link between a healthy natural world and good mental health in humans – and trumpets the message? Like him, I love getting outdoors to feel the sun (and rain) on my skin and notice the different rhythm. You could say I’ve bought the T-shirt… along with the waterproof walking boots and warm coat.
But I have a nagging doubt it’s easier to wish to really slow down and live locally than to put it into practice.
We might not be living a hand-to-mouth existence like our ancestors, but the work-based and social revolutions of recent times bind many people to jobs whose hours are increasing, while the cost of living makes it hard to step off the treadmill.
I’ll ask him about that in a minute. First, his new book.
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Jules, Professor of Environment and Society and Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Essex, has written several about what his website describes as “the braiding of nature and people, exploring the importance of place and the land for identity and health of individuals and cultures”. The East Country: Almanac Tales of Valley and Shore, follows a similar path.
It links natural history with memoir and reflection with cultural commentary as he takes us on a year-round journey through the landscape of eastern Suffolk and Essex.
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Wildlife comes and goes, the weather is a constant story, and modernisation makes its impact. Jules looks at the consequences of our actions on our environment (is it our fault the eels have largely gone? for example) and encourages us to slow down, live more locally, celebrate community and value a vanishing world.
“It should be troubling that average well-being and life satisfaction have not changed in the UK or USA since the mid-twentieth century, even though economic wealth per person has risen fourfold. We have more, we spend more, we are not happier. A painful price is being paid.
“It could get worse. Elsewhere progress has brought dramatic benefits, though not to all. The gaps are growing, the good things could be lost.
“There will be a heavy cost to restoring a collapsed climate. Yet many trade in doubt, denying evidence as mere rumour or fiction. There are many threats to the valley.
“This book is not a call to action. But doubters or deniers, just stop here, throw this book away. Or give it to someone younger. It will be their world before long... Nature will carry on regardless. It is just that we might not.”
Lots to ponder, then – even for those of us already converts.
But back to my nagging fear: that modern life shackles many of us and doesn’t allow enough time either to feel the mental benefits of “experiencing nature” or (and I guess it’s linked) appreciating the natural world enough to fight for it?
“A really key question,” Jules admits. “All those pressures are very real, and indeed may have increased – especially during periods of economic austerity and political uncertainty.
“The key concept is one of immunisation or dose. Spending just five minutes in nature, stopping to look at the sunset, sitting in the garden, walking with the kids, going to the beach, a bit of mindfulness – all these provide a mental health benefit that can last all day (or more).
“These are thus not irresponsible escapes, when we should be worrying about those other vital responsibilities and duties. They are a way of improving our well-being so that we feel better all the time.”
He sends me one of his articles, on “green minds”.
“It centres on the behaviour of immersion or attentiveness. If we can do these – by being in nature, or with other people, or through a craft, then this gets the ‘blue brain’ working more than the ‘red brain’.
“The stresses and anxieties we feel in life come from too much red brain stimulation. A green mind, a healthy mix of the two, is quite clearly one that brings better health all the time.
“The link back to The East Country is that the book is an exposition of these principles – watching nature across the seasons, being immersed in it, but not cut off from the rest of our life (the emails keep coming), is a way of becoming settled into place; becoming happier too. It is, of course, a celebration of Suffolk and Essex, the east country.”
* The East Country is published by Cornell University Press at £17.50
Jules Pretty’s writing in The East Country is evocative stuff. Here’s an extract. (He lives at Nayland, on the Suffolk-Essex borders.)
“A midwinter gale shrieked on land and sea. Trees failed to flee the methodical violence, sprang back, were lashed again. Many went down, blocking ways. In the west and north it was the worst for years. Big seas, no electricity, a menace to more than daily plans.
“It had been a genial winter, until then, of light winds and squally rain. The previous year we had been stranded by a month of snow, sledging at the airfield on the hill. Not this year. The last was the second-warmest on record; East Anglia had the second-driest ever; Scotland the wettest. Yet birds had sensed the passing of the solstice: they were singing for spring.
“In the garden, a forsythia had three flowers; it was thinking of March. The lilac was leafing out; it guessed April. Two roses flowered yesterday, a yellow and a marble white.”