Book review: Losing Eden by Lucy Jones

This is the guide book, the instruction manual, for anyone left in any doubt that nature is essential to our very being – it is our very being. We cannot be separated. And the impact of having been so disconnected continues to play out.

Losing Eden is a much needed book. It shares with us, in accessible and compelling form, the science behind the necessity and relevance of nature. What Lucy Jones does so beautifully, is to tell us why nature is important, how it is important, and the specific impacts it has on us – whether we are aware of them or not (and often, not). The extensive research behind this book is of the microbes in the soil and the ions in the air, and how we are beginning to understand why being outdoors is so beneficial to our health.

What this book doesn’t do is tell us that nature cures. Jones is clear on that. What helped her through alcoholism and post-natal depression was time spent in nature, yes, but also her AA groups, her family, her friends, her therapist, psychiatric team, and medication – these are the things that are often overlooked (or harder to acknowledge). We sometimes need a whole heap of scaffolding to get us to the place where we can even open our eyes and see what is in front of us, let alone get to the forest. And walking in the woods is not accessible for us all, but connection with nature is valuable and possible for many recovering from illness of one kind or another. And perhaps it is when we break that we have the chance to look around us and start to see things anew. These are the times we get to notice the awe and wonder in the small and everyday.

Growing up in rural Kent, I was lucky to have developed a language of engagement with the natural world from an early age – while climbing trees and making camps. It is a common experience, however, to lose it again, to have to move away from the country to the city for work, study and housing. Priorities change and we become more distant from noticing what lies in the undergrowth and the flight of the song bird. Rush hour, weekly shops and school pick-ups over take concerns of seasonal change.

I have reconnected with nature several times in my life. Living in Birmingham, emerging from the fog of depression, I walked my dog across Sutton Park daily. It was a meditation, a stubborn unthinking path, until it wasn’t and it became a choice and a pleasure, where I began to notice the brilliant yellow of the gorse and smile as I heard it ‘pop’. But this, also, only came after the SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors – anti-depressants) kicked in, and I could venture outside at all – and for both, I am truly thankful.

Nature will heal, nature cures, nature will treat all our ills. It’s a current vein of thinking, one found perpetuated endlessly. I fear that the health services we also need get lost (and that increasing cuts will go unnoticed). It frustrates me that such a simplified view of things, specifically of mental and physical illness, is touted so broadly and so frequently. And yet our natural world is important, now more than ever.  The places we spend time in are important, and our connection to them crucial for our and their welfare. They reflect things about us and interact with us in many ways we will not necessarily be conscious of. Yet there is greater nuance and explanation behind the claims that regularly get lost in a world of click bait headlines, nuance that Lucy Jones negotiates effortlessly.

What Jones’ research shows is that nature will promote a speedier recovery. In hospitals it has been shown that the view you look out at from your post surgery bed is important. A view of a tree blowing in the wind leads to a shorter hospital stay with fewer additional pain medications, as compared to a view of a brick wall. There are potential findings with implications for improving the immune system, reducing inflammation and reducing symptoms of stress, depression, and PTSD. Is nature the panacea we all look for elsewhere? What would our health and society look like if we lived life long with a strong connection to the natural world around us?

In Losing Eden, the author shows the complexity of these interactions with a beautifully constructed narrative of the vast research that has been conducted on many and varied fields of study. It is compelling and comprehensive. Most importantly she shows us that there are numerous ways of connecting with nature – from plunging fingers into earth to more passive activities of looking at films and photographs, and many more in between – and all have a benefit when compared to connecting with non-organic forms. There is more research to be done, and extrapolating the difference between these different strategies I suspect will be key.

“One of the aspects we lose without a relationship with the rest of nature is regular opportunities for awe. We might associate awe and wonder more with the naivety and innocence of childhood – wow, says the child who sees an octopus or snow or fireworks for the first time – but new research suggests it’s far more potent in adult life than we might think. A new area of research – the science of awe – explores the specifics of how natural phenomena makes us feel, and could have significant implications for our mental and psychological health and even how nice we are to other people.”

There is much in this book that feels like it should be common sense and common practice, and yet in so many ways we have travelled so far from working within the natural world, having spent so long seeking to conquer it or overcome it, rather than live in it and with it, that it seems we now need to learn how to reintroduce ourselves to nature, and I suspect it is easier for some than others.

“The fact that we are attracted to moving objects or landscapes that are pleasant and beautiful may seem obvious, but, as Wilson writes, the ‘obvious is usually profoundly significant’. A landscape isn’t just nice because it’s nice, but because its meaning is ‘rooted in the distant genetic past’. It may not be ground-breaking to say that most people would prefer to look at a tree than a pile of dead leaves, but then consider the boxes we trap ourselves in, and how rarely, now, we seek the abundance of natural diversity. If it is so obvious why aren’t we doing more to protect the living, breathing, running, squirming, jumping, dancing, spinning, growing natural world?”

Questions around who is consulted and who engages in conversations around planning and conservation are also important ones to ask. Jones raises the issue of who owns the land, who is it for? Who can access it?

There are also many alarming things Jones names – prisoners are allocated more time outside than school children, for example. I am not aware such guidelines even operate in hospitals and residential homes (although I am very happy to be corrected – I did not encounter anything in my years working in psychiatric and forensic settings). Yet the rise of forest schools is showing a positive impact on things like knowledge and connectedness to the natural world, on confidence and happiness and social skills. The long-term effects are yet to play out on this next generation and this will be an exciting development to follow. For the rest of us, and others in institutions of one sort or another, I hope these things can filter through in different and creative ways, that make nature and its benefits accessible to all.

Recovering from post-viral fatigue, it is the outside that I befriend again as energy allows, as if it (and not me) gets lost when life becomes busier. Perhaps it is only when we break that we can slow down for long enough to notice the things that match our pace – the snail and the emerging buds and blossom. I hope this does not always need to be the case.

How do we create environments where this becomes everyday, an integral part of any design, of any aspect of life, embedded in our fabric? I urge anyone to read this book, it feels like a starting point to how the world must now be structured.

Losing Eden: why our minds need the wild by Lucy Jones is published by Allen Lane. It is available for preorder and out on 27th February.

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Louise Kenward is an Artist, Writer and Psychologist with many years working in the NHS as psychotherapist and psychologist with substance misuse services and mental health teams – both with in patient and community settings. Recently diagnosed as hypermobile (a connective tissue disorder) Louise is also learning to manage ongoing fluctuations in energy and chronic pain, her work often referencing connection to the sea and the experience of the body in landscape.