By Karly Stilling
In our front yard there grows a sycamore maple.
As London has shut down around me over the past month, I’ve become obsessed with this tree.
Three weeks ago, it was all bare branches ending in tight pink buds, like hard cocoons protecting something of immense value. Two weeks ago, as the weather warmed, the buds began to open. Soft leaves of the brightest green began to emerge, trembling in the early spring air.
And last week, while London underwent a glorious Easter weekend heat wave, the sycamore leafed out.
Now I lie in our tiny yard, staring up at the vivid green leaves floating in the cerulean sky. The birds sing the arrival of spring and my heart sings with them.
It’s not just the sycamore. I’ve become infatuated with nature in all its emerging forms.
On my allotted runs around our local park, I stop under the cherry blossoms, mesmerised by the subtle hues of pink and white, the delicate stamens of each blossom reaching out bravely into the world.
On the days when I walk instead of run, I take a brief—and illicit—break to lie down on the grass for 30 seconds, just to feel the blades bend under my fingers.
When my partner and I go for longer runs on the weekends, I stop him frequently, calling him back to come look at a particularly lovely hedge, at some wisteria growing up a wall, at clusters of tiny daffodils growing along the road.
This is infatuation. There’s no other word for it. I see a leaf, a petal, a bumblebee and my heart skips a beat, I feel fluttering in my belly, and I can’t stop my giddy smile. With most of my days devoid of people and of things outside the four walls of our house, these small moments of connection to something outside of myself—something good, something beautiful, something alive—have become the best parts of my day. My nightly gratitude ritual has devolved into a list of the flowers I’ve seen that day.
I’m not just a fairweather lover, either. Bring on the clouds and the rain, bring on hail or even snow. I welcome them. The wind is just an opportunity for the sycamore to dance, the clouds merely a chance to paint the sky with new hues. I love it all, and I love it more now than I ever have before.
In these increasingly uncertain times, nature is more important to our mental health than ever—and is, unfortunately, increasingly difficult for many to access. For those who are stuck in garden-less apartments, without easy access to green spaces, a view of the neighbour’s tree or a small houseplant might be all that they get.
The good news is that even a small bit of nature has tremendous health benefits. It’s what I feel when I stare up at that sycamore: the presence of something bigger and more beautiful than myself—the presence of life.
There’s good evidence to support the positive impact of nature on our mental health. Being in nature helps lower blood pressure and reduce cortisol levels.
In fact, it’s so effective at helping people cope with mood disorders that there’s an entire field of therapy based around getting people outside: it’s called ecotherapy. Mind UK saw such significant results from trial programmes in 2007 that they officially recommended that ecotherapy be recognised as a clinically valid treatment for mental distress, and concluded that doctors “should consider referral for green exercise as a treatment option for every patient experiencing mental distress.”
Nature helps us feel more connected to the world, and to each other. On an instinctual level, our brains are programmed to pay attention to nature so it’s a very effective way of distracting our minds from stressful events and circumstances (global pandemic, anyone?). Access to nature helps improve our mood even when we don’t notice it.
Recently, in one of my favourite pieces of internet news from the past week, the Icelandic Forestry Service recommended that people hug trees instead of hugging each other.
“When you hug [a tree], you feel it first in your toes and then up your legs and into your chest and then up into your head,’ forest ranger Þór Þorfinnsson is quoted as saying. “It’s such a wonderful feeling of relaxation and then you’re ready for a new day and new challenges.”
“Five minutes is really good,” Þór said. “You can also do it many times a day—that wouldn’t hurt. But once a day will definitely do the trick, even for just a few days.”
Sounds like a pretty good idea. But if you don’t have a tree within arm’s length, find whatever green you can. Sit with it. See what happens.
Maybe, like me, you’ll fall in love.