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The Poetic Power of Nature to Heal our Minds

A hot June day that finds me visiting the Japanese garden in our local park. Enclosed within the grounds, the garden abounds with carefully pruned maples and shrubs set between smooth, round rocks and mounds of bright green moss. At its heart is a waterfall that flows into a pond of giant carp.

I sit down on one of the large slabs of stone that serves as a bridge in front of the waterfall. Then I close my eyes and listen to the water for three or four minutes. When I get up, I feel rejuvenated. My head has emptied of its worries, almost as if they have flowed into the water.

I’m not quite sure why running water is so calming. Maybe it’s the perpetual motion: it never ceases to move and is full of vitality. Maybe it’s the soothing sound that muffles the hard noises of a big city giving us a sense of peace. Or perhaps it’s because humans are around seventy per cent water and somehow we are reminded of the connection between the water within us and the water without. Become separate from nature, and we become separate from ourselves.

Numerous studies attest to the power of biophilia – which sounds rather grim but simply means the love of life, from the Greek ‘philia’ meaning 'love of'. Back in 1984, the American biologist and ecologist Edward Wilson came up with the ‘Biophilia hypothesis’, also called BET, which suggests that humans have an innate tendency to connect with nature and other forms of life. And that this is good for us and our mental health.

There is research which shows the beneficial effect on our psychological wellbeing of listening to birdsong from the home team. Research from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London in October last year found that seeing or hearing birds is associated with an improvement in mental wellbeing that can last up to eight hours. Other research in 1984 found that having a view of green from your hospital room speeded recovery. Twenty-three surgical patients assigned to rooms with windows looking out on a natural scene had shorter postoperative hospital stays and took fewer painkillers.

We instinctively know that going green can help beat the blues. Gardening reminds us that ‘this too shall pass’, because nowhere is this idea more evident than in a garden - a living monument to the healing passage of time. Believe it or not, there is also bacterium in soil that has been found to boost levels of serotonin, the hormone responsible for regulating mood.

Humankind has long known the value of gardening. Court physicians in ancient Egypt prescribed garden walks for the mentally unwell; the Roman satirist Juvenal exhorted us to ‘live as a lover of the hoe and master of the vegetable patch’; and more recently gardening has been used as therapy for war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

All well and good, but what if you are stuck in an office? Or have little access to green spaces? May I suggest that poetry can help us reconnect with nature in our imaginations, even if we are not there in reality? If I wish to escape from the dust and grime of the city, but can’t, I turn to William Butler Yeats’s ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. His poem helps me create an imaginary haven to which I can retreat.

"I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made; Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;

There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core. "

The lines thrum with the sounds of animals and colours of plants flourishing in the sun. Yeats chronicles the delights of a full day spent in this beautifully evoked ‘bee-loud’ glade, from misty sunrise to a midnight ‘all a glimmer’ with stars in a cloudless sky. He describes a vibrant oasis with song-like sounds, movement, and mystery to which the speaker returns in his mind when standing ‘on the pavements grey’. It is his little island of imagined tranquillity in the midst of a bustling town, it is also mine and can be yours too.

Poems can invite nature’s powers to heal us by giving us the words for all the wonder we can see but cannot express. They give us the images which mean that a tree or a flower can enter our consciousness in new and powerful ways, seared into our thoughts thanks to the alchemy of the poet’s language. When we read a poem like cummings’s ‘i thank You God for most this amazing’, a tree is no longer just a tree. It comes alive as if it were a dancing creature – Leaping spirits greenly’. And it comes alive in our minds too, expanding in significance and power through images which grab our attention with their vividness and truth to life. Thus is our experience of the natural world enrichened and deepened.

Poets also offer us a philosophical wisdom, about our place in the greater scheme of things. Take Wordsworth. His identification with nature is so profound, he feels he is a part of something bigger in his ‘Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.’ His euphoric realisation is that he is, and we are all part of nature.

"And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts: a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean, and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man –

A motion and a spirit that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things."

The poet feels a mystical presence that imbues nature and the mind of man. Wordsworth conveys this notion of connectivity so powerfully that it becomes believable, to the point where we can find it a consoling concept. We can follow his logic and experience the same connectivity, the feeling that we are part of something bigger. The poet evokes the transcending purity and magic of this presence, which dwells in the ‘light’ of setting suns: the plural ‘suns’ is strange and compelling, as is the ‘round ocean’ and ‘living’ air. The kinship which ‘rolls through all things’ is also evoked by the repetition of ‘and’– ‘And the round ocean, and the living air’. Wordsworth manages to describe something as evanescent and philosophical as this relatedness with nature in such a way that it feels ‘like an anchor’. Our spiritual voyage has been as real and grounded as Wordsworth’s actual revisiting of Tintern Abbey.

Other writers make the point that we can recall moments of natural beauty even when we are not in the countryside. Our conscious minds do not need to distinguish between real and imagined experience. We can always close our eyes and dream we are elsewhere, the sun smiling our gloom away. These authors offer a peaceful reprieve from a sometimes oppressive present even if we can’t escape to a Japanese garden.


Rachel Kelly’s new book You’ll Never Walk Alone: Poems for Life’s Ups and Downs is published by Yellow Kite at £16.99.


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