The wild space: a lost wellbeing refuge

A personal account of re-discovering a lost wellbeing refuge, and what that can mean for the mental health challenges we face.

Blog by Laurence Shanahan, Communications Officer

It flew, screaming, at the back of my head, leaving barely enough time for me to duck out of the way before it pulled into a sudden and drastic rise, swooping up to the thick wooden beams above. Scarcely a second later, having deposited food to the collection of chicks clustered in the rafters, the swallow was away again, its navy blue uniform flashing in the sunlight.

Here, in the gunroom of St Mawes castle, amid the preserved machinery of human warfare, nature had found a refuge. It’s a close encounter I will always treasure, and hope never to forget.

It wasn’t always this way. Barely four years earlier, I wouldn’t have noticed a whole army of swallows if they’d taken up residence in my kitchen. Like many people, I was cut off from the natural world, not by distance, but by indifference. We often simply don’t see things that we don’t know are there. But, as study after study begins to highlight how essential this natural connection is for our mental wellbeing, the distance we’ve created needs to shrink.

Losing nature

For many of us, our relationship with nature follows a familiar pattern. Well-meaning parents, guardians or teachers may try and instill a love of all things green in us at an early age. We may even go pond-dipping, submerging a plastic bucket into water and pretending to be interested in the myriad of identical looking beetles that gaze up at you, resentfully, from the murky depths.

But as our late teens and early adulthood approach, we sever the connection. Responsibility, work, and the general detritus of modern life – it all adds to the entirely reasonable feeling that there are more important things to focus on than the flowering of bluebells in a misty spring meadow.

And for many of us, that’s it. We never go back to that pond, that field, those woods. We’re cut off. And when things get tough, that escape is cut off, too.

Going back

I was in my early twenties when, seemingly out of the blue, I became acutely aware of that loss. Nature had always been an important presence in my childhood: the fields and lakes of the local nature reserve became fertile ground for an imagination fed by the heroic quests of videogame characters. As I’d grown older, though, I’d somehow kept the escapism and lost the escape; living life vicariously through places and people that never existed, or that I would never meet.

And when the books are closed and the screens are off, what’s left?

One day there was simply a gap: something absent. I didn’t know what it was, but unintentionally catching the end of AutumnWatch (which I’d never seen before) at least gave me a lead: here was nature – something real, tangible to cling to. Something would that stay with me in the mental emptiness I could feel approaching.

On a desperate whim, some action to stave off the growing void and the rising panic, I bought a second-hand pair of binoculars from a charity shop and a copy of the RSPB’s Handbook of British Birds.

I sat by a nearby pond, and learned that the shapes that crossed the water had names, lives and stories that were more real and vital and beautiful than anything escapism had ever offered. Here’s the coot, and the moorhen, and the mallard. The bluetit, and the wren, and the grebe. And they live and breathe as we do.

Strength to draw on

I felt I had found some secret place, some mental refuge to retreat to and regroup. I pulled this around myself like a thick coat, a protection from the looming fear. Not a way to hide, but a way to push on through, with the sound of birdsong as an ally.

I didn’t realise then what mental health challenges the coming years would hold for me, nor just how important this newfound nature would be in facing those challenges. I just knew that the world was something more than it had seemed before. That there was strength to draw on.

Last weekend, I made it by foot and bike to the old nature reserve, to find again something outside of day-to-day pressures, stresses, and worries. Trudging through the woods, I could feel that sense of lives unplanned by human hands, unknowable in their entirety. The way the russet light settles through the canopy at this time of year, the frenetic movements of birds seeking food and shelter – these things are not planned, written, or controlled by our ideas and whims.

At the edge of the lake, a grey heron stared out across the water from her watching-post in the reedbeds. Then, with a quick and subtle movement, she melted away from view. No-one but she knows where she went next.

Why we need to love nature

This year has, of course, been deeply strange, unsettling and difficult for all of us. But for many, having some connection to something beyond the headlines, beyond our own isolation and uncertainty, has been essential. You don’t need access to vast rolling countryside to do it; nature has moved into our cities, towns and homes. Even in the middle of suburbia, bird feeders and window boxes shine like a beacon for our secretive urban wildlife.

This need for nature is perhaps why the BBC stubbornly ploughed ahead, through endless technical difficulties and pandemic restrictions, to still bring SpringWatch to audiences trapped in their houses earlier this year. The oddly subdued broadcasts felt like a bittersweet rallying call, a reaching out to those who were struggling: nature is still here. You will find a way back, one day.

It’s not just our own wellbeing that benefits from our interest in nature. The (endangered) elephant in the room is that nature is suffering, suffocating under generations of human destruction and carelessness, fed by indifference, by lack of interest. The world from which we came is being left behind, and real lives of creatures that never bore us any ill will are being lost, forever.

We will not treasure what we never tried to have, and we will never save what we do not treasure. If we do not want to inhabit a world that is empty and devoid of any stories beyond our own, then we need to care. We need to connect.

Sharing what you’ve found

At a recent book event, I got the chance to ask wildlife author Stephen Moss how we can encourage others to get involved in something that can often seem a bit sad, a bit anorak-y. His answer was that you just keep at it, just keep making your love of nature and your passion for wild places shine through. It will catch on.

So that’s what I’m doing now. Nature has been essential for me – it’s served as an escape, a refuge, space for the mind to dwell. A real place, beyond our bright and exhausting cultural façade. I hope that, somehow, I can encourage you to join me there.

Be a part of it. Get outside, anywhere you can, and discover the world that hides in plain sight. Maybe you’ll find that it welcomes you home.

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