Monday 10 May 2021

The Benefits of the Wild

This piece was written two years ago for Scotland The Big Picture's Think Like A Mountain newsletter, well before Covid-19 arrived. After the lockdowns it seems even more apposite. So many more people have discovered how important nature is to them. If I was writing the piece today there would be many references to the pandemic. As it is, I decided to just mention that in this introduction and leave the piece as written.

The forest path stretched into the distance, walled by the dark green trees. The feeling was calm and placid, almost soporific. Walking was relaxing, effortless. I was barely aware that was what I was doing. My mind was floating through the woods, detached and tranquil. Nature can do that, even in a forest like this, which wasn’t spectacular, awesome, glorious, exciting or any other of the Instagram-essential hyped-up descriptions. Just a pleasant wood with a little path weaving through it. But its effect was magical. I was in another world, far from the problems of the bigger one outside those trees. The walk left me feeling refreshed, revived, and much more able to cope with that often overwhelming and frightening human-made world.

That nature and walking in nature can have such a healthy effect has become widely accepted in recent years, with many studies backing this up. For those of us who’ve revelled in nature and wild places all our lives this isn’t new. It became part of me when I was a child, exploring local woods and fields. It’s something I’ve always known, though it took me many years to realise this was something special and important. Wild places matter for our mental and physical health. They take us away from the frenetic, noisy, confusing world of cities and industry and return us to our true home. Over a hundred years ago John Muir wrote “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” This is as true today as it was then and even more urgent as now even fewer people have much contact with nature while our wild places are diminishing even faster than in Muir’s time just as more of us are discovering how important they are.

In the words of Joni Mitchell “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”. Some of us do know but not enough and it’s important we do everything we can to spread this knowledge and get more people committed to protecting and restoring wild places. We are part of nature. Forgetting this can only lead to disaster.

The peace of wild places, the comfort of nature, can soothe the mind. Physical activity in these places can keep the body healthy. Walking, mountaineering, kayaking, swimming; the actual activity matters less than where it’s carried out. All those who take part in these outdoor pursuits gravitate towards wilder places, and not, I think, just because of their aesthetic qualities but also because the wildness feels right, helps make the physical activity feel appropriate, helps make the experience complete and whole. When I walk through wild places, especially day after day, I feel I belong, I feel part of where I am, the detachment I feel in cities disappears. The physical and mental benefits of wild nature combine to give a feeling of contentment.

It might seem this doesn’t matter to most people. That it’s just a few outdoor lovers and wildlife enthusiasts who are concerned. That this isn’t so was brought home to me during the foot and mouth disaster many years ago. Much of the countryside, including even the wildest places, was closed. Tourism fell away. If people couldn’t leave roads and experience nature, even if only for a stroll or a picnic in a wood or field, they didn’t come. Just looking at the landscape wasn’t enough. They wanted the freedom of being in nature, not just observers of it.

During that sad time I met two walkers from England on the summit of Cairn Toul, deep in the Cairngorms. With access to the English hills still restricted they’d come up here for the freedom of walking in hills that weren’t regulated and controlled, where they could wander at will. Wild places are free places. We need them. “Wildness is a necessity”.

No comments:

Post a Comment