Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Back in early March, just before literary events started being cancelled due to coronavirus, I had the good fortune to see Lucy Jones at Hungerford Town Hall, in conversation with local nature writer and Guardian Country Diary contributor Nicola Chester. Introducing her new book, Losing Eden, Jones explained that, while nature’s positive effect on human mental health is something that we know intuitively and can explain anecdotally, she was determined to investigate the scientific mechanism behind it. She set out to make an empirical enquiry and discovered plenty of evidence in the scientific literature, but also attests to the personal benefits that nature has for her and explores the spiritual connection that many have found.
The book’s genesis, eight years ago, was a time of mental ill health that coincided with Jones’s transition from music journalism to science journalism. She kicked her drug and alcohol addiction and got to a healthier place with the help of medication, psychotherapy, the support of family and friends, and nature. Walking at Walthamstow Marshes and then, when she moved out of London, tending an allotment made her feel better. She felt newly “plugged into a matrix of being,” as she said during the Hungerford event.
Research helped her to understand what was behind that sense of well-being. Exposure to the soil bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae leads to significantly reduced stress and inflammation, while smelling fresh rain and seeing fractals in nature activate portions of the brain involved in relaxation. The Amish, exposed to a diversity of microbes through their small-scale farming, have stronger immune systems and a lower incidence of mental illness. Thus, working the land or just pottering around in a garden can be not just fun but fortifying.
Jones expounds on E.O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis: that the human love of nature is innate and that, over millennia of evolution as hunter-gatherers on the African savannah, we developed a predilection for open areas with clumps of trees and bodies of water – places that are ideal for settlement. Even today, when asked to rate images of landscapes, people prefer savannah with acacia trees. But contrasting with biophilia is what lepidopterist Robert Pyle dubs the “extinction of experience” – over generations, we have lost our shared knowledge of species and natural rhythms. While her grandparents had bird migration patterns and plant names off by heart, Jones recognises that she knows only a fraction of what they did.
Ecotherapy, broadly, is the movement to combat this disconnection from nature. Outdoor nurseries and forest schools get children exploring nature from a young age. Jones also observed horticultural therapy in action at the Thrive charity headquarters in Berkshire and at a medium-security mental health unit. She discusses Attention Restoration Therapy, the Japanese practice of “forest bathing,” and the crime-reducing effects of green spaces in cities. Even nature videos can induce better behaviour among prisoners in solitary confinement, although simulations are ultimately insufficient. A larger problem is inequality of access to nature: the white and affluent are more likely to spend time in nature than poor minorities.
Although most of the book is based on research into the academic literature – the endnotes are full of references to scientific journals as well as newspapers and monographs – Jones acknowledges that not all of nature’s benefits are quantifiable. In that it gives “regular opportunities for awe,” which helps us to be less self-centred, nature grants spiritual uplift, too. Philip Carr-Gomm, the UK’s Chief Druid and a former psychotherapist, clarified for her the importance of sacred places and marking time through the solstices and equinoxes. Traditionally, nature has also helped people come to terms with their mortality – a corrective to our tendency to believe we are distinct from other animals. Jones cites the example of Derek Jarman, who found solace in his Dungeness garden while dying of AIDS. (Fortunately, his Prospect Cottage has just been rescued from private sale by a crowdfunding campaign.)
Looking to the future, Jones emphasises the necessity of biophilic cities and robust legislation to protect the natural world. Detroit has established 1500 community gardens on derelict land, while Singapore creates green walls and roofs to make the most of its limited space. In certain countries, there are laws that cement the rights of nature and prevent it from being degraded. Putting things right “will require unprecedented change, and time is not on our side,” Jones concludes. But in her final chapters she offers many ideas for how societies and individuals can change their attitudes and behaviours. In person, she said that youth activism, ecotherapy and protest successes (like against a tree-cutting drive in Sheffield) give her hope.
I was intrigued to hear Jones say that Losing Eden is consciously patterned on Silent Spring, down to the same number of chapters. Like Rachel Carson’s 1962 environmental classic, it is a forthright explication of the problems we face, backed up by volumes of irrefutable evidence, and it suggests some potential solutions. Both books open, though, with a dystopian scene. Carson’s first chapter imagines an American town where things die because nature stops working as it should. In Jones’s prologue, Xena and her grandmother live in a scorching concrete landscape surrounded by wildfire haze. Nature has been replaced by artifice: fake trees, AstroTurf, and a Holographic Nature Scene that depicts extinct ecosystems. Granny says people didn’t love nature enough, and failed to remember all it does for us. However, the epilogue presents a different view of Xena’s future, one of continuity and restoration.
Losing Eden is full of both common sense and passion, cramming masses of information into 200 pages of text yet never losing sight of the big picture. Both of the bookend scenarios it presents are equally plausible, but just as Silent Spring led to real societal change (in the form of a ban on the pesticide DDT), let us hope Jones’s work inspires steps in the right direction.
Rebecca Foster is a freelance proofreader and book reviewer from Maryland, USA. She reviews memoirs for the Times Literary Supplement and blogs at Bookish Beck.
Lucy Jones, Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild (Allen Lane: London, 2020). 978-0241441534, 272 pp., hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)