Recently, I (metaphorically) became acquainted with the Tasaday tribe.
To cut a long story short, the Tasaday tribe were a group of people discovered in the depths of the Philippine rainforest in the seventies. While lots of stories unfolded around them and their new found fame (we still don’t know the truth), the thing that struck me most was their relationship with nature.
They believed there was an owner of the forest who lived in the sky. They obeyed his wishes, which they believed he expressed through the weather and their wellbeing. If he was happy, there was sunshine. When he was angry, he sent rain and thunder, and sometimes even sickness. Nature was their god, the only supreme being they respected and worshipped. A lot of people around the world still live this way today, albeit in less extreme circumstances (e.g. Shinto, a nature-focused ‘religion’ in Japan, is still practiced by 83% of the population, while many South Koreans adhere to the popular motto ‘body and soil are one’).
It turns out, these guys had it sussed. And thankfully, Western societies — who, compared to the rest of the world seem to have the least healthiest relationship with nature — are starting to suss it out, too. Provoked by declines in wellbeing, physical ailments or general itchy feet, people are leaving their desks to ‘find simplicity’. Of course, by simplicity, they really mean nature. Log cabins, remote retreats, etc. They’re fed up of emails and feeling ‘non-stop’, they’re bored with excess and want to pare back.
I’m not dropping everything and moving to Bali, but I am currently moving house. I need air and space — two things my current area, as bustling and brilliant as it is, doesn’t have. Parks nearby take the edge off, but it’s not enough for my mental health anymore. The first thing I thought when I explored the new area? ‘I can breathe’. The roads are wide, the streets quiet and there are vast expanses of green in every direction.
It’s strange it’s taken us this long to realise just how important nature is to our everyday lives. National Geographic recently published a piece called‘This Is Your Brain On Nature’, which highlights the endless ways that nature is good for us.
Here are just a few:
‘People living near more green space reported less mental distress’
‘Students performed 50 percent better on creative problem-solving tasks after three days of wilderness backpacking’
‘Researchers found lower incidence of 15 diseases, including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines, in people who lived within about a half mile of green space’
‘In 2015 an international team overlaid health questionnaire responses from more than 31,000 Toronto residents onto a map of the city, block by block. Those living on blocks with more trees showed a boost in heart and metabolic health equivalent to what one would experience from a $20,000 gain in income’
But the research that sums it all up for me is the discovery that people who lived near green space were happier and healthier — even if they didn’t use it. You don’t even have to go for a leafy walk to reap the benefits, so think of how good you’ll feel if you do. Researcher Greg Bratman also found that volunteers who roamed a park for 90 minutes had less negative and self-deprecating thoughts than those on a busy street.
The latter part of this research certainly rings true for me. On the streets I frequent in the city — predominantly grey and busy— I’m reminded, with every step, of my reality. Of course, I’m not complaining about my, frankly cushty, way of life, but if things aren’t going the way you want them to, for whatever reason, it can be hard not to let other factors, such as a dismal street, add to those negative feelings. There are also the typical city moans: slow walkers, predictably terrible weather, overheated subway, miserable people (miserable, of course, because of the aforementioned obstacles). When I’m hiking in the woods, I feel hopeful, productive, satisfied. I think about how nice my life is, and how I could make it even nicer. I seem to conjure up brilliant ideas out of nowhere (magic tree dust?).
But as the endless studies have shown, all of us — even people who can’t identify with this — can be both healed and high-fived by nature.
Japanese researcher Yoshifumi Miyazaki believes that our bodies relax in nature because they evolved there, and that we’re adapted to take in information about trees and plants, not office blocks. This is central to our toxic relationship with Mother Nature. Despite having most of the same bare essentials as all living organisms, we refuse to accept that we are equal with animals and wildlife. This is evident through so many things, from poaching to cutting down trees, building on green space to letting global warming happen on our watch.
To paraphrase Jason Mraz, we are animals, we are wild, and we need to live with the land in harmony.
It would be trite and narrow-minded to suggest everyone just ‘lives off the land’ (as my mum would say), and spectacularly naive and unrealistic to suggest that we abandon our busy lives for a hammock in Indonesia. While most of us would prefer that lifestyle, modern life doesn’t permit it. But it’s shocking to think that we can increase our feelings of calmness or happinessfor free, in just a few minutes, and yet many of us choose not to.
“We think other things will [make us happy], like shopping or TV. We evolved in nature. It’s strange we’d be so disconnected,” Lisa Nisbet, Psychology Professor at Canada’s Trent University told Nat Geo.
A walk in the park is enough. And if you can’t even manage that? Just spotting a tree from your window will do the trick.