I write this as we wade through the seemingly endless weeks of a third national lockdown that so many of us were hoping might have been avoided, as we fervently wished to greet the arrival of the new year with confidence and positivity. However, at the time of writing (January 2021), it seems there is now definitely light at the end of what has been a very long and dark tunnel, in the shape of a supply of vaccines, which are already being rolled out to the most vulnerable and at risk, with impressive speed. But for many, this light is still on a distant horizon and, increasingly, I’m hearing clients expressing their fears that this time around, their resources and resilience have reached a very low ebb.
Worst affected are, as almost always, the most vulnerable sectors of society, who will already have suffered acutely from financial and personal losses, poor health and poor living conditions and for whom the future will feel increasingly threatened. Family life has once again been disrupted, with children being home-schooled where the facilities are available for them to do so; but some do not have access to the necessary equipment and some not even to adequate meals to sustain them, so this, too, will reinforce the inequalities. And, as parents have to adapt to being home tutors, I find myself wondering how we can adapt our coaching parameters to guide and sustain our clients through these arduous times?
During this past year, the use of technology to aid communication and sustain connections, both personal and professional, has risen exponentially, and this has enabled many of us to keep in touch with family and friends, to continue working, to learn new skills and to be entertained in ways that would have been impossible even a decade ago. Nevertheless, I believe there has been a sense that something that is essential to our fundamental wellbeing has been missing and that, as we face several more weeks, or even months, of severe restrictions, it is important to explore more deeply what it was that we most lacked during this time, and how we can better resource ourselves in the face of what could be a very volatile future. At the time of writing, we are allowed to leave our houses once a day for the purpose of exercise, and this daily outing has taken on new significance that, perhaps, had not been fully appreciated before. Outdoor space has become increasingly sought after and, for many, walking has become not just a simple process of getting from A to B, but something that has value in itself. Therefore, it feels important to examine what it is in the natural environment that contributes not only to our physical health but also to our mental wellbeing, so that we can include this resource in our coaching ‘toolbox’.
A comment by the popular television gardener, Monty Don, seems appropriate for these times: ‘Most of us have little sense of control of our lives. It is our piece of the outdoors that lays a real stake to the planet.’ Although published back in 2005, in a compilation of his newspaper articles, this comment feels highly relevant today.1
In the October 2020 issue of this journal, Jackee Holder wrote movingly of feeling grounded when among trees, and offered some powerful metaphors to illustrate how the natural environment can represent our psychological landscape.2 In a previous issue, Jane Owen wrote a compelling piece describing her experience of an outdoor approach to coaching, which embraced the Forest School method of teaching resilience and outdoor learning to children, which she applied to her work with young adults.3 These last 10 months have brought into sharp perspective how important nature is to our mental as well as our physical health, and even those without easy access to gardens or woodlands have found that tending plants on a balcony or observing how nature can survive and thrive on the streets of our cities, has helped to improve their mood and soothe anxiety. Research has shown that the restorative effect of plants, whether indoor or out, and of being able to observe gardens and green spaces, is experienced even in hospital settings. This is described by psychiatrist and psychotherapist Sue Stuart-Smith in her book, A Well Gardened Mind, illustrating how the Horatio Garden project has been found to be particularly beneficial in reducing recovery times for long-term patients.4
Echoing Jackee’s use of metaphor to describe nature’s influence on our mental health, in her book Rootbound, published last year, author Alice Vincent recounts her process of recovery from a mental health crisis by creating gardens in her urban environment, using window boxes, planters and seed trays.5 The positive effect of plants on the chemistry of the brain are vividly described in the Japanese art of forest bathing, or shinrin yoku, which, thanks to studies led by Dr Qing-Li at the Nippon Medical School,6 is shown to increase our feelings of wellbeing, reduce anxiety, improve mood and raise our immunity – the latter being particularly relevant today. BBC series such as Autumnwatch and Winterwatch are now described in some television listings as ‘public service broadcasts’. The latter recently devoted an entire programme to the healing powers of nature, and the BBC and the University of Exeter are now working together to conduct studies into how these benefits can be experienced virtually for those unable to access the outdoor world in reality. As part of my research for this article, I took part in this project, which is available online, and I will be interested to read the results of the data collected.7
Next in this issue...
I am fortunate to be able to look through my window onto a garden area where snowdrops are beginning to push their green shoots and white caps through the rain-drenched soil, and even a few brave daffodils are poking their heads above the sodden ground. These sights have an immensely soothing and nourishing effect on me, not only due to their evident beauty, but in the sense of rebirth and continuity they carry with them, giving a sense of constancy that can be difficult to find elsewhere.
The concept of nature deprivation as a disorder was first coined by author and journalist Richard Louv in his book, The Last Child in the Woods, 8 and although it is still not clinically recognised as such, as early as Victorian times, doctors recommended walking as an antidote to anxiety and depression – something that should, perhaps, be included on doctors’ prescription pads again today. As journalist Isabel Hardman points out in The Natural Health Service: ‘Much of the great outdoors is free at the point of access. We do not pay to walk down the street or watch birds from our window.’9
So how can we develop an integrated format that harnesses the resources of the natural world, and brings the practice of ecotherapy into the coaching arena to guide and support the widest range of clients possible, through these difficult times and going forward? I feel that it is important to try to find a way that could be made available and accessible to all – a service that would be free at the point of delivery to every citizen of the country, regardless of race, colour, creed, mobility or financial status. Impressive and inspirational work in the field of equal opportunities has already been achieved by 18-year-old ornithologist and blogger Mya-Rose Craig, aka ‘Birdgirl’, who set up the forum, Black 2 Nature, specifically aimed at providing better access to the natural world for black and ethnic minorities.10 I believe examples of projects such as these can model ways to move coaching forward with its focus on social change and diversity and incorporate them into a more mainstream approach.
In her Coaching Today article,3 Jane Owen describes the Forest School method of connecting children with the natural world in a way that encourages them to learn through process, and these methods are gaining increased credibility as research studies demonstrate they have a positive impact on self-esteem and resilience.11 I was already familiar with these programmes as my daughter, Claire, is a trained Forest School leader and has often shared with me stories of the remarkable changes and developments that she has witnessed in her outdoor work with children in a way that gives scope to their natural sense of wonder and imaginative play. However, she and I felt that any similar programme for adults or adolescents would need to focus more directly on the eco-therapeutic aspect of the work, and such sessions would need to be professionally safeguarded.
This then was an area in which our different skill sets could support and complement each other, so we set to work putting together a programme for a trial morning of woodland therapy and coaching, which we scheduled for early September 2020. (As it turned out, we were lucky to be able to fit this in between national lockdowns, although we were unaware at the time, of course, how brief a period that would be.) We decided to call the session ‘The Woodland Process’, as we felt we wanted to present the session as part of an ongoing and organic way of developing harmony and connection with nature, rather than as a one-off ‘fix’. Spreading the word locally, we quickly received responses from 10 self-selecting adults who were willing to attend a pilot session and eager to explore if and how being in the woods for a few hours might impact their mood and sense of psychological and physical health. The following is an outline of the proposed programme for the project:
When the day arrived, we certainly felt that nature was collaborating with us as a huge and fiery red September sun shone radiantly in a cloudless blue sky, giving the most exquisite dappling to the light between the trees. Our participants arrived, to be bathed in a warmth that lasted throughout the day, and it was easy to smile as we briefly checked in, introduced ourselves and shared reasons for our interest in the project. We encouraged everyone to allow themselves to be as receptive as they could to their sensory experiences of sight, sound, smell and touch.
I then suggested that, as we walked towards the woods, they could scatter their worries and concerns on the path behind them (like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs) and enter the wood with an uncluttered and open mind. As we made our way among the trees, Claire led a guided tour of the area, describing the historic and cultural associations of woodlands and their transformative powers, from children’s fables, such as Hansel and Gretel, to the magic of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She talked of the deep psychic call of the woods, and how, on a practical level, they provide almost everything we need: shelter, warmth, food and safety, but could touch us in so many other areas, emotionally and psychologically.
She described the different characteristics of the trees and how the male and female archetypes are symbolised by the solid and robust oak and the more delicate but flexible ash respectively, and she also explained the extraordinary way that trees interact and communicate with each other through their leaves and roots to warn of danger and predators and to collaborate with each other. We learned that we, too, collaborate with the trees by breathing in their oxygen and then exhaling CO2, which the trees then absorb for their own respiratory purposes. Pausing for a cup of tea or coffee, we shared our thoughts, impressions and feelings on the experience so far and took time for some deep-breathing exercises. After the break, we suggested that people could choose whether they would like to take time for a personal communion with the woods in whichever way they felt they would like, or to be guided in some woodland activities, and we also offered a safe space for those who might like to talk.
Some wandered through the woods alone, others with a companion; some came to talk to me privately about particular issues that were concerning them; and others just sat peacefully with their thoughts. When we came back together for the wrap-up at the end of the session, we could all feel a new and palpable energy as people enthusiastically shared their feelings. Many had felt the desire to make a personal connection with the wood and we were shown some beautiful creations, including crowns made of twigs interwoven with leaves and berries, leaf pressings, unusual shapes of bark or fungi, dream catchers etc.
Two participants had felt moved to write poems which, with the permission of the authors, we later circulated to all the participants. Feedback from the process included feeling lighter, inspired, creative, soothed and energised – and nobody wanted the session to end! As we returned along the path, this time leaving the wood behind us, the cares and burdens we had scattered on the path earlier in the day seemed significantly lighter and somehow more manageable, and there was a spring in our steps.
When we debriefed a couple of days later, Claire and I felt it was a very rewarding and positive experience and one which we would like to make available on a wider basis, not only at a time of crisis, but as a fundamental contribution to living a healthy and sustainable lifestyle. Unfortunately, due to the current circumstances, we have been unable to continue with the programme, but we have received requests to revive the sessions as soon as we are able to do so.
While I appreciate that this programme was only possible due to having access to an appropriate woodland setting and that this is something not easily available to everyone, we are now discovering that nature has the power to effect mood change when brought into an indoor setting, and maybe even through a virtual medium. The model of resilience, universal connectivity and nurture that Mother Nature demonstrates in her many manifestations is surely an ever-present resource that could be incorporated into the coaching model to move forward with all our clients, whoever they are and whatever their circumstances. The following quotations from the nature writings of Carl Jung12 are, I feel, particularly apposite, and I leave you with these: ‘Our world has become de-humanised. Man feels himself isolated in the cosmos because he is no longer involved in Nature’ ‘Science comes to a stop at the frontiers of logic, but Nature does not’.
1 Don M. My roots: a decade in the garden. London: Hodder & Stoughton; 2005.
2 Holder J. The soul of nature. Coaching Today 2020; October/36: 22–26.
3 Owen J. Into the forest: resilience-building for young adults. Coaching Today 2020; April/34: 24–29.
4 Stuart-Smith S. The well gardened mind. London: Collins; 2020.
5 Vincent A. Rootbound. London: Canongate; 2020.
6 Quin-Li D. Shinrin-Yoku (Into the forest): the art and science of forest bathing. Penguin Books; 2018.
7 BBC Online. Soundscapes for wellbeing [Online.] https://canvas-story.bbcrewind.co.uk/soundscapesforwellbeing/ (accessed February 2021).
8 Louv R. The last child in the woods. London: Atlantic Books; 2010.
9 Hardman I. The natural health service. London: Atlantic Books; 2020.
10 Craig M-R. Birdgirl: Black2Nature: www.birdgirl.com
11 Forest School Association [Online.] www.forestchoolsassociation.org
12) Sabini M (ed). The nature writings of CG Jung. North Atlantic Books; 2002.