Mental health: the way of the land artist
Project evaluation reports provide abundant evidence of the benefits of ‘nature reconnection’ for mental wellbeing. These include, among many others, reductions in the symptoms of depression and anxiety; an improved ability to cope with grief and to think clearly; greater self-belief, confidence and authenticity; a sense of optimism about the future; and a feeling of peacefulness and calm.
These benefits are increasingly being recognised – not only by environmental organisations such as the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust, which states that “”The power of nature to transform the way we feel can never be underestimated,” but also by the National Health Service itself, where the South Region Sustainability and Health Network is dedicating its upcoming conference to “Delivering the health and wellbeing benefits of the natural environment.” Even the UK Research Councils have joined forces to fund new scientific research into the health and wellbeing benefits of urban greenspace.
A recent study suggesting that “green spaces are worth £2.2bn to public health in England” focused primarily on physical activity and the prevention of obesity, rather than examining the potential contributions of natural environments to public health from the perspective of preventing mental health conditions from developing or worsening.
Despite the growing interest, researchers have barely begun to explore the potential of nature to transform mental well-being. The spectrum of possible ‘nature reconnection’ activities is vast – ranging from a simple walk through the park at one end of the spectrum, through bushcraft and conservation activities, to deep experiential encounters with sacred sites (like pilgrimages, retreats and vision quests) on the other.
In his recently published book Dartmoor Mindscapes, author Peter Knight opens up the possibility of “a new way of seeing, of experiencing, of being…” – immersing ourselves fully in a place, encountering it in different seasons and weather conditions and at different times of the day. We are offered, and can accept, invitations to come closer: to follow the ‘road less travelled’ into the woodland, to sit on a mossy stump or a low branch, to see the Green Man’s face in the tree trunk or the ancient crone in the standing stone, and to find something of ourselves hidden in the undergrowth. This is the way of the prehistoric shaman, and the way of the contemporary land artist.
The way of the land artist demands a deeper engagement with nature than any traditional ‘green exercise’ programme allows. Without denying that green exercise has value in itself, there is so much more to be gained – in terms of mental health benefits – from taking quality time, showing love, and expressing our innate creativity within an environment. The true land artist asks permission before moving anything, and never breaks or damages living plants: instead, we construct the artwork around them and draw them into it. From the simple beginning of rearranging objects on the surface of the land to enhance and draw attention to its inherent beauty, we can shift into an even deeper mode of engagement, as I wrote during a recent up-close-and-personal encounter with the New Forest:
“I have never been so intimately involved with a land art piece before. I construct, take photographs, and walk away. That’s what I do. But now I’m giving a new meaning to `sacred space is where you are / where you are is sacred space’. I am creating performance art: an intimate sacred dance between myself and Goddess: between my body, my artwork, and the Land.”
We are all blemished, like every one of the leaves in the picture. But, as Max Ehrmann wrote in his timeless poem Desiderata (often mistakenly thought to date back to the sixteenth century), we are children of the universe, no less than the trees and stars. We have a right to be here.
We have a right, a birthright, to engage deeply with the land and to find joy in it, to sing to it and lie down in it and make art within it, without harming it in any way. There are benefits for conservation, too, in promoting this deeper engagement: we know that people will protect only what they love. And the mental health benefits, as I can testify from my own (albeit anecdotal) evidence, are immense.