The first time I saw a parliament of rooks flocking in the early evening sky, I was studying for my Master’s degree. Let me explain. We found ourselves on the edge of a field with naturalist Mark Cocker, just as dusk was turning the clouds a mottled grey colour, waiting for some birds to appear. We had been promised that at precisely this time, in this location, the rooks would arrive and we would witness thousands of birds swarming the sky. Mark was right. To cut a long story short, the huge black net of birds seemed to perform a kind of bird ballet for us. An organisation that looks after the welfare of birds in Britain describes this kind of event as being like a mass aerial stunt – ‘thousands of birds all swooping and diving in unison’. You might well smirk at the idea of bird watching in your early twenties, but it was a spectacular sight. It definitely had an effect on me.
I appreciate that not everyone reading this will have experienced the British countryside, but this might be one occasion when it lives up to the classic and quaint ideals we may hold in our imagination. The question here, though, is what does this have to do with the health and medical humanities?
The event I described above marked my first foray into ‘new nature writing’. It got me thinking about human relationships with place; specifically, the psychogeographic principles that underpin the humanities’ interest in the connection between mind and place. Writing about the natural world is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. The ‘new nature writing’ movement, as discussed by Joe Moran in his article for the Literature & History journal, focuses on finding meaning in seemingly unremarkable encounters with the natural world and, furthermore, is often a cross between nature writing and memoir. It includes more input from the author about their personal experience of natural environments than would previously have been the case. Traditional nature writing, on the other hand, weaves together narrative description with biological and horticultural facts; a definite focus on the natural world, with little personal input from the writers.
The new nature writers, for example Robert Macfarlane, Kathleen Jamie, Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, have given the genre a contemporary twist. There is an interesting intersection to be explored between place, nature, the human condition and creativity. The human response to our physical surroundings features heavily in the literary canon. The following are a few sporadic examples: who could forget William Wordsworth’s famous expression ‘I wandered Lonely as a Cloud’, which took inspiration from a meditative walk in the Lake District? Also written in the nineteenth century, Emily Dickinson’s poetry carries a strong preoccupation with nature and the human condition. Dickinson wrote much of her work whilst sitting in her bedroom by the window, looking out upon the natural landscape. Thomas Hardy’s novels are well-known for their tragic plots; characters face social constraints and injustices against a backdrop of tumultuous English countryside. Where non-fiction is concerned, Bill Bryson’s accounts fuse travel writing with autobiography. Bryson gives information about the places he visits, interspersing this with personal reflection.
Some new nature writing seems to take these ideas further. There is another dimension to be explored in relation to the medical humanities and alternative medical interventions. Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure explores the deep emotional connection he forges with nature, which helps him work through severe depression. Mabey explains how, surrounded by nature, he began to write again, gained fresh self-insight, and alleviated some of his symptoms of depression. Here there is a hint of the powerful effect nature can have on human life. Mabey writes that “[w]e constantly refer back to the natural world to try and discover who we are. Nature is the most potent source of metaphors to describe and explain our behaviour and feelings” (Mabey, 2008, p. 19). Mabey makes a crucial link here between the natural world, literature, mood and behaviour. We communicate our feelings and state of mind using imagery inspired by nature, but is there more to it than that?
Certainly, many writers use metaphor or imagery related to the natural world to describe human states of being. In Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in the 1700s, pathetic fallacy is used to describe the unstable emotional state of the main protagonist as being comparable to the fluctuating weather. Goethe looks to the rain, clouds and storms to communicate his character’s emotional and psychological experiences. For example, the sadness of tears might here be reflected in rain drops.
Mabey exposes the way in which creativity explores these ideas; “language and imagination … are our most powerful and natural tools for re-engaging with [nature]…. Culture isn’t the opposite or contrary of nature. It’s the interface between us and the non-human world, our species’ semi-permeable membrane” (Mabey, 2008, p. 23). This suggests the closeness with nature that we might seek, to ‘make us feel better’, can be facilitated by the very act of producing literary writing that engages in some way with nature. Can immersion in the natural landscape, combined with creative engagement, lead to increased self-understanding and even contribute to recovery from illness?
It is an intriguing question and one that fits somewhere on the spectrum of the medical humanities. As for the word ‘parliament’, used at the beginning of this piece, it is one of many curious terms used to describe collectives of different types of birds. There is a deep connection between language and descriptions of natural phenomena, as an essential way in which we understand and communicate our knowledge of the natural world. For those who enjoy playing with language, my favourite of these curious terms include a murmuration of starlings, piteousness of doves and clattering of jackdaws.
Mabey, R., 2008. Nature Cure. London: Vintage.