Does Nature Always Heal? Perspectives from a Naturalist with Tuberculosis

Jessica Kirwan //

Despite periods of poor health, and despite many moves, Emily Shore always kept loyal to her interest in the study of nature, and her talents as a naturalist did not diminish as her health worsened. In fact, she became increasingly interested in how her body’s response to the natural world improved her health and lengthened her life. Such metaphorical language speaks to the dual functionality of Shore’s journal, as a natural history encyclopedia and a personal diary, as a public and private record, bringing to light a young woman’s views on illness and natural remedies.

When Shore writes personal reflections on the effect of nature on her illness, we find an evident contradiction: She must avoid the outdoors when she is feeling especially sick since it exacerbates her cough, but spending time outdoors also restores and strengthens her. Even when she is forced to sit outdoors, rather than ramble, she continues to make scientific observations about the environment. When her cough keeps her indoors (Shore 137-8), however, she longs for the outdoors and the power of observation; she feels isolated by her illness (208). Tuberculosis is a disease that “individualizes,” as Susan Sontag has said in her essay Illness as Metaphor. On a quotidian and domestic level, both Shore’s exposure to and absence from nature easily determine her degree of loneliness and suffering on any day. Reading the medical advice in Chamber’s journal alongside Shore’s response to her exposures to nature, we find that Victorians daily struggled to harness the natural environment, both their domestic and wild environments, their native and foreign environments, to keep their illnesses under their control.

Sadly, the frequency of Shore’s rambles through nature decreased as she grew older. On a rare evening walk while visiting family friends (including a romantic interest) and exploring the garden at Bartley Lodge in Hampshire near New Forest, Shore writes,

“I thought I could have walked anywhere and to any distance. We walked up and down the gravel path for some time, conversing and drinking in the loveliness above and all around. The thought crossed me once or twice, ‘Will this be the last evening walk I shall ever take?’ I was so revived, so brightened up this evening, that it was like a lucid interval, perhaps the last in a long illness” (270).

This bacchanalian description of the walk actually leads to the opposite effect than expected. Rather than occlude her awareness, the walk induces lucidity; the evening appears brighter than normal. But ultimately, the ethereal beauty of this short-lived experience, rather than empower Shore, as nature normally did, is a reminder that her time on earth is limited.  Later, when she is once again both emboldened and exhausted by nature after a hike in Madeira, Shore writes, “I confess I was very weary, but the scenery was so noble that I was tempted on, and could not persuade myself to stop…Here we were at last truly in the country…” (311). The description of the scenery, flora, and birds continues for pages to end with a visit to an English friend and the gathering of a bouquet. It is impressive that Shore accomplished so much in a day despite the feelings of exhaustion that began to define her existence. Yet as Sontag observes, popular descriptions of consumption characterize intervals of “hyperactivity alternating with languidness” (Sontag 11).

Funchal Garden
View from the Botanical Gardens in Funchal, Madeira, Portugal, the city where Shore spent her last years in the hope that her environment would palliate her illness.

That she might simultaneously recover yet decline when exposed to nature are ideas Shore repeatedly revisits. While she is greatly impressed by the natural flora and fauna she experiences in Portugal, she is continually reminded of England. For example, when she describes her new home, its bounteous furnishings, luxurious floors, and many rooms, she is only reminded of a former abode, Bartley Lodge, where she stayed while visiting family friends, including a young man for whom she had a strong affection (307). Everywhere she turns are reminders of a past life.

Rambles through Funchal and Madeira can be exciting for Shore, but they also serve as memento mori, reminders that the happiness she knew as a girl cannot be repeated by this older, more aware woman inflicted with tuberculosis. Everything she left behind in England, the foundations of her profession, are forever out of her grasp. Descriptions of places and artifacts from nature continually cause discouraging bouts of nostalgia: “I am pining to be at Woodbury. It is now in all its beauty; the drawing-room is perfumed with the China roses, and the garden is in full bloom. Alas! I shall see Woodbury no more” (Shore 204). Later, “my mind continually turns involuntarily at all hours of day and night to Woodbury” (Shore 205). Whether she is saddened by reminders of England or by an inability to explore, the deprivation of the nature most familiar to her from her childhood affects her psychological well-being such that the natural world depresses her by reminding her of what her life could have been.

“I used to ramble for hours amongst the woods and fields of dear Woodbury, in unwearied search of some unknown warbler…I have not been able to enter on one of these bird-hunts for almost a twelvemonth, and oh, how forcibly did it recall recollections of home and of old times! Alas! I can never hope again for these enjoyments at Woodbury, which perhaps I may see no more…” (187).

Shore ends this passage with an ellipses because she is only beginning to experience a series of recollections induced by her illness that will increase her depression.

When accounting for the role of nature in Shore’s life once she became ill, we can surmise that, although a change in environment may have alleviated some of her symptoms, for an ill Shore rambles through nature and the scientific discoveries found therein served as reminders of a life that could not be. That, for Shore, nature caused as much depression as it did restoration and rejuvenation calls to task not only the efficacy of geographical climate in the palliation of a fatal disease, which we now understand as an attempt by Victorian physicians to grasp at straws for treatments to consumption, but also the expectations that nature heals and cannot harm. It would be more accurate to say that, for Emily Shore, nature is both invigorating and a reminder of one’s mortality.

“The loss of health and strength has altogether deprived me of the active amusements, the rambles and observations of nature, in which I so much delighted, and has continually checked me in my studies, in which I delighted as much…And there are other causes, mental ones, which prevent my enjoying things as I once did; but they are partly my own fault, and partly what I share in common with others. Oh, how many happy hours, which seem to me but as yesterday, start up in contrast with the present!…I live it all over again, and I cannot avoid weeping. There is no language to describe the sharp pain of past and regretted happiness. I was much happier as a child than I am now, or ever shall be” (320).

Wilmot Garden
Wilmot Garden, a healing garden at the University of Florida (Gainesville, FL)

That nature has a healing effect has been explored by philosophers, landscapers, and medical experts alike. Claire Hickman quotes Joseph Addison when he says in The Spectator in 1712, “Delightful scenes, whether in nature, painting, or poetry, have a kindly influence on the body, as well as the mind, and not only serve to clear and brighten the imagination, but are able to disperse grief and melancholy, and to set the animal spirits in pleasing and agreeable motions: (Hickman 426). As Hickman argues in “Cheerful Prospects and Tranquil Restoration: The Visual Experience of Landscape as Part of the Therapeutic Regime of the British Asylum, 1800-1860,” “Addison’s themes were complemented later in the eighteenth century by the idea of ‘nature’ itself, rather than a series of picturesque incidents, as a healing force for the mind, which was explored by Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge” (427).

More recently, in the paucity of randomized controlled trials that provide statistical certainties that gardens can alleviate illness, Nancy Gerlach-Spriggs, Richard Enoch Kaufman, and Samm Bass Warner, Jr., have brought together the few studies that have attempted to analyze the effect of nature on illness. In their book, Restorative Gardens, they review research about the influence of windows and nature scenes on hospital patient outcomes, theories about precognitive responses to nature that evolved within our protohuman ancestors, and neurological studies that link gardens to nervous system responses. By drawing on both science and history, they argue that medical outcomes can be improved by the ways in which our bodies respond to nature. “Gardens have a mythology, a poetry, and a history, strongly linked to life cycles and the processes of healing, renewal, and ultimately dying” (Gerlach-Spriggs 5). While a skeptic might cite Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, in which she observes that “there is a peculiarly modern predilection for psychological explanations of disease” (55), this modern-day emphasis on nature’s effects on the nervous system inform our understanding of eighteenth and nineteenth century perspectives on the relationship between the nervous system and disease outcomes.

References

  1. Gerlach-Spriggs, Nancy, Richard Enoch Kaufman, and Sam Bass Warner, Jr. Resorative Gardens: The Healing Landscape. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998. Print.
  2. Hickman, Clare. “Cheerful Prospects and Tranquil Restoration: The Visual Experience of Landscape as Part of the Therapeutic Regime of the British Asylum, 1800-1860.” History of Psychiatry.1 (2009): 425-441. Print.
  3. Shore, Emily. Journal of Emily Shore. Ed. Barabara Timm Gates. Charlottesville and London: -University of Virginia Press, 1991. Print.
  4. Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors. New York: Picador, 2001. Print.

 

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