The notion that nature can improve our mental wellbeing is having another moment in the spotlight. It’s an idea with a long history, a feature of many cultural traditions, but its current resurgence has a decidedly scientific aspect. Recently I’ve read that we are 50 per cent better at creative problem- solving after going backpacking in the wilderness; that walking in woods decreases our cortisol levels, blood pressure and heart rate; that people heal more quickly if they can view trees from their hospital window; and that looking at natural scenes increases blood flow to those areas of the brain that are associated with altruism and empathy.
Some of these modern studies have led to calls for more public green space in crowded cities, a truly laudable aim. But others are founded on a conception of what it means to ‘be in nature’ that is far from helpful for those who can’t, for physical, financial or other reasons, simply take off for the hills to wander about in resplendent solitude. When we think of being in nature, our minds tend to images of forests or hills, windswept estuaries or wild moors. It’s easy to forget that our conception of nature has been shaped less by the findings of modern ecological science than by the workings of social history, and how art, too, has played a crucial role in showing us what we think nature ought to look like, what it ought to be, and how we should relate to it.
We are inclined to fiercely protect our image of nature. Over the last couple of years, I’ve come across several petitions to stop footpaths in areas of scenic natural beauty from being covered in asphalt to improve access. These petitions puzzled me. How could a narrow ribbon of tar laid atop a track induce such outrage and fury? It all seemed to rest on the understanding that the change would look, somehow, wrong and unnatural, and not because it would unduly affect the creatures nearby: an emperor moth caterpillar munching on heather stems cares nothing of whether someone treads past it on gravel or stone or asphalt, knows nothing of humans at all.
‘The scale of global diversity loss is not only vast but seemingly unstoppable’
But perhaps it’s not surprising that local battles like these are so fiercely fought. As I write, the climate emergency is accelerating, ancient forests are being torn up for transport infrastructure, crucial feeding grounds for migrating shorebirds are being destroyed, the Amazon is burning, reefs are dying, ordinary arable fields are routinely sprayed by pesticides over 20 times a year. The scale of global biodiversity loss is not only vast but seemingly unstoppable. No wonder tempers run high over local footways. It’s not just that we feel strongly that nature should look a certain way, should conform to the images we have of it. It is also that these are the kinds of battles we feel we might be able to win: local skirmishes in what seems otherwise a hopeless, global war of destruction.
But thinking about the needs of that imagined, oblivious caterpillar munching on leaves beside the path reminds me of the deepest problem I have with the notion that nature should be valued for its therapeutic worth. It is the us in the equation. We spend so much time thinking about what the natural world should look like for us, what benefits it can bring us, that we are inclined to forget it is not for us alone.
Images of nature tend to take two basic forms: either landscape views, or discrete portraits of animals and plants that resemble, in how they cut their subjects free of their environment, museum taxidermy or pressed specimens in herbaria. Very few of these depictions capture what it is truly like to experience the messy, glorious reality of creatures at home in the world.
A crowd of purple sandpipers in a mountain stream, bathing so furiously their bodies are obscured by rainbows; the inch of braided khaki that’s a grass snake slipping through long grass; the ticking hiss of a field of grasshoppers, which swells and ebbs as the sun appears and disappears behind clouds on a summer afternoon. When I encounter such things, they provoke a distinctive kind of mindfulness in me. It’s not, I think, that my cortisol levels decrease, or I find my problem-solving skills have improved. It’s a recognition that the world belongs to all its inhabitants, not just to us; the intuition that we, too, are short-lived, variegated, partial and complicated creatures; and the feeling of how lucky I am to be here to see such things at all.
All of us have felt the difference between understanding a thing and truly knowing it. It’s the difference between intellectual comprehension and lived experience. I remember reading in the diaries of the writer T.H.White that coming to understand something is like reading about how one might use a rod and line to catch a trout. But coming to know it: that’s the tug on the line as the fish bites and dives, the flip of recognition you feel deep in your stomach. Knowing is visceral. It becomes part of who you are.
Over a lifetime of watching wildlife, I’ve treasured all the times I’ve come to know something about the natural world in this way. Those moments have always been partial – none of us can ever know the true complexity of what’s out there; our brains can’t handle such data. But they have always been special, and they have changed not only how I think about the natural world, but about our place in it, and even what we are.
Some of these revelations came early. I must have been six or seven when I first traced my finger over a globe, running it all the way down its glossy paper surface from Britain to South Africa, and felt a sudden shock of realisation, as I did so, that the frail bodies of migrant birds made that arduous journey back and forth every year. This was new knowledge that made the world feel bigger and smaller at once. Later revelations have been just as astounding for me. Many of these have come from a recognition of how tightly we are trapped in our views of the world around us. We cannot help the way we see things. As I wrote in H is for Hawk (2014), people do not live very long or look very hard. We are very bad at scale. We are bad at time, too. We cannot remember what lived here before we did, and we cannot imagine what will be different when we are dead.
But we are, all the time, all of us, surrounded by life we cannot see. It’s dizzying to realise that one teaspoon of soil can contain a billion individual microscopic cells and around ten thousand different species. It changed the way I thought about the nature of selfhood when I learned our own bodies are host to three times more microorganisms than we have cells of our own, and that most of them are so intimately a part of us they are truly who we are. And it shook me deeply when I came to know that most plants have an intimate association with fungal hyphae that grow into and around their roots, sharing nutrients and water, and that plants can communicate with each other along the threads of this invisible, complicated network. Forests are things far larger than simply trees and soil.
And then there was the day I learned about the true nature of air – that deep, blank space I’d assumed was only vacancy. I had been researching an article about high-rise buildings and wanted to know if anything more than birds lived in the sky around their upper floors. I discovered there was a whole scientific discipline dedicated to the subject – aeroecology – and reading
up on the topic blew my mind. For example, at Rothamsted Research, the agricultural research institute in Hertfordshire, scientist Jason Chapman pointed a radar beam into the air to discover what was passing above. Even in these times of precipitous insect population decline, he found that around seven and a half billion tiny creatures – aphids, tiny parasitoid wasps, spiders and others – can cross over a square mile of English farmland in summer. The sky is full. Pollen, spores, insects, all sailing above us, a shifting, particulate proliferation of life that, in the case of dusty fragments of spores carried high aloft, may even be responsible for the formation of clouds.
My favourite painting of air is Peter Lanyon’s Thermal. My first view of it was not at Tate St Ives, where it currently hangs, but on a computer screen, small and confined. Even so, it had me bewitched. I love it for many reasons, not least for its beauty: all those ever-pouring blues. Painted in 1960 – a year after Lanyon learned to glide, four years before he died of injuries sustained in a gliding accident – it is the work of art that, more than any other, comes to mind when I consider the ways in which all of us see, and do not see, the natural world.
Lanyon’s landscapes are exquisite contradictions. They look abstract, although, as he always insisted, that is not what they are. And while fiercely modern, most express his painstaking attention to the minutiae of history and locale. As Andrew Causey wrote in his excellent 2006 monograph on the artist, Lanyon rejected the singular view of the landscape tradition in which the eye is given commanding prospect over a landscape, the type of view that separates the human body from the world before it. That traditional landscape view, of course, also reinforces the way most of us see our relationship to nature – as one in which the natural world is always something out there.
I think of the photograph of Lanyon in his glider, taken the year he died; there he is in the cockpit, canopy open, a man with a flight suit, a stained canvas harness, a shock of gunmetal-silver hair. He had learned to fly in order to discover new ways to engage with the problem of perspective, and it was this artistic curiosity that was, eventually, to cut his life short. I think of his attempts to make the invisible visible on canvas; everything from the movement of air to how time and myth and work press themselves into a landscape. And I think long about Thermal, and what it depicts.
Gliders of the kind Lanyon flew cannot power across the sky: once they are towed or winched to height, they are pulled by gravity towards the earth. To fly for more than a few minutes, glider pilots seek out thermals, bubbles of warm air that rise up from sun-heated ground. They find them by reading the sky for signs, most especially clouds, which form and dissipate around them. Sometimes they are crowned with no clouds at all, and on these blue thermal days they can be found in different ways. You can look for circling, soaring birds within them, or head towards patches of darker ground beneath your wings: the darker the ground, the more heat it soaks up from the sun, and that heat is what generates lift. Glider pilots carefully learn the idiosyncrasies of their local area, come to know the particular sunlit slopes, seasonal ploughed fields, towns and woods that are often topped by columns of rising air.
Whether you are a buzzard or a glider, if you locate a thermal and fly into it (the first sign will be a strong upward tug at the tip of one wing), then turn tightly within it, it will work like an elevator, pulling you aloft until you are lifted to the cloud base, often thousands of feet above. From that height you can glide down to another thermal, rise up on it, and then move to another, handing yourself gently from one to the next, and you can keep doing this for hours. It’s how storks and many raptors migrate; it’s how experienced glider pilots can cross vast lengths of ground below.
Thermal is a portrait of the dynamic complexities of air. There’s no singular vantage on the scene, though it’s not hard to see that the upwards surge of pale paint from its base must be a column of rising air, the fat square of complicated greys a turbulent region near its top, and the strokes on the right a region of cooling, sinking aerial decay. To me, Thermal is a painting that evokes an experience, rather than merely showing me what it looks like. It makes palpable the sensation of being in a glider. It pulls my body into the experience it depicts. I can almost feel the crackling in my inner ear as I rise, the sense deep in my bones of being tilted and pushed around by tonnes of rising and falling air. I love Lanyon’s painting most of all for this: however fiercely we are taught that the natural world exists out there, Thermal is a reminder that we’re in the environment, all of us; we’re not just walking around on it or looking at it from afar. It’s all over us, it is in us, it is through us. It is us.
It’s easy to feel that the climate emergency is something remote from us, too, that it is happening elsewhere. Thinking in this way is partly a form of psychological protection; it lets us regard our current situation with a measure of equanimity. But it is happening here, it is happening to us, it is us, and it is happening all the time. And just as we cannot see much of the life that crowds around us – cannot sense, from the ground, the turmoil of moving air above – part of what makes climate change incomprehensible to us is how difficult it is for us to visualise it. Human brains aren’t good at apprehending complex systems. We must attempt to grasp the increasingly ruinous state of the world through images: hockey-stick curves that run across and up our screens, charts of coloured bars that run from blue to dangerous red; statistical data on the uptick in frequency of hurricanes, maps of the decrease in summer ice; photographs of the wreckage following hurricanes, of collapsed tundra where methane trapped under thawing permafrost has punched its way through. We can certainly understand these representations of climate breakdown. But it is very hard for us to know them.
I have begun to believe, also, that we feel the climate emergency is something separate from us because we don’t feel we possess the power to make any difference. From our earliest years we have been encouraged to believe the world works a certain way, making the ravenous structures of fossil-fuel-driven global capitalism seem as natural as rocks and stones and clouds. We have been told that we should do our best to help save the planet by driving a little less or buying efficient lightbulbs. We do those things, and it makes no apparent difference. It is in the vested interests of the powerful to keep the workings of the structures that sustain climate change invisible from us. Make it, instead, a matter of individual consumer responsibility. And I think of what thermals are to gliders, the assistance they offer as they rise. Thermals are visible thermal indicators, in scientific jargon. It’s only possible to get anywhere, in a glider, if you have outside help from their power. You can’t get anywhere very far on your own.
‘We are on the edge of a precipice, and change, if we want it, means we must rely on each other to get where we need to go’
The sight of massed crowds of Black Lives Matter protesters this summer, pushing back against things that for so long have felt like unassailable facts about the world, against the deep structural inequities and iniquities that most white people have refused to engage with, or failed to see at all, has been overwhelmingly powerful. Partly because the cause that drives the protests is so righteous. Partly because, in a wider sense, they are a reminder of how concerted collective action can not only make visible those invisible structures that cause harm, but exert serious, sustained pressure in the cause of changing them. The climate emergency is intimately bound up with those same inequities; it is those who have the least social capital who will suffer the most as the world burns.
After the events of this strange summer, I am sitting here looking at Thermal with a different eye. The painting by the man who died from wanting to puzzle it all out, solve the matter of perspective, who wanted to embody in paint what it meant to truly be inside a moment; now it seems a painting about far, far more than moving air. As the historian Toby Treves has written, it holds within it the matter of being human too; it is an image that reveals to us ‘lift and sink; naissance, maturity and demise; vigour and frailty; battle, support and abandonment; loss.’
Loss is all around us. It is in us, and it is us. We are on the edge of a precipice, and change, if we want it, means we must rely on each other to get to where we need to go; we must burn with that collective knowledge as we sing and mourn and hope and fight for salvation, and we must live in hope that it is a battle that can be won.
Thermal was purchased in 1960 and is on display at Tate St Ives.
Helen Macdonald is a writer based in Suffolk. Her new book Vesper Flights is published by Jonathan Cape.