Fr Kevin Hegarty
In one of his best-known poems, William Butler Yeats wrote of going to the Lake Isle of Innisfree and of building a small cabin there, ‘of clay and wattles made’.
He hoped to find ‘some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, / Dropping from the veils of the morning where the cricket sings; / There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow, / and evening full of the linnet’s wings’.
The neurologist and author, Dr Oliver Sacks, echoed Yeats insight in an essay on the healing power of gardens: “I have lived in New York City for 50 years and living here is sometimes made bearable for me only by its gardens. As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients for gardens whenever possible. All of us have had the experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit.
“The importance of these physiological states on individual and community health is fundamental and wide-ranging. In 40 years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.”
A recent research project concludes that Yeats and Sachs were right in emphasising the value of communion with nature. According to an article in the Scientific Reports journal, people who spend two hours a week in the natural environment have better physical and mental health than those who do not experience it all in an average week.
If confirmed by more research, two hours of nature could join five-a-day of fruit and vegetables and 150 minutes of exercise as official health advice.
It was immaterial whether the two hours in nature were reached in a single visit or over several shorter visits. The research also found that the two-hour threshold applied both to women and men, to older and younger adults, across different occupational and ethnic groups, among these living in both affluent and poor areas and among people with long-term illnesses and disabilities.
The report is the fruit of research by the University of Exeter medical faculty, and the study used data from almost 2,000 English people.
Dr Matt White, who led the study, commented on its findings:
“It’s well known that getting outdoors in nature can be good for people’s health and well-being but until now we’ve not been able to say how much is enough. The majority of nature visits in this research took place just within two miles of home so even visiting local urban green spaces seems to be a good thing. Two hours a week is hopefully a realistic target for many people, especially given that it can be spread over an entire week to get the benefit.”
Dr Helen Stokes-Lampard, the chairperson of the Royal College of GPs, welcomed the Exeter research:
“It is fascinating to see this link between exposure to nature and better health and well-being. This research makes a strong case for people to get out and about in more natural environments. I think it is a lot to do with tranquility. Most people are under multiple pressures at any given time. So you are away in a natural setting, it is quiet, it is relaxing and gives you time to start to process things.”
Summer holidays provide an opportunity for us to take stock of the direction or our lives. In that context, the findings of the Exeter research provide valuable food for thought.