Illustration by Mike Clelland
The American writer and ecologist Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” It was a credo deemed so important that another great writer and ecologist, John Muir, thought it worthy of plagiarism.
Muir, the wilderness prophet later wrote: “In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – the great, fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.”
A number of years ago a trail running accident, (I tripped and fell down a crag) left me with a broken wrist, a broken ankle and forty stitches in my head. During my period of convalescence I was aware that I was becoming more and more depressed. I wasn’t sleeping well, I had become short tempered and comparatively slight setbacks cast me into further depression. I wasn’t very pleasant to live with. While I was thankful to be alive it wasn’t until I was well enough to limp out into the forest that I began to feel better again. Fortunately I recognised, almost immediately, the healing nature of such wild places and those, albeit short, excursions quickly became a crucial element in my recuperation.
Today increasing numbers of people are recognising the value of such a return to nature and many are embracing a more fundamental credo and another plagiarism of Thoreau’s words – in wildness is the preservation of the mind.
Depression is a serious illness. Health professionals use the terms depression, depressive illness or clinical depression to refer to something very different from the common experience of feeling miserable or fed-up for a short period of time, the form of depression that most of us suffer from time to time.
When you’re depressed, you may have feelings of extreme sadness that can last for a long time. These feelings are severe enough to interfere with your daily life, and can last for weeks or months, rather than days.
Depression is quite a common condition, and about 15% of people will have a bout of severe depression at some point in their lives. Depression affects people in many different ways and can cause a wide variety of physical, psychological (mental) and social symptoms.
A few people still think that depression is not a real illness and that it is a form of weakness or admission of failure. This is simply not true. Depression is a real illness with real effects, and it is certainly not a sign of failure. In fact, famous leaders, such as Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi, all experienced bouts of depression.
I would strongly recommend anyone suffering from clinical depression to seek medical advice, but many of us suffer from the lesser forms of depression at some stage in our life and I’ve become convinced that exposure to wilderness, even for short periods of time, can help us overcome it.
Over the last century, our steady urbanisation has ensured a steady divorce of our physical lives from the natural world, so that we no longer consider ourselves a part of it. Indeed, it was Carl Gustav Jung’s belief that the crisis of our world today has two root causes: one is this divorce of our physical lives from the natural world, so that we no longer feel ourselves a part of it. The other is the over development of our rational, analytical consciousness at the expense of the instinctive, intuitive side of ourselves that is expressed in dreams, myth, fantasy and art. According to Jung, we have become cut-off from both inner and outer Nature. We’ve lost trust in the traditional faiths, the spiritual side of our nature has been subdued and the resultant loss of meaning in the lives of many people is reflected in statistics for depression, suicide and mental illness.
My experience is that walking through wilderness can genuinely alleviate the symptoms of depression. There is a great freedom in being able to walk where we want to – through the woods, up a mountain, along the coast. We can go fast, we can amble, we can walk with others or we can walk alone. We can walk for an hour, a day, a week or a month. We can think great thoughts, or simply empty our minds. We can meditate, we can pray, we can dream up verses of poetry or we can simply look around us and wonder at the magic in every view. All these choices are ours – no one makes them for us. Furthermore, we can change our choices according to the minute-by-minute requirements and fancies of our minds and bodies, our own personal rhythms
“Personal rhythms are as much a part of our structure as our flesh and bones,” says Bertram Brown, one-time director of the US National Institute of Mental Health. Walking lets us adjust our lives to these rhythms. When our rhythms are at a low ebb we can cosset ourselves by walking slowly or simply lying down in the middle of a flower-filled meadow. When we feel strong and purposeful we can test ourselves by climbing a mountain, by finding trails that require us to wade streams or scramble up crags, by walking hard until we gasp for air. Whatever our rhythmic needs, walking and wilderness offer the answer.
Dr. Horst Mueller is a clinical psychologist in Alberta, Canada and he’s an advocate of the simple campfire: “Its flickering light brings you into an alpha-wave state,” Dr. Mueller says. “Alpha wavelengths are those created by meditation and deep relaxation; they lower stress and give you an overall sense of enhanced well-being and creativity.”
Many doctors today recommend increased exercise for those suffering from depression, but just how exercise reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety isn’t fully understood. Some evidence suggests that exercise raises the levels of certain mood-enhancing neurotransmitters in the brain. Exercise may also boost feel-good endorphins, release muscle tension, help you sleep better, and reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It also increases body temperature, which may have calming effects. All of these changes in your mind and body can improve such symptoms as sadness, anxiety, irritability, stress, fatigue, anger, self-doubt and hopelessness.
If you exercise regularly but depression or anxiety symptoms still interfere with your daily living, seek professional help. Exercise isn’t meant to replace medical treatment when the condition has become serious.
I leave the last word to the Harvard sociobiologist E. O. Wilson who wrote: “Wilderness settles peace on the soul because it needs no help. It is beyond human contrivance.” The next time you find yourself getting a bit depressed – head for the wilds. It could be just what the doctor ordered.