Writers Rebel is thrilled to publish an excerpt from Lucy Jones’ book, Losing Eden.
In 2007, the words ‘acorn’ and ‘buttercup’ were taken out of the Oxford Children’s Dictionary, in favour of words like ‘broadband’ and ‘cut and paste’ to reflect changing usage of the language. ‘Hamster’, ‘heron’, ‘herring’, ‘king sher’, ‘lark’, ‘leopard’, ‘lobster’, ‘magpie’, ‘minnow’, ‘mussel’, ‘newt’, ‘otter’, ‘ox’, ‘oyster’ and ‘panther’ were also deemed archaic and removed. It took until 2014 for people to realize what had happened and then a group of twenty-eight influential authors in the literary world, including Margaret Atwood, Andrew Motion and Sara Maitland, protested. At the expense of outdoor play, children were experiencing obesity, anti-social behaviour, friendlessness and fear, the authors wrote in their campaign letter.
The researcher and science writer Martin Robbins wrote a defence of the Oxford Dictionaries in The Guardian soon afterwards. He used Google’s Ngram viewer to look at how often words such as ‘fern’, ‘catkin’ and ‘buttercup’ had appeared in literature over the last two centuries. The graphs showed decline. ‘It isn’t the job of the OUP to get kids to play outside: that’s called parenting, and maybe that’s where campaigners should be focusing their attention,’ Robbins wrote. I think he was right to defend Oxford University Press. The fault doesn’t lie with the dictionary’s publisher, it lies with society at large: it presents a damning indictment of where we are now and what we prioritize, value and are distracted by.
The removal of the words from the dictionary simply reflected a further distancing from nature. Perhaps a more interesting question isn’t whose fault it is, but whether the mental health of children is affected by a relationship with the rest of nature or, adversely, by a severance from it? As the writer Jay Griffiths has said, ‘Children . . . are denied the soul medicine which has always cared for children’s spirits: the woods.’
Very young children love animals – this is true. Early years’ books, folktales, nursery rhymes, teddies, emblems on clothes, first noises, first words, smiles, laughs and squeals usually relate to dogs, cats, horses, cows, pigs, birds and other denizens of the animal kingdom. The most common first word apart from ‘Mama’ and ‘Dada’ is ‘cat’. Animals are given personal pronouns in stories, assigning personhood and value and character. And then the linguistic influence changes course and they are taught that a member of a non-human species is an ‘it’. As Robin Wall Kimmerer puts it, we ‘put a barrier between us, absolving ourselves of moral responsibility and opening the door to exploitation’. How would we think of an oak tree if it was referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she’, instead of the inanimate ‘it’? With a greater sense of communion and relational bond, perhaps.
Then, instead of nurturing that early relationship with the natural world, instilling a deep understanding of how healthy ecosystems work and how to value the natural world for its intrinsic beauty, wonder and mystery, we enclose children inside. In Britain, by law, schools, nurseries, pre- schools and childcare providers that look after children until the age of five must adhere to the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) statutory framework. Children should have access to outdoor space or daily activities outside, but the framework doesn’t say anything about natural areas or wildlife or contact with nature. The ‘outdoor space’ can be fake grass or concrete. There are seven specific areas in the curriculum, and ‘environment’ is mentioned as the final bullet point in ‘Understanding the world’, which ‘involves guiding children to make sense of their physical world and their community through opportunities to explore, observe and find out about people, places, technology and the environment’. Clearly, maths, literacy, art and design and emotional development are crucial, but is it any wonder that children aren’t connecting as much with the natural world if it isn’t prioritized in their earliest years? It feels like an afterthought because it is an afterthought.
We’ve known for a while that the presence of greenery affects the quality of play. A 1998 study in Chicago compared children who played in ‘vegetated’ outdoor spaces with ‘barren’ outdoor spaces. Those who lived in the latter played outdoors half as much as those who lived in spaces with more trees and grass. The researchers also reported that creative play was much lower in barren spaces.
‘It is necessary to be outside for our brains to be stimulated from the flow of sound, light, shapes and colours that nature provides,’ said the late David H. Ingvar, an influential and pioneering neurophysiologist at the University of Lund in Sweden, ‘especially between the ages of three to six, when the energy flow in the human brain is at its greatest.’ This matters because creative play is particularly key in emotional, social and cognitive development. Also, children in inner-city urban areas with the least access to greenery and vegetation are at a higher risk of social factors such as poverty, poor housing and dangerous neighbourhoods affecting their chances of development. The evidence is clear: children need to spend time in nature.
Numerous studies show that outdoor learning boosts children’s social and psychological growth. And yet, amazingly, greenery, trees or flowers are not mandatory or even recommended in the official guidelines for playgrounds or outdoor space in Britain’s schools. ‘Much of society – including much of the education establishment – no longer sees independent, imaginary play, especially in natural settings, as “enrichment”,’ the writer on nature-deficit disorder Richard Louv told me.
In Sweden, a long-time pioneer of children’s outdoor education, the use of an evidence-based tool for outdoor play environments (OPEC) demonstrates why green areas have a positive effect on play. It explains the ‘flow’ of an environment which allows children to switch between running, jumping and climbing and ‘pretend play and contemplative recuperation’. Exploring the undiscovered, weaving between trees, navigating corners, using open spaces, transforming a log into a ship, or a stone into a cake is what the OPEC tool is designed to encourage.
The evidence is mounting. In 2007, UNICEF published a paper on child well-being. When children from Spain, Sweden and the UK were asked what they needed to be happy, the top three answers were time, friendship and the outdoors. Another study tracked people who were in the Scouts or the Guides in childhood and found that they had better mental health in later life. Greater contact with the natural world – as opposed to the simple presence of green space – in childhood was correlated with fewer depressive symptoms later in a study of Australian adults. Studies from Copenhagen, New Zealand and Italy suggest that walking in a natural environment can decrease symptoms of inattention in children with attention de cit disorder/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD). (In the US, rates of ADHD have increased from 7.8 per cent in 2003 to 11 per cent in 2011.)
Vulnerable children may need it more than most. Access to nature was found by environmental psychologists Nancy M. Wells and Gary W. Evans of the Cornell College of Human Ecology (2003) to provide a buffer to life stresses in rural children, particularly vulnerable children. Contact with nature seemed to moderate or dampen down the psychological stress caused by events such as bullying at school, the death of a grandparent, moving house or fighting with parents. The effect was found to be more powerful for the children who were most disadvantaged and subject to the highest number of stressful life events. Nature, in this study, was measured by looking at three elements: one, whether the view from the child’s house looked onto trees, plants or other natural elements, a ‘non-natural’ view, or no view at all; two, how many plants there were in the living room; and three, the material of the yard, whether it was grass, dirt or concrete. ‘If access to nearby nature is indeed a protective factor, contributing to the resilience of children and youth, then if nearby nature is lacking, it is one more strike against poor children who already face tremendous disadvantage,’ they wrote. Urban living and lack of access to nature could be affecting children in still other, serious ways. A major study of 500,000 children in Sweden found a correlative link between air pollution and mental illness, building on earlier studies that showed the brains of children are particularly vulnerable to air pollution. What is so striking and worrying about the study was that Sweden has relatively low levels of air pollution. The EU and WHO limit for nitrogen dioxide (NO2 ) is 40 micrograms per cubic metre, which is often exceeded many times over by major cities such as Chongqing, Cairo, Mexico City, New York, Paris, Tokyo and Lahore. The researchers found that an area with just 10 mcg/m3 corresponded to a 9 per cent increase in mental illness. In 2016, as many as 433 schools in London were located in areas that exceeded EU limits for NO2 pollution and four- fifths of those were in deprived areas. It makes decisions to cut down trees (which reduce particulate matter) in urban areas, such as in Sheffield, Newcastle and Edinburgh, look even more foolish.
Copyright © 2021 by Lucy Jones. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q&A with Lucy Jones and Writers Rebel’s Liz Jensen
Liz Jensen: Losing Eden is many things: the story of your deepening relationship with the natural world, an analysis of our species’ disconnection from it, a recovery memoir, and a call to action. As I read it, it struck me that the title, Losing Eden, can be interpreted either as a warning about the sixth mass extinction (Watch out! We’re losing Eden!) or as a more meditative observation: here’s what we’re this is what we’re in the midst of. It can be both, of course. But which is it most, for you?
Lucy Jones: It is more a warning to me, but I wanted it to be quite open and loose, too. We are losing so much without realising it. Or, to put it another way, we are destroying so much without realising how the loss is affecting our minds. Robert Pyle’s phrase the ‘extinction of experience’ is helpful here. It refers to the idea that as the living world is destroyed and eradicated, so too are our direct experiences of it. It’s a similar concept to shifting baseline syndrome. So what I think are ‘normal’ levels of, for example, insects on the flowers nearby or birds in the sky, are so much fewer than what they were when my grandmothers were my age. What I’ve been particularly interested in is what our minds, brains, bodies and souls are losing and missing out on, when that experience of the rest of nature declines, or is never allowed to exist in the first place in our wildlife-depleted world. It felt like an interesting question: how does our great estrangement from the living world affect our emotional and mental health?
The word Eden is personally quite evocative. I had a religious (conservative evangelical) upbringing and of course the Adam and Eve story is every child’s worst nightmare – that they might be abandoned by the parental figure and evicted from the nest. While writing Losing Eden I was also struck by the Renaissance painting Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Masaccio. Adam has his head in his hands but it’s Eve’s face which the eye is drawn to. She is looking up and kind of howling and crumbling with shock and grief. It was one of the first times that emotional element was depicted in culture, I think. The shock and shame is very apparent on her face; this sense that they didn’t realise that their actions would really have consequences. I had that image flickering away in my mind. It felt like a warning of what will happen – and is already happening in many countries and communities – if our systems don’t change rapidly. I don’t feel meditative yet, or resigned. I can’t quite accept or fathom that this is where we’re at and to sit with it. I am trying to stay with the trouble, as Donna Haraway says.
You describe how you replaced a dependency on alcohol and cocaine to a dependency on the natural world. How smooth was that transition, and what does the word “dependency” mean to you now?
I found the first year of sobriety surprisingly painful. I had been using alcohol since my early teens and later drugs to deaden and relieve a lot of my emotions so, in a way, it was the first time I was truly feeling a lot of stuff. Meeting with other addicts was a crucial medicine but I needed to find other things to do. I started walking in Walthamstow Marshes, which changed everything, and led to my research interest in nature and mental health. The dependency on the trees, the heron, the lichen and moss felt in some ways very similar to my thirst for mind-changing substances. I could lose myself in them and obliterate myself for a while. I’ve always had a vicious and sometimes cruel inner critic and watching coots or clouds or looking for beetles seemed to turn that voice down, just as booze or cocaine or other substances had done, so it was pretty smooth. Later, while researching, I found an interesting and illuminating study which found that walking through a natural environment reduced activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex (an area of the brain linked to rumination and brooding).
The living world can also provide those psychedelic, lysergic, consciousness-expanding experiences. I can’t take psychedelics any more but I can lie on my belly and spend a while looking at moss kingdoms with my microscope. Now, dependency means that I can’t go a day without some connection with the living world. As someone trying to break free of my late-capitalist productive-obsessive indoctrination, I can see now that going for a walk in the woods isn’t an indulgence or something I can give or take, I need it for my sanity. I am completely dependent, and it doesn’t give me a hangover.
You explore the developed world’s increasing disconnection to the natural world, giving luminous examples of its slow creep into daily life, public consciousness, language itself. In what ways have you seen Covid altering – and perhaps even reversing – that creep?
Covid threw many of us outdoors as other restoration and leisure activities were constrained and we know from data that people said being outdoors during the pandemic made them feel happy. Growing food and gardening increased. I remember one evening being in an online queue for seeds which was 45 minutes long. My neighbours started growing vegetables in their front gardens. Outdoor nurseries became more popular. Verges were left to grow wild. People have talked about the solace and comfort they got from spending time in the natural world. But crucially, we saw – starkly – how unequal access is to restorative natural spaces. Disadvantaged communities living without gardens or nearby nature were – and are – less able to recover from stress. We also saw, from the littering at honeypot sites, how important a new care ethic will be towards the land and how the fact we are forbidden from accessing 92 per cent of land in England because of laws of trespass means so many people don’t feel welcome in the countryside. Perhaps the most important thing is that the pandemic has showed us that when faced with a horrific threat to life and health, governments can mobilise and act rapidly. There is no excuse now for the hitherto widespread dithering over transformative and urgent change.
The rule of life seems to be that nothing stays the same. Can you see anything potentially redemptive in the alarming, baked-in changes ahead?
It feels to me that the Earth is a patient and loving dog that we have been rudely and thoughtlessly poking with a stick for a long time and finally she is starting to bite. And when a dog bites you would think twice about poking her again. Could the changes be so awful that the Capitalocene will be relatively short? Might the changes shake us out of our human exceptionalism and our widespread denial that we are part of the living world? Will they focus our anger on the fossil fuel industry’s misinformation campaigns and corrupt media and deeply unequal power structures? Will governments heed the warnings of the increasing extreme weather events across the world and move into a war footing? You hear people say, about the changes to our planet, that it was ever thus, that humans have always had to adapt to flux. Life, of course, will continue. But life on earth as we know it, with the conditions it has enjoyed until recently, has been pretty miraculous, relatively stable, diverse, magnificent and intricate. I don’t want that to end.
You already had a child when you wrote Losing Eden – and during the writing of it you became pregnant a second time. Now you are a mother of two. In what way is raising children in today’s world a political act?
The most important thing I think I can do is allow their innate love of the natural world to thrive, encourage a caring relationship of reciprocity not extraction, give as many opportunities as possible for that kinship and question and challenge the forces that want to coop children up inside and turn them into, first and foremost, busy and productive workers and consumers.
What do you want most for today’s children?
I want all children to have the chance to climb trees, see the Milky Way, watch frogs, know local birds, play in the streets without fear of cars, recognise plants and flowers, be awed by toadstools and earthstars and giant puffballs, make dens in the woods, swim in clean rivers, breathe air that isn’t deadly, stroke moss, blow dandelion clocks, learn outside, dig their hands deep into soil, chill out among trees, watch clouds, find a kinship with other animals, listen to crickets, chomp on blackberries, let a bumblebee walk on their hand. A new ecological education – which is happening somewhat through the growth of forest school, the natural history GCSE, and more outdoor learning – is crucial if we are going to sleep-walk back out of disaster. I hope that the now robust evidence base that shows we need contact with the living world for our mental and emotional health – particularly those in disadvantaged communities – will be applied to urban design so that all children can walk into restorative natural environments and recover there from the stresses and strains of life, which will only increase in a heating and unstable world. More broadly, I want governments to act much, much, much faster to limit warming and I don’t want today’s children – including my own – to inherit an uninhabitable earth.
Lucy Jones is a writer and journalist based in Hampshire, England. She previously worked at NME and the Daily Telegraph, and her writing on culture, science and nature has been published in BBC Earth, BBC Wildlife, the Guardian and the New Statesman. Her first book, Foxes Unearthed, won the Society of Authors’ Roger Deakin Award 2015. Her second, Losing Eden, was a Times and Telegraph book of the year. Her new book, The Nature Seed, written with Kenneth Greenway, is published in August 2021.
CALL TO ACTION: Ban urban and garden pesticides to protect bees, other wildlife and human health https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/590309