When the first daffodils were blooming two months ago, the apocalyptic prologue to Lucy Jones’s Losing Eden would have felt urgent enough. It describes a young girl, Xena, wearing goggles and a respirator, walking to her grandmother’s house. Here, they sit together and experience nature – birds singing, trees growing – through a virtual-reality scene. “Why did nature end, Granny?” Xena asks. “We didn’t love it enough,” Granny answers. “And we forgot it could give us peace.”
The subtext here is climate change. But today, with the country in lockdown, and the blossoming world outside feeling more important to us than ever, Jones’s and Jini Reddy’s books take on extra significance.
Nature writing in recent years has often been about landscapes granting peace, even if that peace has mostly been limited to white men walking up mountains and having epiphanies. (If they tried that today, the police would send them home.) These books, each in their own distinct way, take that idea and twist it.
Jones’s book is a beautifully written, research-heavy study about how nature offers us wellbeing. She begins by telling us how much we’ve travelled inwards as human beings, both literally and psychologically, nowadays spending only 1 to 5% of our time outdoors (she adds later that three-quarters of children in the UK, aged five to 12, now spend less time outside than prisoners). In her 20s she had a dependency on drink and drugs that was partly relieved by her walks in London’s Walthamstow Marshes (along with psychiatry and psychotherapy, she says; she’s not a writer wanting to give nature an easy, breezy pass). “Nature picked me up by the scruff of my neck,” she writes, “and I rested in her teeth for a while.”
Jones’s ideas are not cosseted in psychobabble, but rooted firmly in peer-reviewed science. She tells us how the human epidermis is more like a pond surface or forest soil than fleshy armour, and how it responds to microorganisms in fresh air. We find out about Dacher Keltner’s study of our emotional response to nature, and a 2015 experiment proving that “microbreaks” in nature (looking at a green roof in a city, rather than bare concrete) improve our cognitive functioning. She discovers that our eyes respond to fractal patterns in nature because their internal physical structure is made up of similar patterns. Jones unpicks the science in accessible, moving writing.
She also focuses on those who lack access to the outdoors. Writing about the expansion of “forest school” sessions in British education (where children are taught outside and encouraged to explore), Jones is at pains to point out how many British children don’t have access to gardens. While celebrating green spaces in cities, she flags up a study showing that women, low-income groups and BAME communities report more instances of feeling unsafe in public parks. More acknowledgment of these issues is sorely needed in nature writing.
Jini Reddy’s Wanderland explores being a non-white female finding solace in nature. This is a less unusual perspective than it used to be, thanks to writers such as Elizabeth-Jane Burnett and Zakiya Mckenzie and the brilliant Willowherb Review, a journal celebrating nature writers of colour. Reddy is British by birth, Indian by descent, Canadian by upbringing, with South African parents. “People I meet for the first time in the countryside often look at me a second longer than they need to,” she writes, “a woman with coffee-coloured skin walking on her own.”
But Reddy’s book is more about seeking extremes in landscape, both literal and spiritual. She begins her story up a mountain in the Pyrenees with little food, a small tent, and nine bottles of water. She admits straightaway that some people may think her “a deluded hippy”, and she does sometimes consider nature a little too romantically. At one point she visits the Welsh borders to spend time with a goddess worshipper, in touch with the mystical powers of nature. Reddy is surprised that the woman lives on an ordinary road near a barn of “desperate-looking cows” and wonders how she copes “in constant proximity to so much misery”. Rural life is not always full of delights.
But Reddy is also a product of her parents’ hard-won social mobility, her father getting help to study in the UK, before the family moved to Canada when she was young. Here, her childhood experiences of Quebec landscapes are transporting: “Into this weird, wild winter wonderland, I was delivered, agog… the space, the nature and the quiet were exactly what an inquisitive, imaginative seven-year-old needed.” Her interest in more shamanic relationships with nature also feed into her heritage, particularly her connections with her mother’s Hindu faith. As a child she had a shrine to Shiva and Lakshmi, and writes about how goddesses are believed to be present in trees, flowers, water, and the sun.
Both these books remind us, as we look out of the window at the budding spring, or listen to birds on our daily socially distanced walks, just how very individual, and how personally precious, these experiences can be.
• Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild by Lucy Jones is published by Penguin (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15
• Wanderland: A Search for Magic in the Landscape by Jini Reddy is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99)