I started writing this on the train last week. It was the end of the Easter break and I was travelling through green, green countryside, heading away from Machynlleth in West Wales and back towards the Big Smoke of London Town. It felt like a good time to write about open space, trees, fresh air and wellbeing. Through the window I could see plenty of trees and the white bobbles of grazing sheep standing out against brown hills and grassy banks alike. At one point, if I craned my neck, I could spot a patch of blue, just big enough to make the proverbial pair of sailor’s trousers, high above. It was an airborne island of azure, hinting of sun somewhere up there behind the off-white clouds.
Under the weather
Two or three weeks previously, I’d been bemoaning a persistent cough to a friend when she told me about a ’90 day’ version that was doing the rounds. I immediately thought, ‘that’s me, that’s what I’ve got’. I’d had it for a while. It had been low grade most of the time, a slight irritation but not debilitating. But after I researched it online that night, it took a turn for the worse. I woke up the next morning feeling not at all right, very weary and with more symptoms than I’d had so far.
Time to stop
My point here is not to focus on my ailments but rather to share the observation that, as soon as I took the cough a bit more seriously, I started to feel properly ill. Rather than some kind of hypochondriac reaction, I took this as a message about the importance of stopping. It was as if I couldn’t get better until I had taken the time to really notice what I needed. And what I needed was to slow down, to stop, to surrender.
Slowing down and going somewhere green
For the next few days, I didn’t do much writing, walking, cycling, talking. Instead, I did plenty of sitting, some reading, and lots of resting. On one particular day I had a strong pull to be somewhere green and I felt the benefit of being there would outweigh the effort of getting there. So, gathering some essentials – water, shawl, book – I walked slowly up the hill to the green space I most like in my neighbourhood, Nunhead Cemetery.
The Victorian cemetery is one of the Magnificent Seven built in London between 1832 and 1841, following a bill passed by Parliament encouraging the establishment of private burial grounds outside the city. The Industrial Revolution meant more people were now living and dying in cities than ever before; the graveyards were full. The garden cemeteries were planned as big businesses, the idea being people would pay more to have their loved ones buried somewhere beautiful and peaceful. Designs were therefore drawn up with aesthetics in mind, to create destinations for the dead that would offer healthy respite to the living from the smog of the city. The new cemeteries would be places people would want to visit and where their minds would be brought to higher things. The site for Nunhead Cemetery – originally called All Saints’ – was chosen by the London Cemetery Company because at the time it was outside the city, but with fine views across to the capital.
The main entrance to Nunhead Cemetery has a wide avenue lined with lime trees leading up to a gothic Anglican chapel, designed by Thomas Little. During the Victorian era, around two hundred people worked at the Cemetery tending the planting and landscaping of the 52 acres as well as helping with funerals. Burial of loved ones was a grand affair. However, following the First World War, the interest in death as a life – or end of life – event to be saved and planned for inevitably lessened; no one wanted to think about death anymore. So just at the time when manual labour became more expensive due to shortage of men, fewer people were choosing to lavish money on a large funeral and elaborate monument or detailed gravestone.
Running the cemetery became unprofitable so its gates were closed in 1969 and, for the next decade or two, nature took over. Native trees re-seeded themselves; graves were hidden under ivy and hawthorn; birds, butterflies and bats became more numerous and varied inhabitants of the site. In 1981 Southwark Council bought Nunhead Cemetery for £1. Soon afterwards, Friends of Nunhead Cemetery was formed, a group of local volunteers committed to conservation and community.
Current incarnation: cemetery and local nature reserve
Over the last thirty years, the Cemetery, now a designated Local Nature Reserve, has become gradually tamed – not too much, but just enough to be welcoming and peaceful, as well as still a little mysterious. Today, together with the long dead and recently buried, the place is host to a wonderful mix of overgrown and tended flora, dog walkers, parakeets, songbirds and tawny owls, to name a few. And, on the afternoon I visited there recently for therapeutic reasons, the poorly, seeking a green space to breathe better, rest and revive.
Resting in nature
I found a spot away from the graves, paths and benches, spread out my shawl and watched the sky above. Overhead, ‘planes passed by steadily; closer to me, insects scurried and buzzed around; spring flowers nodded in the breeze; new leaves rustled. The solidity of the earth under me seemed to pass gradually in to the cells of my body, re-charging them, as the weight of my body sunk more snugly in to the grass and the earth beneath. As I watched great clusters of white clouds change shape and drift on, my tiredness gently began to lessen and lift. I felt both inside and outside of time, inhabiting a place, space, sensation where I moved only with the ease and pace of the nature surrounding me. I was drowsy – replete – with life, nourished by the energy of a natural world measured not by the clock but by the slow unfolding of growth and change. I marvelled anew at how this is there for us all, all of the time, when we pause long enough to look and and listen and feel.
By taking myself to Nunhead Cemetery when I was feeling low in energy and health, I was in some ways giving myself a dose of my own medicine. A few years ago, I read Ecotherapy: Healing With Nature In Mind. It confirmed something I had been thinking about and feeling instinctively for a while. And it gave me a framework – as well as a name – for the direction I wanted to move towards. Working as a counsellor, I had begun to feel a pull away from offering therapy sessions solely within the setting of a counselling room. I knew from my own experience of the benefits of being in nature: the rhythm of walking outdoors helps me unlock thought patterns; and it feels easier to explore the relationship between mind, body and my immediate and larger environment and gain useful insights. So, when considering a professional context in this light, I suspected that working outside rather than within the confines of a room could provide additional therapeutic benefits for counselling clients.
I’m not suggesting that this way of being in nature is brand new territory. There is an endless list of writers, artists, philosophers and scientists who have cited the importance of a daily walk or long meanderings or living rurally for allowing ideas to cultivate and dilemmas and anxieties to ease. Wordsworth, and Thoreau, Ruskin and Goldsworthy Darwin and Gros spring easily to mind. What ecotherapy does is bring psychology and environmentalism directly together by ‘offering an umbrella term for nature-based methods of physical and physchological healing. As such, ecotherapy represents a new form of psychotherapy that acknowledges the vital role of nature and addresses the human-nature relationship.’
Green spaces for therapeutic work
I now meet with counselling clients in local parks as well as in Nunhead Cemetery. I’ve found that walking and talking in these green places does invite the therapeutic power of nature into the work we do together. By paying attention to sights, sounds and sensations as they come up in these more open, more relaxing outdoor spaces, the human-nature relationship is brought into the present. There are frequent reminders of the connections we have with each other, with our surroundings and with all the other creatures making their way through the world: we’re not alone, we’re interdependent. It’s good to take stock of this, to stay mindful of this utterly natural, fundamentally important state of affairs. And to breathe some cleaner air while doing so.