Lucy Jones: Losing Eden

Losing Eden: Why our Minds Need the Wild by Lucy Jones has been called a “rallying cry for a wilder way of life” and has received rave reviews since its release in 2020, as well as being made a book of the year by both the Times and the Telegraph.

We spoke to Lucy Jones about the impact the natural world has had on her life and the connections between ecology and well-being that she describes in her book.

Was there a pivotal moment that triggered your interest in the relationship we have as humans with nature and the wild?

There were really 2 moments that set me on my path. I was living in London & I had just gone into recovery for addiction issues and depression and I’d started to look for ways to keep myself busy, lift my mood & feel healthy & well again. I knew running was good for your mental health and I started to go running on Walthamstow marshes. I found that I would end up walking more because I wanted to look at the trees, look for wildlife in the canals and look at birds. There was something about spending a bit of time everyday in this green space around nature which I became very reliant on and afterwards I’d feel soothed, calm, happy and well & it felt like it was changing something in my brain. Like a lot of people I had a sense that being outdoors was in some way good for you but I really wanted to know exactly what was happening. If it was so powerful, why I hadn’t known about it before, why was spending time in nature not something that had come up as a potential therapy? That was 8 or 9 years ago and now it’s a bit more spoken about.

The other moment was when we were living in east London in a similar period of my life when I was trying to adapt to sobriety. I became obsessed with the beautiful pear tree that was growing outside our flat. It was the nearest bit of nature we had at the time. One day our neighbour put up scaffolding to do some building work and it completely concealed the tree from our window. I didn’t anticipate this but it had a really strong affect on me. I found being in the flat really irritating, I wanted to see the tree and I was upset to be missing Spring. That made me flip the question from how spending time in nature can make us well to how a disconnection from nature or the absence of nature in our modern urban lives can have a negative affect on our mental health.

How does science support this?

The research & evidence I looked at bore out the idea that if there’s a wild area in a park or an area with increased biodiversity, the quantity of potential therapeutic pathways are increased. For example, birdsong can decrease cortisol and make you feel less stressed. Another interesting finding is associated with fractal shapes, which are the same shape replicated in different sizes. You can find these shapes in leaves and trees, weeds, they’re all over the place in nature and the evidence shows that looking at fractal shapes creates physiological resonance. This is because the retina of the eye is itself fractal in shape which means that it locks into place when you look at a fractal in nature & studies have shown that this triggers areas of the brain associated with happiness, calmness and relaxation. One thing I really like is the smell of the earth after it’s rained and that’s called petrichor, which is the name for the metallic earthy smell. Studies show that smelling that affects parts of the brain associated with well being. So next time it rains go out & have a smell in a park or around trees!

What do you think can be done to make people more aware of the benefits of nature?

I think that a change of perception and a recalibration of our relationship with nature is necessary. In Britain we have some beautiful natural landscapes but the figures show colossal decline across species and habitats. We’ve lost 97% of our wildflower meadows, huge amount of hedgehogs, birds & insects. We live at a time of unprecedented disconnection from the natural world & never in human evolutionary history have we spent less time outdoors than we do now. In 99% of human evolutionary history we were outside, the seasons mattered, the weather mattered, the animals and trees mattered and that’s how we evolved. And now we only spend 1% of our time outside - we live in boxes, we go to work in a box, we come home & watch a little box. I think it’s really easy to forget that we’re part of the natural world and that we only eat because of it and we only breathe because of it and we are nature.

I think education is so important, there are some really inspiring people working in forest schools trying to help children get those opportunities to be in nature. The evidence shows that the earlier a child is exposed to nature, the more likely they are to have a relationship with it when they are older. Urban design is also important, rethinking the way we live in urban areas. Most people will be living in urban areas by 2050 and the more we know about how important nature is the more we need to incorporate it and allow it to thrive and live among us, not just in the margins.

If you look at how green spaces spread across urban areas, the more affluent the area the higher quality the green space & the more access people have. The more disadvantaged areas tend to have less access to green space and that suggests that we think it’s a luxury & people who are disadvantaged & living really stressful lives don’t deserve to have the now proven restorative benefits of nature. So the science evidence base is really important here, it’s grown so much in the last 10-20 years and that’s the main bulk of Losing Eden. We now know, because science has proven unequivocally, that spending time in nature, connecting with nature or even just having background nature - living on a road that is tree-lined - can make a measurable difference to mental health. It’s like eating vegetables or having a good nights sleep, it’s a public health issue. I think that as a society we’re taking time to catch up with the science.

Do you have any tips that you would give people for trying to have an experience with nature either from their own home or in their local community?

Definitely, there are lots of ways you can incorporate more nature into your life even if you live in an urban area which I do. There’s an interesting Scottish study which took 2 groups of people and asked one group to walk through a park and the other to walk down a road into a busy urban area. The group who walked through the park & were around trees had much lower stress levels when they moved into the busy, loud urban area. So the researchers concluded that just walking through a park could buffer the stress with nature. So you could just take a different route to your local shop. The science of awe is really interesting, this is quite a new discipline from California and it tells us that feeling awe doesn’t just feel good, it actually has measurable effects on our bodies & our brains, it activates areas of the brain associated with calmness and relaxation, it is associated with lower levels of a biomarker for inflammation, and chronic inflammation is a state that can have serious negative effects on the body. We tend to think of awe as being the Grand Canyon or white water rafting or a massive forest, but actually there are opportunities to feel awe and wonder on an urban street.

One of the reasons I love nature is that you’ll never reach the end. If you go to a wood there are literally thousands of species and you’ll never see it all. Theres always the chance of seeing an owl or a toadstool or finding something new. There’s always more to learn, always more opportunity for awe & wonder and from what I can tell from older naturalists that can continue throughout your life which makes life an exciting journey.

Losing Eden published by Penguin is out now in paperback.