The May rain is warm, pattering gently on the roof of the nearby greenhouse. As I tip the seedling out of its pot and into my hand, small water droplets land on my skin, and the smell of wet ground fills my nose. Nothing else exists but me, this little marigold, and the freshly dug hole that is about to become its home. The usual cacophony of negative voices that live in my head – panicking, criticising, doubting, ruminating – they are silent, watching the plant as my hands tap it down and smooth out the soil around its stem.
There is so much discussion about the healing power of nature, how houseplants boost your mood, how gardening can help with depression, how nature walks can ease anxiety. I don’t disagree with any of it (obviously…) but I do think we’re missing some important issues in our conversations about nature, plants and mental health. Since it’s Mental Health Awareness Month, I thought now would be the time to share some of these thoughts.
So, what is it that we’re getting ‘wrong’ exactly?
When you read articles about the impact that spending time in a forest has on your stress levels, there’s always something else lurking in the same sentence – the concept of productivity. Everything circles back to the idea that we are only worth what we produce, and what our money can buy. It’s not just workplaces that push this idea – so much advice I read, articles extolling the virtues of nature, they all seem to come back to this idea that the primary benefit of nature is that it makes us more productive. This couldn’t be more wrong. We should be looking after our mental health to become happier, calmer, more at ease, more joyful – not because these things make us more useful, but simply because that’s how everyone deserves to feel. Even when it isn’t mentioned explicitly, it’s almost always implied – employers don’t set up gardens for their employees for the sake of being nice – the expectation is that productivity will increase as a result. And if it doesn’t? That groundskeeping budget won’t be coming back next year! Not only is this a sign that our attitude towards mental health and nature is flawed, it’s also a sign that our understanding of nature itself is completely disconnected from reality. We’re ignoring the message that the natural world spells out for us every single time we engage with it – living things have needs, and if they’re failing to thrive, their needs aren’t being met.
Every single living organism experiences life differently. Some plants will grow anywhere, even literal concrete – others need special soil before they’ll even consider growing a millimetre. Some plants need protection from the wind, others will forget how to grow if you don’t expose them to a good breeze. It doesn’t matter what we think about their growing requirements – if we want to enjoy that plant, we have to respect its needs.
Put a plant in the wrong soil and the leaves will turn yellow. Don’t give it enough light and branches will die off. Forget to water it enough and it won’t flower. Neglect to give it the right company and won’t produce fruit. You mess with a plant, and it makes its dissatisfaction clear. That’s not to say that plants can’t be grown in inhospitable conditions, but if we want a plant to do something that it wouldn’t usually be able to, we have to put a LOT of effort into making it happen. The work that goes into forcing early rhubarb, or producing chrysanthemums for bouquets, or keeping desert plants happy in a dark home is enormous, and its necessary – a plant is a product of its environment, you get out what you put in. And this can be extended to larger natural examples too – gardens, forests, meadows and so on. You get the picture.
So what does this have to do with us?
Hopefully the analogy I’m making is clear. When you’re given an unrealistic deadline at work, and stress yourself out to meet it, what is your employer doing to help you to make that happen? When we grow plants, if we want to benefit from whatever it is that they produce, we have to take away every possible stressor so that the plant can do its thing. Why do we think we’re any different? We constantly expect ourselves to be up and about at the same time every day, as productive in the morning as we are in the afternoon, as energetic on Thursday in December as we are on Saturday in July. We’ll skip a meal and then be shocked when we can’t concentrate. What part of our bodies are so different to a plant’s that we can somehow pour from an empty cup, when we have endless examples of plants resolutely not being able to do that?
Capitalism is the reason that we constantly expect ourselves to be consistently over-productive. Our society is obsessed with more, more, more. Massive, endless productivity. The concept of ‘doing less’ is almost heretic. Employers will tell you they care about your mental health, but pay you a wage that means you can never truly feel secure. For those of us who are doing ok, the threat of poverty hangs over our heads as a stick that capitalism beats us with – but imagine if you told a plant “I’m not watering you unless you produce another flower”? And for those who are struggling, under or near the poverty line, capitalism tells them it’s their fault for not working hard enough – “If you’d made nicer flowers I would have given you more water”.
We need to take this into account when we talk about nature and mental health, because nothing will ever truly change if we don’t address the way society is currently set up. Being burned out and stressed, constantly being bombarded with advertising for things that will ‘make us happy’, being told over and over again that it’s individual, not corporate or governmental responsibility that will make a difference in the world. This is what needs to change for us to finally have a chance at realising our potential for love, happiness and satisfaction. Humans are resilient little plants, doing our best to grow in the wasteland of an unsustainably consumerist system, which tells us that because we’re just about managing to grow in their hellscape, we’re responsible for perpetuating it, and we’re responsible for how well we do in it. If one of us says “Actually, this wasteland is making things really hard for my roots to grow” the capitalist farmer will tell us “Well the plant next to you is fine, stop being pathetic.” Of course, we all know that the plant next to you is probably struggling just as much.
Humans are not here to be farmed for their productivity. We cannot repackage nature into a neat little ‘apply to the affected area’ salve for employers to use to make us work better. That is not what our existence is about. Let’s embrace more than just our ability to nurture, protect and grow plants, and apply that phenomenal human skill to ourselves too.