Caught by the River

The Caught by the River Book of the Month: February

26th February 2020

Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild, by Lucy Jones, is the Caught by the River Book of the Month for February, and is published tomorrow by Particular Books. Jessica J. Lee reviews.

In the early pages of Losing Eden, Lucy Jones describes a pear tree seen from her flat’s window. She was recovering from addiction, and the tree became a focal point, a measure of sober time passing. But then it was covered by scaffolding; her solace taken away. In a period of biodiversity loss and climate change, humans are facing an ‘extinction of experience’ of the natural world, Jones writes, which has an impact on mental health even for people who don’t particularly like nature. It is this impact that Jones examines.

This is a book of rich description and bibliography—the breadth of research is staggering. Jumping between scientific studies and memoir, the book sings with vivid language: forests carpeted with ‘Kermit green’ moss and soil that smells of ‘bacon, whisky, dill, gravad lax, gherkin and peat’. Lichen is splattered ‘as if a child had flicked paint from a brush’. Visiting the seed bank in Svalbard, Sweden, Jones paints mountains that ‘glow ultraviolet pink at their tips’. She traces the history of the word ‘endling’ coined by US American doctor Robert Webster, who intended the word to mean ‘the last surviving member of a family’ but has come to stand for the last animal of a species otherwise facing extinction, like George, a tree snail of the Achatinella apexfulva species that died in January 2019. ‘How do we grieve for the Earth?’ she asks poignantly. The book left me awe-struck by the sheer volume of things I didn’t know, from the scholarly to the mundane. (Tea bags—ordinary paper tea bags—contain plastic!)

Jones examines human connections with the natural world from evolutionary, psychological, and medical perspectives. The types of landscapes we prefer might have a lot to do with evolution—we tend to prefer savannahs with open vistas—and this might have knock-on effects on garden design. She explores a study by Roger Ulrich, an advisor for the NHS in the 2000s, that found vastly different outcomes for patients in rooms with windows looking at trees as opposed to a brick wall. Patients looking at trees had fewer evaluative notes from nurses, took fewer strong doses of medication, as well as fewer minor complications. Making a case for awe in nature, she notes that observing nature can make us more generous: in one study, participants asked to share lottery winnings with strangers were more likely to do so if they’d just been looking at awe-inspiring natural scenery. MRI scans showed reduced activity in the part of their brains responsible for ‘sense of self’. 

Jones explains the pleasure we gain from swimming or walking outdoors, citing our fatigue with desk-bound tasks. She describes soldiers planting flowers in First World War trenches: ‘forget-me-nots, cornflowers, sweet William, poppies.’ Through a wealth of evidence, she makes a case for preserving nature ‘for the sake of the health of future generations.’

And this is the where Losing Eden and I might have parted ways: as Jones cited study after study showing the psychological benefits afforded by plants, animals, and even soil, I wondered if it was all a bit anthropocentric. I wanted her to dig deeper—the chapter on education and forest schools lacked a nuanced portrait of which children might be most impacted by a lack access to nature and why, as well as the pressures faced by teachers in a time of austerity. Many of the examples of pioneering educational or therapeutic projects existed on private estates bequeathed by benevolent land owners, which seems an insufficient place from which to build an equitable future. I wondered if these studies would simply result in more potted plants in workplaces, without actually examining the capitalist structures that disconnected us from nature. In the early chapters, austerity, racism, class, and wealth-gaps warrant little more than a look-in. But as I read on, I realised just how deftly Jones had shaped the book.

If what Jones seeks here is a kind of biophilia—a broad love of nature—Losing Eden is crafted such that I could give it to my most biophobic friends and it might win them over. Only once her readers have been convinced of nature’s benefits does Jones gently introduce supposedly ‘radical’ notions: that we ought to question our language for ‘nature’, ‘environment’ or ‘natural capital’. That we need to perspectives and policy inputs from those other than ‘straight, white, educated men’. That ‘the super-capitalists of the world’ should be held to account. By the book’s final chapters, I found myself tallying the climate-sceptic relatives I’d gift it to, the complacent friends and parents whose minds this book might actually change. 

Near the end of the book, Jones visits Derek Jarman’s garden and reads his classic text on gardening and dying, Modern Nature, written while he was suffering with AIDS-related illness. ‘For Jarman,’ she writes, ‘there are no binary conclusions.’ Nature instead gives life ‘a richness and fullness and a loved character and relationship that is with him until the very end.’ To value the natural world from that vibrant, muddy space—beyond statistics, costs, and policies—is the overarching message of this book, and one that I believe will resonate with even the most unlikely of readers. 


Losing Eden, published tomorrow, is available here, priced £20.00.

Jessica J. Lee’s latest book Two Trees Make a Forest was a recent Book of the Month. You can read an extract here, or buy a copy here. Jessica is also the Founding Editor of The Willowherb Review, a fantastic platform dedicated to the publication of new nature writing by emerging and established writers of colour. You can read it here.