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Published: 24 Aug 2021

Wild and Well: seeking evidence in literature

Samantha Walton talks about her new book Everybody Needs Beauty: In Search of the Nature Cure.

Samantha Walton author

Samantha Walton’s book engages seriously with the connection between nature and health, while scrutinising the harmful trends of a wellness industry that seeks to exploit our relationship with the natural world.

Dr Alice Tarbuck summarised it as: "A moment of ground-breaking importance for how we think about nature, access and wellbeing in late capitalism".

Exploring what inspired the author, a writer and lecturer in English literature , to venture into the Wild and Well sphere, our interview meandered from politics to mental health, ecosystem services and natural capitalism to the resilience of biodiversity, and from the NHS and the beauty industry to town planning.

Samantha is a Reader in Modern Literature at Bath Spa University, and was drawn to environmentalism after being inspired by nature writing, including works by John Muir. He was critical of capitalism, poor urban living conditions and pollution, and recognised how city dwellers’ un-wellness was leading them to nature. At the same time as he campaigned to protect the mountains and valleys of the American west from development, he encouraged people to seek out these places and benefit from the peace,  restoration, and beauty of water, forests and mountains.

“Science alone cannot explain the connection we feel with nature” explains Samantha. “Literature creates a space for other values to be explored and celebrated. It delves deeper into the human experience and helps us articulate our love and fascination with the living world.  Writers like Wordsworth, Coleridge, John Muir, Nan Shepherd, and even Robert Burns—they capture how we feel about nature, and they can also change how we see the world, and what we value. We need literature, and other creative arts now, to help us through this current crisis of environmental and social unwellness. It empowers us to imagine different futures”.

Samantha believes that literature, as a coalition of experience and ideas, can help us tackle the reasons why people don’t engage and don’t care enough about wild places. Young people are leading the discussions around the climate crisis. They want to understand where the blame lies, but they also urgently want solutions to be found and action to be taken. They understand that we have a two-way relationship with the environment in which we live: and that by caring for nature, we are caring for ourselves.

In her book, Samantha also questions the turn to nature for solace is happening now. What is depleting us that creates this desperate need to reconnect? Why are so many people suffering, and where are politics, society and economics falling short?

Science can describe the physical impact of having access to wild places and green spaces, but most research explores the benefits: monitoring air quality, our blood and heart-rate, and how it makes us feel. But it fails to highlight what is lost or depleted by its absence: the sense of belonging, our sense of touch, our relationships with animals, ecology, and each other. We need the evidence base to prove nature’s importance to our health, but we also need stories that reveal the politics of the nature-wellbeing relationship, and remind us why this connection is so important—and why it must be for everyone.

‘In Everybody Needs Beauty,’  Samantha explains: "I wanted to tell the stories of people who have fought for access to nature, and also challenged the inequalities and injustices that really make people unwell."

This includes Beryl Gilroy, the first black headteacher in London, who worked with marginalised children in the post-war years to help them access and care for green spaces; the guerrilla gardening movement, which since the 1970s has filled neglected urban corners with flowers and vegetables; and current fights to save parks in economically deprived areas from the hands of developers.  

As John Muir said: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul”. It is not a luxury, not just for the privileged minority, but a human right to experience beauty and form a connection with nature.

Cotton flowers - David Lintern

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