The profound therapeutic benefits of connecting with nature and spending time outside are well known. But in winter? When it’s cold, gloomy and everything looks dead? In fact, especially in the winter, when we are susceptible to fatigue, illness and seasonal low mood. And actually there is plenty of life, beauty and wonder right outside our doors, if we look closely.
Come and take a short walk with me in my nearest wild patch – an urban cemetery, a common environment across the British Isles.
It takes a while to persuade my young children into their outdoor paraphernalia, but we are all a bit frazzled, and I know a walk will help, even if it’s just for 10 minutes.
The cemetery is quiet and still. At first glance, it seems life is suspended. I look at the synaptic branches of the brittle trees – beech, yew, maple, larch. A friend told me the bare trees remind her to breathe deeper. Since then, I’ve seen the wintry trees as lungs; I take a deep breath.
Red kites soar high above us and blackbirds rummage around the ivy looking for something to eat. We pause to look at the globular clusters of the fruits. Navy spheres. My eye is caught by the red, orange, yellow of berries that glow in the winter hush.
A brick wall festooned with moss and lichen is our first destination. If you only associate psychedelic green with spring, forget it. Moss is neon Kryptonite throughout the year. If you look closely you’ll see emerging sporophytes. Wet weather makes for particularly juicy moss. Alongside the pincushion mosses are the jade-green pixie cups of Cladonia lichen. I could look at these goblet-like structures for a while, contemplating the wonder of symbiosis, but the toddler is running away.
Why do we love circles? Research suggests that from birth we are hardwired to prefer rounded shapes (presumably because they are the shape of eyes and nipples). A study of brain activity by neuroscientists at Bar-Ilan University in Israel found that sharp-cornered, angular shapes trigger more activity in the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with fear and anxiety. The pleasure of looking at circles in nature may be an ancient cellular response.
I break off a small piece of pine and sniff the sap. I won’t have long today to take in the phytoncides – the chemicals emitted by trees – which studies show can have measurable effects on our health, but the sharp-sweet aroma brings me into my body.
In the middle of the cemetery, which is in the centre of town, next to a busy train station and shopping centre, lives an awe-inspiring being: Myxomycetes, or slime mould. I’ve been tracking a large plasmodium – the bright yellow slime in its creeping, predating, animal-like form – for a while. It moves around the logs surprisingly fast until it transforms part of itself into a completely different organism: exquisite fruiting bodies with iridescent outer layers and gold-thread cords. This species – Badhamia utricularis – is common and easy to spot. A torch helps, as well as no shame about lying on the floor with your head in some logs.
I get out my hand lens, quickly – the kids are cold – and spy more slime moulds that are surviving. I spy a colony – a shimmering? A ghost buster? The collective noun is not yet agreed, but these are some of the best suggestions from an online forum I’m part of – of brown fruiting bodies on stalks, which resemble a forest of tiny chocolate lollipops. Honestly, you won’t believe how exquisite slime moulds are. Look up Barry Webb’s amazing photography on his website. The world is full of them! But you’ll need a hand lens, or jewellery loupe, which is well worth getting if you like having your mind blown daily. This kind of awe isn’t simply nice, it’s good for our health: a study from the University of Toronto found that the emotion of awe promotes healthier levels of cytokines (proteins important in maintaining our immune system).
We touch the sticky toffee buds of the horse chestnut tree and I have another look at the moss on the brick wall. A red velvet mite! A hand lens allows me to see more of the interconnections and interactions around us. It teaches me how limited my perception and ways of seeing are, and how much I have to learn and discover. It turns this urban park into a rainforest or jungle. For less than a tenner (my hand lens cost about £7).
On the way home, we stroke candlesnuff fungus and watch clouds of spores puff like a magic trick. In the woods, there will be much more fungi – round, whoopee cushion puff balls to tap – and even more colour: scarlet elf cup, orange witches’ butter, yellow stagshorn, green elf cup, blue roundheads, purple jellydisc fungus.
Almost home, I grab a rose hip outside the back door. Tangy, free and full of vitamin C. Choose a slightly darker red, squidgy one and squeeze the orange goo directly into your mouth (don’t eat the seeds, which are covered in hairs that can irritate). Delicious. The kids’ pockets are full of treasures and we all return to the house less irritable and restless.
I walk to balance my nervous system, reduce inflammation, quieten rumination. But, in this liminal space – in both the season and our afflicted world – there is also a sense outdoors of a pause and meaning that can’t be measured in a lab. We can patch ourselves into the vast communion of life, and witness processes of change and transformation that might restore our equilibrium, offer us resilience and, even in the depths of winter, show us the wonder of the world.