Emma Mitchell

The Wild Remedy: How Nature Mends Us

“I become engrossed in every leafy, creepy or flying inhabitant of the wood, and with each detail that draws my attention, with each metre I walk, the incessant clamour of daily concerns seems to become more muffled and the foggy pall of depression begins to disperse.”

“Depression grows stronger through stillness” Emma Mitchell, author of The Wild Remedy, writer, broadcaster, and maven of the pervading calm of nature, informs us from personal experience.

Like others who have traipsed about to find stillness within, Mitchell believes in movement there is blessing. But not just movement – abandonment of the dark, thudding muck that is the emotional space of depression.

Go into nature and pay attention!

I become engrossed in every leafy, creeping or flying inhabitant of the wood, and with each detail that draws my attention, with each metre I walk, the incessant clamor of daily concerns seems to become more muffled and the foggy pall of depression begins to disperse.

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Mitchell is no stranger to depression or suicidal thoughts, or to the sensory warmth of nature.

Her pinned Tweet (her Instagram is also exquisite) is a list of small, action-oriented, and (unlike so many horrid aphorisms to “stay positive”) doable coping mechanisms. I speak from personal experience.1

As humans we often pull our horizons close so we cannot see the future, cannot imagine a future. In a normal state, this can be helpful. I think of Annie Dillard’s manufactured consciousness between the lamp and the desk, in which she writes.

But in depression, these corners give no comfort. “Depression grows stronger through stillness”, Mitchell writes from bed:

My world narrows. I stay in the cottage and move slowly between its rooms. My thoughts become sluggish and jumbled and ideas for drawings, photographs and writing vanish. I avoid friends and turn down invitations to socialize. I manage only the simplest tasks each day and the guilt I feel about my inability to contribute to the household, fulfil work commitments and be an engaged parent is overwhelming. Self-reproach brings my mind lower still.

At first I try to continue. I work from bed as best I can, I continue to write during the short periods when my mind is more alert. Sleep dominates everything. I can barely stay awake and have three, sometimes four naps a day along with a full-night’s sleep. My memory blurs, and several times I find that the end of the day has arrived and I was barely aware that it had begun.

Photo of autumn gatherings. Featured in Emma Mitchell's "The Wild Remedy" in the Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Mitchell’s remedy is specific, there is a natural healing power of nature, but not simply walking in it, or seeing it – becoming part of it.

A very small story was unfolding in front of me: I was seeing a snapshot of that creature’s life and I felt thrilled and privileged to witness it. I will still squat, aged forty-six, to examine humble yet exquisite collections of plants or lichens growing on the pebbles of Dungeness or the small creatures that dart about in rock pools.

The nineteenth-century poet John Clare called this ‘dropping down’, and he did it too, sitting among wild plants to see the natural world from the point of view of a snipe in its nest. This physical and mental immersal in nature informed and inspired his verse. The sight of a path curving gently through hazels, a great stand of beeches, the sweep of the white sands and calm water of Shell Bay in Dorset, or the monumental yet softly cat-like Howgill Fells in Cumbria, is undeniably uplifting and beautiful.

Throughout the year, Mitchell’s state waxes and wanes. And you realize depression (though it can be mitigated), is about survival, about treading water in the dark, murky space where everything blends and blurs.

The Wild Remedy is not about a day in nature, or a trip or even single events strung together. It is an entire year of Mitchell’s life. And not just any year, every year. The book begins “I suffer from depression and have done for twenty-five years.”

Photo of yellowed leaves. Featured in Emma Mitchell's "The Wild Remedy" in the Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Mitchell does not simply step into nature, she draws it, collects it, sees and touches it, marvels at it. She carries that sense of wonder which environmentalists Rachel Carson, David Attenborough, and Robert MacFarlane have been so keen to ignite and inflame.

Mitchell continues gently:

Then a small patch of blue catches my eye and a plant I have longed to see is just there in front of my shoes. Once my mind has attuned to this new thrill I spy strands of it among the thyme and fairy flax for several metres in all directions. This is milkwort.

Whether or not you rejoice at milkwort or teasel is irrelevant. Don’t let Mitchell’s easy oneness with nature put you off. Anyone can appreciate the yellow of lichen, or redness of a Boston ivy come autumn. Anyone can listen to birdsong or marvel at grass patterns (or insects!).

This year of using nature as a remedy has convinced me that humans may need to be in natural landscapes regularly in order to feel fully well. There is an ancient and potent connection between us and the land: we evolved it to live in wild places. Perhaps it is the displacement from nature in modern life that is causing so many of us to struggle with our mental health.

The abounding strength of The Wild Remedy is Mitchell’s conviction in the healing powers of nature, something echoed by poets Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry, and writer Annie Dillard.

“Just a minute” said a voice in the weeds,
So I stood still
in the day’s exquisite early morning light
and so I didn’t crush with my great feet
any small or unusual thing just happening to pass by
where I was passing by
on my way to the blueberry fields,
and maybe it was the toad,
and maybe it was the June beetle,
and maybe it was the pink and tender worm,
who does his work without limbs or eyes,
and does it well…

From Mary Oliver’s poem ‘Just a minute”

But I believe there is more to it for Mitchell, for anyone. We are social beings first. As odd as it might seem, there is the entire revolution of self that begins with stepping outside and ends with posting something online or in a book that speaks to you, me, or any other inhabitants of depression’s dark, thudding depths. The wonderful buoyancy of caring.

I seek nature like Mitchell. But even more I cling to this rule: when you want to contract, expand instead. Depression hates movement, it also hates noise. Shout yourself into eternity, empty yourself into the world. Open your heart. Depression writhes and suffers.

Photo of lavender. Featured in Emma Mitchell's "The Wild Remedy" in the Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Read Mitchell’s The Wild Remedy in its entirety to feel the full warmth of her abilities and generosity. Her social media are vessels of beauty and calm. She is a real, human thing, as present in the page as any as I’ve ever read.

I also wholeheartedly recommend these generous expansions of self from Maya Angelou on forgiving yourself first, Mark Hearld’s joy and art from the scraps of our daily life, psychotherapist Stephen Grosz’s case studies of losing and finding ourselves, or my own study of the importance of touch and the formation of our inner landscapes.