In lockdown, I found myself searching manically for life on those restricted walks outside. I slurped up as much of spring as I could find. Looking up to see the first swifts returning, listening acutely to hear the cuckoo, getting down on my knees to examine wood sorrel, orobanche, blue speedwell.
Nature connection, how we engage with the rest of the living world, varies from person to person. Some might like running in woods; others might be keen on bird-watching. Nature is a nebulous idea and people are heterogenous. But one thing I’m sure we can all agree on is that ‘nature’ is mostly out there (apart, perhaps, for house plants).
In my book Losing Eden, I investigate how and why nature can affect human mental health. From serotonin-enhancing bacteria found in soil to the impact of phytoncides (chemical compounds emitted by trees), my focus was on how spending time outdoors makes us psychologically well.
But over the last few months, I’ve found a new venue for connecting with the living world, and it took me by surprise, for it had been there all along. I’d never fully realised that nature connection – with all its wellbeing benefits – could occur on my kitchen tabletops.
Tuesday is an exciting day. It’s when our veg box arrives. Usually we’d have a look, express pleasure at any unusual surprises, put the vegetables on the rack and work through them, satisfied in the knowledge that we were eating healthy food, grown with organic methods.
But in this pandemic, when everything seems to take on a strange intensity in the face of potential threat, I have started to see the vegetables in a new way. It started with radishes. As I was slicing the roots to pickle, I noticed that when cut open, the radish had intricate and beautifully symmetrical patterning. The hot pink wasn’t just on the outside, it was bleeding into the ice white body, and creating ink-like lines which fanned across the circle. It was meditative and calming to chop slowly and take time to notice the colours and patterns.
Next up was mushrooms. I touched the smooth cap, marvelling at how soft it felt, and how it rounded so gracefully. Before cutting the mushrooms up to cook with garlic and parsley, I was awed by its gills. Looking closely, absorbing the pattern, gave me such pause and wonder. I gently touched the gills, like waves. The veg box was like going for a walk in the woods, looking for fungi and insects. I found beauty in the soft leaves of the celery, intrigue in the antennae of the kohlrabi, pleasure in the veins of the Cavolo Nero, which mirrored maps of the courses of rivers, or even the veins in my body.
June arrived and that meant broad beans. I’d always loved podding beans and peas, but I noticed and appreciated the process much more deeply. I took the time to feel and stroke the cashmere-like, furry inside lining of the bean’s sleeping bag. I saw how the beans left beautiful oval forms in the case, where they had grown. Some of these were from our own vegetable patch, which gave added satisfaction.
Every time I went to the shops, I would search for fractal broccoli. Fractal shapes have been found to activate areas of the brain associated with relaxation and calmness. Losing myself in a fractal broccoli for a few minutes was similarly restorative to having a bath or going for a run. Now I realise that the coriander and parsley in our veg box are fractal, meaning the same shape repeated in decreasing size.
The smell and scent of herbs, too, has been meditative in this period. Perhaps because it is a distraction but, also, I think a grounding in the smells we, as humans, would’ve encountered over millennia of our evolutionary history. Also, the patterns, when you look close, communicate a sense of order our brains crave, especially at the moment.