The Call Of The Wild
I am sitting writing in the early morning, in a clearing in the woods. Birds are singing, the ground sloping steeply away from me is carpeted by bluebells and the sunlight is catching on the stream at the bottom of the hill. In front of me the kettle is just starting to hiss, hanging over my campfire. In the distance I can hear the hum of traffic but this is a small haven of total tranquillity and beauty.
Here, it’s easy to believe the weight of evidence that proves that the closer you are to nature, the healthier and happier you will be – with less anxiety and depression; less physical illness; and the potential to feel calmer.
The clearing is actually an outdoor classroom in the Bushcraft School where I teach wilderness and survival skills to everyone from scouts to local businesses. It has taken years of planning and sheer hard work to get here. When I eventually found a landowner who would work with me I then spent six months planning, physically clearing the ground and building a space to teach in. This is now a place people are starting to come to, not just to learn new skills, but to stop and breathe, have space to think, to be calm.
This is also an important place on my own journey. As a young man in the army, I found a talent for teaching outdoor pursuits and was encouraged to build my skills. The army helped me to train as a civilian instructor and set me on a career that has seen me teach around 20,000 people, from all ages and walks of life over the last 25 years. In that time I ran a social care-based outdoor centre with groups who experienced drugs, alcohol, physical and mental abuse, and young people with a history of self-harm. And I saw people achieve the impossible.
I have taught people facing – and beating - every challenge imaginable and grown to hate the idea that lots of people never get to enjoy the great outdoors because of barriers created by money, health or disability.
As a young man I also saw at first-hand the impact of entirely inadequate mental health services through the eyes of my father, a strong character who left a successful career in the armed services and police to a retirement that saw him completely unable to cope with an enforced lack of status and role in life. More than once he was missing, found and talked out of suicide, and when we did lose him it was through hypothermia as a result of alcoholism, a pitiful waste of a much-loved, valuable human being.
Nowadays as a volunteer in a search and rescue team, four out of five of our callouts are within local communities and involve helping the police search for missing people who have the potential to harm themselves, or are vulnerable and suffering from poor health. Sometimes they are people just like my dad; often they are much younger men.
And so here I am in the woods. After knocking on doors for two years, pitching my business idea I eventually found a warm welcome on the 2,500 acre Knowsley Estate, also home to Knowsley Safari Park; where we work in the easily-accessible Fishbrook Wood, as well as wilder environments. Hence the silence in this tranquil spot is occasionally broken by the distant but surreal sound of a trumpeting elephant or howl of a wolf. The benefit is that although this feels a million miles from civilisation, it is actually an oasis within an urban environment which is home to thousands of people.
While developing the business I have grown more and more interested in the link between beautiful spaces like this, and our mental health. Japanese academic Yoshifumi Miyazaki, has been credited with the concept of ‘Forest Therapy’, which asserts that because humans evolved in nature, this where our bodies and minds work best – and connecting with green space is essential to our own happiness and health.
The concept of Shinrin Yoku is one that has real meaning for me. It means ‘forest bathing’ and has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. The health benefits of spending time under the canopy of a living forest include a boosted immune system, an increase in cancer-battling proteins, and improved blood pressure, among others. Studies have also found psychological benefits, with ‘forest bathers’ seeing significant increases in positive feelings and decreases in negative feelings.
At the same time, US specialists have coined the phrase ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ in describing the growing disconnection between children and nature. It’s proven that whether they are climbing trees or threading a daisy chain, playing outdoors boosts children’s fitness, development, confidence and fuels their imaginations.
In the UK, our more enlightened health and social care professionals are showing increasing interest in ecotherapy. This is now an established concept promoting good mental and physical wellbeing through outdoor activity in a green environment. Research shows that for many people this can be used to help an existing mental health problem. It can be used alongside other treatments, such as talking therapies or medication, or on its own.
The name of my organisation, Kōmaru is a Maori expression meaning ‘strong wind in sails’. It represents the idea of using positive energy and of moving forwards. I am setting up a social enterprise arm of the business so I can make this a space for everyone, and I am actively looking for partners to work with.
Over the last year we have piloted the idea of forest health with community groups, working with everyone from young ‘NEET’ men (not in education, employment or training) to local women’s groups. We are about to work with a local mental health support group to create our own version of Shinrin Yoku in Fishbrook Wood.
More than once I have thought back to my father and his love of the outdoors. I remember one painful occasion when he asked for professional help and was told to take a long bath, with candles – an idea so absurd to him, he never went back. Perhaps sitting here talking by the campfire would have been a better solution. I hope it is for others.
Nick’s business, Kōmaru Outdoor Adventure, is based in Knowsley, near Liverpool www.komaru.co.uk.