Reviews

An author spins a black cloud of depression into gold

A diary written during depression explores the healing power of nature.

The Wild Remedy: How Nature Mends Us – A Diary by Emma Mitchell. Michael O’Mara Books.

The book cover

There’s a good rule of thumb when reviewing books that spotting a small error, typo or flaw in the book is a good idea. It signals you’ve read the book and really paid attention. The problem of doing that with The Wild Remedy is twofold. One is that looking hard for a flaw in a book that documents the author’s personal struggle with depression is mean. And possibly sociopathic. The second problem is that it’s a staggeringly good book.

Mitchell lays out the underlying thesis of her book simply in the first paragraph.

I’m not going to mince my words: I suffer from depression and have done for twenty-five years. Some days my brain feels as though it is mired in a dark quicksand of negativity; on  others, layers of thick greyish cloud seem to descend, weighing down my thoughts and burgling my motivation. However the depression manifests itself, I find it difficult to move, and the urge to stay nestled indoors beneath a quilt and near to Netflix is strong. I know that if I do force myself to get up from the sofa, then the gloom can lift a little, and if I step outside and walk in the wood behind our cottage, the dreich thoughts may not leave entirely but they certainly retreat to the wings. For me, taking a daily walk among plants and trees is as medicinal as any talking cure or pharmaceutical. I know this sounds like an advice leaflet  from a Victorian sanatorium, and there are echoes of the bracing strictures of a previous age here, but only in the last year have I realized quite how beneficial being in a green place can be, even if it is only for five or ten minutes. Simply getting out of the house  and seeing the blackthorns and lime tree opposite our cottage induces a response in me that I can only describe as a neuronal  sigh of relief: an unseen, silent reaction in the brain that is  simultaneously soothing and curative. 

Mitchell, Emma. The Wild Remedy: How Nature Mends Us – A Diary (p. v). Michael O’Mara. Kindle Edition.

What follows are twelve chapters covering a year from October to September. The chapters track the turning of the seasons, and the rise and ebb of the author’s moods. Along with this are descriptions of the biological processes driving the changes that she sees and also some discussion about the neuroscience of what her interactions with nature are doing. Here’s an example from the opening October chapter.

There is a spot in the wood at the crossroads of two paths where a stand of spindle creates an exquisite but transient patchwork of colour on the woodland floor with their fallen leaves. The colours of spindle leaves hardly seem real during October. Many turn the brightest cerise, some  the palest primrose yellow, some a combination of both with a vivid stripe down their centre, and others become almost colourless. As with the sight of the dance of the darters, I want to put this colour into suspended animation so that I might conjure it during the dreary days of January. In a few weeks, colour will be scarce in the countryside. My instinct to gather these bright fallen leaves as I would sea glass or shells on a beach is very strong and I pick some up to take home with me.

When humans explore a new environment and seek out and find resources, the neurotransmitter dopamine is  released in the brain, conferring a brief burst of elation: a  ‘harvest high’. This may be a pathway that was laid down in our hunter-gatherer past. A stand of sea buckthorn covered in berries or a patch of wild strawberries would have boosted the calorific intake of our ancestors, and it would have directly aided their survival to respond positively to the sight of these wild foods, gather the berries and take them back to their shelter. In turn, each incident of foraging that results in edible supplies triggers a reward in the brain and encourages the foraging to become a habit. It is possible that a vestige of this response is what I experience when I gather the spindle leaves. Whatever the evolutionary cause of the positive feelings I gain from gathering them, I know that it is helping to subtly shift the chemical balance in my brain, so I dawdle near the bright  carpet and allow the leaves to work their antidepressant spell. The sun is warm. These few minutes in the presence of vivid colours boost my mood in such a tangible way I can almost taste it. 

Mitchell, Emma. The Wild Remedy: How Nature Mends Us – A Diary (p. xx-ii-xxiii). Michael O’Mara. Kindle Edition.

This combination of personal experience and discussion continues throughout the book. And if the idea of a ‘harvest high’ seems a bit of a stretch, she includes references talking more about the ideas in the bibliography. The blending of information with experience means that you’re never confronted by an overwhelming infodump of new jargon. At the same time there’s a steady drip of new ideas and explanation coming through as you read. It’s subtle, and maybe an index would help for looking up ideas, but then again a diary is not a textbook.

The choice of starting the diary in October is interesting, and it’s when the paper will be published. I think it touches on an interesting problem, when does the year end. On the calendar it’s December 31 but, if you were starting from a blank canvas, ten days after the solstice does not stick out as a significant time. I think Mitchell’s approach, ending in September makes a lot of sense. The harvest is the culmination of the agricultural year, and in the British Isles, September is the month where it makes most sense to mark it.

Three pages showing artwork from the start of chapters.

If September marks the end, then October must be the start. It might seem odd starting a nature diary at a time when nature is starting to sleep, but starting the diary as things die back provides a gentle introduction to how depression affects people. A downswing in mood as the days grow darker makes sense. It also means that, later in the book, Mitchell is able to show how depression makes its own rules and at other times doesn’t have to make sense at all.

The description of depression is powerful. It’s difficult to pick out a key paragraph and say “Hey! Read this!” Part of the problem is the relentless pressure of depression. The forays into scientific explanation, such as research into the role of GABA in the suicidal brain, give the reader some respite without entirely dissipating the mood.

I’ll admit that makes the book sound a bit of a trial, but Mitchell’s gift for description and eye for detail also make it a joy. In particular, the descriptions of nature are very strongly connected to the botany of the places she visits. There are references to fur and feathers, such as the song of a wren, but equally when she looks for colour she looks at plants and records what they are. The strong positioning of the plants in her diary mean it will appeal to botanically-minded readers. However, the foregrounding of plants also improves the descriptions of animal life, as it emphasises their connection to place. It is an excellent example of nature writing done well.

Apart from the words, the book has art and photography throughout. One striking section photographs a starling murmuration. I’m firmly of the opinion you can’t photograph a starling murmuration. They flow and reform like some strange mass of ink black clay in the hands of an energetic toddler and pinning all that movement into one shape in a photograph loses that. But if you want to disagree, then the photographs in this book would be a good starting point for making that case.

The artwork is also a good reason why the Kindle book, even though it’s cheap, is the wrong format to buy the book in. I should have got the hardback, and I’m sure the paperback will be better than the Kindle version. The artwork is something you’ll want to look over without getting eye strain from looking at it on a backlit screen.

By the end of the book there’s a degree of resolution. It is clear that Mitchell sees Nature as a remedy for depression, as mentioned in the title, not a cure. But this is a much more eloquent argument than “get out in the sunshine, it’ll do you good.”

The publication of the paperback, in October, will be timely in some countries. If you live in a country where the government has given up on public health, then October and onwards is likely to be a grim time. It will be reasonable to expect most people to have some bad days. I’m not sure this is a book that you’d buy for someone. That could be an action with some blunt subtext. But it is a book to recommend strongly in a non-judgemental way.

Summary

The Wild Remedy combines description of nature, with scientific explanations and discussions of mental health elegantly. If you’re planning to write yourself, the author’s eye for botanical detail makes it a shining example of how including plants can add texture to new nature writing.

It’s published in paperback in October 2020, but available in ebook form right now. Some places may have the 2019 hardback edition for sale.


You can follow Emma Mitchell on Twitter @silverpebble and on Instagram @silverpebble2.

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