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Books that Harness the Healing Power of the Outdoors

You will often hear me speak about the healing power of nature. I encourage others to take a step outside when they are feeling melancholy, and we know that an invigorating activity can enhance mood. But due to the coronavirus pandemic, I am actively encouraging you to stay inside, away from others, and close to home.

It does seem particularly unfair, given the winter we had in the UK this year. For most of the winter months, I fell foul to what the Scandinavians (via Alastair Humphreys) call the 'doorstep mile': that short space between the comfort of my own home and the world. Staying inside was preferable to yet another wet and windy walk. Now, the sun is shining and Spring is calling me over that threshold... and factors beyond our control are forcing us all to stay inside!

But we can endure some isolation to ensure we don't needlessly inflict ill health on ourselves or others. This is a time that I can practise the lessons learned from this last winter - and from the times I haven't had the health privilege to pop outside whenever I want.

That’s why I'm drawing on my indoor alter-ego and I’ve put together a list of books for you to read that bring the outside, inside. They all show the healing power of nature, with a focus on different mental health and social issues. And they all encourage the mentality of seizing adventure across the whole spectrum - from epic walks to the simplicity of sitting under trees.

So open a window, poor yourself a nice drink, and live vicariously through these books. And of course, they are all great to read outside too, when you can.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

Themes: Terminal illness; grief; homelessness

Raynor’s husband, Moth, was diagnosed with a terminal illness just days before their house and business was repossessed. With no home, no work, very little money and their time together growing short, Raynor decides (for the both of them) to take everything they own on their backs and walk the South West Coast path. This memoir is recent and raw, but it shows that even if you lose everything, there is still a lot to be gained.

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Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler

Themes: Sexuality; divorce; caregiving

Although she always found peace and comfort working in her own garden, Alys Fowler came to a stage where she found the sameness oppressive. She needed a proper adventure, somewhere she didn’t know. But as a caregiver, she couldn’t go on the far-off journey she wanted - so she set out in a packraft to explore the canals around Birmingham. Paddling amongst the hidden, hardy nature, she was able to assess her own needs. She was soon acknowledging her sexuality as a gay woman and the need to divorce her chronically ill husband.

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The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

Themes: Mindfulness; wellbeing

“Summer on the high plateau can be a delectable as honey. It can also be a roaring scourge… both are good”. Written in 1945 but left unpublished until 1977, The Living Mountain portrays the Cairngorms in a poetic and intimate way. Nan Shepherd lived and worked in the mountains her entire life, but she approached the landscape with a Zen mindfulness that saw something new at each glance. A great reminder to find beauty in what is on your own doorstep.

BONUS: The Living Mountain is also the first book on Robert MacFarlane's #CoReadingVirus on Twitter so you can tweet with others about it.

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Must Try Harder: Adventures in Anxiety by Paula McGuire

Themes: Anxiety; agoraphobia; fear

Paula McGuire suffered from anxiety so severe she became a recluse and by the time she was 30, she was relying on friends to live. But watching the 2012 Olympics, something changed and Paula set a goal to try all 17 Commonwealth Games sports by the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014. She would just need to learn to swim, and ride a bike first! Named after the notes teachers gave Paula in school reports, Must Try Harder is the perfect book to remind you to start where you are, and if you’re trying then you’re halfway there.

Dip: Wild Swims from the Borderlands by Andrew Fusek Peters

Themes: Depression; grief

“To swim is to breathe.” Due to the anti-inflammatory effects and the post-swim rush of dopamine, serotonin and beta-endorphins, cold water swimming has been proven as one form of treatment for some with depression. In Dip, Andrew Fusek Peters writes about his own wild-swimming after spending time in hospital due to depression. With poetic prose and black and white photography by Andrew’s daughter, you can picture the lakes, pools and bogs that he frequented. This memoir shows the power that immersing in nature can have on our mental health.

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Mindful Thoughts for Walkers: Footnotes on the Zen Path by Adam Ford

Themes: Mindfulness

“One of the kindest things we can do for ourselves is to go for a good walk.” Mindful Thoughts for Walkers pulls mindfulness techniques from various sources and religions, but mostly buddhism. Exercise like walking is still allowed once a day, away from people, so use this as time to you self and to help you reflect on where you are and those who have walked the same path. Better yet, it is presented in a bite-size form perfect for taking on a walk!

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Nature is a Medicine

I hope that these stories from others who found healing in nature will resonate with you. Sometimes, knowing someone has shared your experience can give you the solace you need. These books act as a reminder that you are not alone, and nature is always there for you, waiting.

If you want to know more about the science and practicalities of how nature heals, check out these books from the Reading List:

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