youThe profound therapeutic benefits of connecting with nature and spending time outdoors are well known. But in winter? When it’s cold and gloomy and everything seems dead? In fact, especially in the winter, when we are susceptible to fatigue, disease and seasonal low mood. And indeed, there is a lot of life, beauty and wonder just outside our doors, if we look closely.
Come and take a short walk with me in my nearest wild patch: an urban graveyard, a common setting in the British Isles.
It takes a while to coax my toddlers into wearing their outdoor paraphernalia, but we’re all a little exhausted and I know a walk will help, even if it’s just for 10 minutes.
The cemetery is calm and quiet. At first glance, it seems that life is suspended. I look at the synaptic branches of brittle trees: beech, yew, maple, larch. A friend told me that bare trees remind her to breathe deeper. Since then, I have seen the winter trees as lungs; I take a deep breath.
Red kites fly overhead and blackbirds stir the ivy looking for something to eat. We stop to look at the globular clusters of fruits. marine spheres. I am struck by the red, orange and yellow of the berries that shine in the silence of winter.
A brick wall adorned with moss and lichens is our first destination. If you only associate psychedelic green with spring, forget it. Moss is neon Kryptonite year-round. If you look closely, you will see emerging sporophytes. The humid climate makes the moss particularly juicy. Alongside the pincushion mosses are the jade green pixie cups of cladonia lichen. I could stare at these cup-shaped structures for a while, contemplating the wonder of symbiosis, but the little boy is running away.
Why we love circles Research suggests that from birth we are programmed to prefer rounded shapes (presumably because they are shaped like eyes and nipples). A study of brain activity by neuroscientists at Bar-Ilan University in Israel found that angular shapes with sharp corners trigger more activity in the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with fear and anxiety. The pleasure of looking at circles in nature may be an ancient cellular response.
I break off a small piece of pine and smell the sap. I won’t have much time today to digest phytoncides, the chemicals emitted by trees, which studies show can have measurable effects on our healthbut the strong and sweet aroma takes me to my body.
In the middle of the cemetery, which is in the center of town, next to a busy train station and a shopping center, lives an overwhelming being: myxomycetes, or slime mold. I’ve been tracking a large plasmodium, the bright yellow slime in its crawling, predatory, animal-like form, for a while. It moves around the trunks surprisingly quickly until it transforms part of itself into an entirely different organism: luscious fruiting bodies with iridescent outer layers and cords of gold threads. this species – Badhamia utricularis – is common and easy to detect. A flashlight helps, as well as don’t be ashamed to throw yourself on the ground with your head on some logs.
I take out my hand lens, quickly, the children are cold, and I see more surviving slime molds. I see a cologne, a shimmery? A ghost hunter? The collective name has yet to be agreed upon, but here are some of the best suggestions from an online forum I’m a part of: brown fruiting bodies on stalks, resembling a forest of tiny chocolate lollipops. You honestly won’t believe how delicious slime molds are. Look out for the incredible photography of Barry Webb on your website. The world is full of them! But you’ll need a hand loupe or jeweler’s loupe, which is well worth getting if you like to let your imagination run wild every day. This kind of wonder is not just nice, it’s good for our health: A study from the University of Toronto found that the emotion of wonder promotes healthier levels of cytokines (proteins important in maintaining our immune systems).
We touch the sticky caramel buds of the buckeye and I take another look at the moss on the brick wall. A red velvet mite! A magnifying glass allows me to see more of the interconnections and interactions around us. It teaches me how limited my perception and ways of seeing are, and how much I have to learn and discover. Turn this urban park into a rain forest or jungle. For less than ten (my hand lens is about £7).
On the way home, we pet the candle tobacco mushroom and watch the clouds of spores puff up like a magic trick. In the forest, there will be many more mushrooms (round puff balls and pounding cushions) and even more color: scarlet elf cup, orange witch butter, yellow staghorn, green elf cup, blue roundheads, disc mushroom purple jelly.
Almost home, I grab a rose hip outside the back door. Spicy, free, and packed with vitamin C. Choose a slightly darker red, mushy one and squeeze the orange goo right into your mouth (don’t eat the seeds, which are covered in hairs that can irritate). Delicious. Children’s pockets are full of treasures and we all return home less irritable and restless.
I walk to balance my nervous system, reduce inflammation, calm rumination. But, in this liminal space, both in season and in our grieving world, there is also an outdoor sense of pause and meaning that cannot be measured in a laboratory. We can join the vast communion of life and witness processes of change and transformation that could restore our balance, offer us resilience and, even in the depths of winter, show us the wonder of the world.