A Wild Remedy
Drop-in posts written by Dr Kitty Wheater.
Happy September! And greetings from a damp Edinburgh afternoon. This week, with autumn brewing, we look once again to what is wild...
A Wild Remedy
If you ever have occasion to pack a large suitcase that will be lugged, by yourself, 400 miles on trains across the country – trains that will inevitably run late, incurring a hair-raising three-minute connection at Birmingham New Street – you will probably not want to pack hardback books. But over five months of lockdown in the south, I had read a few pages of Emma Mitchell’s The Wild Remedy nearly every day. So in it went, all the way to Edinburgh.
Mitchell, who has suffered from persistent depression for over a decade, is a naturalist who regularly appears on Countryfile and Springwatch. Her Twitter and Instagram pages are alive with photographs, drawings, and crafts: an arrangement of June flowers; a brown wren; a silver cast of a snowdrop. The Wild Remedy, her illustrated diary of nature-watching, was first published in 2018, but it proved so popular during lockdown that it sold out across retailers nationwide. On opening the book you can see why: it’s like entering a natural cabinet of curiosities. Her simple pen and ink drawings of hawkbit, a barn owl, a feather, ask the eye to linger, to note lines and form. Photographs abound with greenness. Turn the page, and find yourself transported to a field of orchids; startle, when you recognise in black and yellow watercolour, the caterpillar you saw yesterday on a bramble.
Mitchell’s relationship with nature is a joyful seizing of the present moment, amidst the poignancy that things pass. ‘I want to stuff all this colour hungrily into my eyes and pockets while it lasts,’ she writes of the indigo sloes and glowing beeches in autumn. She collects and photographs shells, pine-cones, and seed-heads, lovingly arranged for the reader and then dispersed. Against a plain background you see colours, shapes, and shadows; the texture of wood, the filigree of leaves; and you know that this is a moment in time, a capturing of the present, the sweeter for its fleeting.
Mitchell’s daily walk, you sense, was vital for her long before it became so for many of us during lockdown. ‘Vital’ is apt, because although her depression is at times severe, this book is not so much about suffering as life-affirming relief. When Mitchell, like John Clare, ‘drops down’ to the level of the rock pool or the hedgerow, the ‘jagged edges’ of her thoughts lose their harshness, and her mind is soothed. She is a Romantic for the twenty-first century, and so she speaks both of mental health and soul; the importance of her medication, and the burgeoning of spring; the mycobacterium vaccae in the soil whose proteins trigger serotonin release in the brain, and the itinerant swallow as a symbol of persistence. ‘It has reached its destination and I have survived another winter,’ she writes.
But, she warns, our connection with nature is not a one-way street, 'a sort of green Tesco, burgling myself some green serotonin and dopamine. It’s much more of a two-way relationship.' Contemporary readers’ love affair with nature writing can seem misplaced amidst a climate crisis, and Sarah Moss, in her haunting Ghost Wall, pastiched the kind of reader who stocks up on Robert MacFarlane and Richard Mabey but never goes outdoors. While Mitchell’s photographed arrangements are beautiful, with a vaguely coffee-table quality, they demand not so much to be looked at as emulated – and then, protected. You want to bring home robin egg shells, and protest Cambridgeshire County Council’s felling of bee orchids, too. And so when Mitchell laments a loss of biodiversity, this is not just another narrative. It hits the reader precisely because her work is visceral, as earthy and joyful as it is sometimes painful.
It is perhaps no surprise then that over the last few months, in daily lives typified both by anxiety and by ‘exercise outdoors’, The Wild Remedy flew off the shelves. Life in lockdown has interrupted so many of our connections. Entire relationships are conducted over Whatsapp; socially distant walks begin and end without hugs; love, mediated by Virgin Media, is susceptible to thunderstorms. The outdoors, on the other hand, can be seen, and smelt, and watched. The ground is damp when you kneel on it, and lichen is crisp between the fingers. Perhaps the gift of nature writing during this time is that when Zoom triggers fatigue, and screens make us want to wriggle, we feel our connections elsewhere more deeply.
Mitchell leaves us with the knowledge that it is attention that creates connection, and presence that incurs discovery. These need not be hard work: a few pages of a book, at bedtime; being mindful, as you walk; a three-step breathing space, when you step outside. Then, miraculously, a darting smudge of green becomes a goldcrest. A bankside scurry becomes a vole. And when you return home after five months away, there are purple mushrooms in the Braid woodland, and wild raspberries in the hedgerows.
With warm wishes for a very good week,