NATURE AS A CURE FOR THE SICKNESS OF MODERN TIMES … The School of Life

The modern age has manhandled nature like none before it ever quite has. Previous eras may not have treated it with too much respect – the Ancient Greeks stripped most of their coastline of trees by late Antiquity, the Romans deforested large chunks of North Africa and killed off all its larger wildlife for food and gladiatorial fights (the Roman historian Pliny lamented how the nobility had destroyed Africa’s elephants to feed their appetite for ivory bedsteads). But the old world lacked the new one’s sheer relentlessness, as well as its dynamite, power saws, pesticides, guns and processing plants. 

As the railways cut through the American continent, nature was hacked down with unsurpassed thoroughness. There’d been 25 million bison in North America in the 16th century; there were fewer than a hundred by the end of the nineteenth century. There’d once been a billion trees across the continent; by 1900, 85% of them were gone.

1892: bison skulls await industrial processing at the Michigan Carbon Works, Detroit. Bones were processed to make glue, fertilizer and ink.

A forest being cut down on the way between New York and Akron, Ohio. James F. Ryder, Atlantic & Great Western Railway (1862). National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Across modernising countries, people knew something important was being lost and many urgent attempts were made to slow the extinctions. The Yosemite valley was protected by Abraham Lincoln in 1864, Congress established Yellowstone National Park in 1872; President Wilson created the National Park Service in 1916. In England, the Lake District was protected by legal force in the late nineteenth century, in Australia, the Royal National Park was established south of Sydney in 1879, Switzerland created the first European National Park in 1914. On a smaller scale, most modern cities created free parks for their inhabitants: Munich’s Englischer Garten was founded in 1789, London’s Victoria Park was established in 1845, Lincoln Park in Chicago opened its gates in 1865, Central Park in New York was completed in 1876.

When trying to justify why nature might be so important, there was always one answer put forward by promoters of national and urban parks: industrial society, with its factories, crowded streets and tightly packed tenement blocks made it imperative for people to have a chance to get out into nature for fresh air and for exercise. Trees and habitats had to be preserved so that we could keep fit.

Though self-evident, something else – less often mentioned and harder to put a finger on – was also at stake: the idea that nature might be highly necessary for what a few voices were still daring to call our ‘souls’, and others more plainly our psyches. It seemed that nature was as important for treating the psychological ills bred by modernity as it was for addressing its physical ones. Modernity had made us mentally unwell – and nature held some of the cures.

What then might the therapeutic benefits be? At least five themes suggested themselves:

Recalibration

As European pioneers began cutting and shooting their way across the American continent in the early nineteenth century, one unlikely figure, a minor French-American businessman called John Audubon, followed in their wake. He wasn’t after land, gold or bison hides. He was interested in birds, with which he had been fascinated since his childhood in Brittany – and had announced his intention to draw every species in America. In the end, he managed only 435 (there were 2,000 in total), which he etched on large copper engraved plates and collected together in one of the most successful books of the nineteenth century, The Birds of America, published between 1827 and 1838 (Queen Victoria had a copy, as did France’s Charles X and American President James Polk).

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