Research clearly points to time in a natural landscape being good for your mental health. But do we really need research to know that?
I get an itch sometimes. No, not sometimes. Often. Perhaps it’s a factor of my upbringing, one that was spent weekly roaming in the New Forest. It’s a safe space. A place where time stops the moment you set off on a path, where the rest of the world melts away, where there’s just you, forests and a troop of ponies meandering grassy patches.
The itch still drives me out of the house but this time to Dartmoor. It’s next to me, an ever present neighbour just out of sight over the city limits.
Dartmoor couldn’t be further from the New Forest. Flat and friendly, the New Forest is home to many. Roads cut through it and access is easy. It stands in no one’s way. It’s welcoming and indiscriminating. It’s tamed. Beautiful, but tamed.
Dartmoor is not so. Devon’s major roads split at Exeter and curve around Dartmoor’s edges like a river around an island. Dartmoor’s roads are narrow and winding, confusing and old. Where you can step into the New Forest, you must climb onto Dartmoor.
Every era, all at once
National Parks do change. Their borders fray with encroachment, their funding slacks and car parks fill up. But they still retain much of themselves. Both parks have ancient woodland, Dartmoor’s Meavy Oak having lived through 1000 years and the New Forest’s Knightwood Oak happy at 500.
And it’s not just the trees themselves, it’s the areas as living, breathing beings. Dartmoor isn’t the age of its oldest tree. It’s as old as this island. Even the indigenous Dartmoor Pony has roamed this land for well over a thousand years like the New Forest ponies. Wild horses have been at home in their respective forests for millenia.
We domesticated them, we did not bring them.
I wonder if this is the root of it all, why it’s so calming to be out on the moor. It’s not necessarily the nature of it – although that too. It’s the age. The surety. The unmovedness of it all.
This too shall pass
Sometimes it feels like society is speeding up. You can try to hang on, keep up, stay ahead. But it’s pointless, there is no ahead. Trying to cling on would be like trying to swim up a torrenting river.
But out on the moors or the depths of the New Forest, there is none of that. There’s a relief in spending time in landscape that is so old, so weathered and so serene. Time matters little to these places.
Their self-assuredness in the face of eras, let alone decades, offers a sense of peace unrivalled in our ever-moving world. It matters not what weather strikes, what transient crisis occurs, what fashion is passing on through.
Ancient forests are places for grief and healing. They have seen it all. They were born out of huge geological shifts. Their foundations were set millions of years ago. Their birth happened Before. And they’ll all be here After.
There is nothing we can create or build that could ever approach their grace and longevity.
I think that’s part of why I love these places so much.
It’s not that it isn’t worth creating and building and innovating. It’s not futile because the purpose of creation is not to live forever. But when it does feel futile, these are the places to come. Because everywhere on the moor you can touch the improbably old. The improbably reliable. Everything else will change but you can always touch rock that won’t.
It’s home in the most human sense. No matter how much we separate ourselves from nature, it will always be there to remind us of who we are. You can always just rest your head against a 500 year old oak tree. A rock that’s been around for more zeros than you can remember.
You can always walk through time because these places are both two thousand years ago and the present day. They are Before and After.
There is no time here.