Black Dogs and Orange Tips

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by CharlieMoores on April 8, 2011 · 4 comments

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I may well be committing a major faux-pas here at Birdingblogs.com by writing two posts in a row that don’t actually feature a bird of any sort (I’m sure someone will tell me if I am), but as I now spend part of my time in a wooden shed editing podcasts and a good chunk of the rest of it standing in shopping centres trying to persuade people that joining the UK’s largest bird charity is a fine idea, that’s perhaps not altogether surprising. I just don’t get to see that many birds at the moment.

It’s not an ideal situation for a birder, I admit (and hopefully the ‘not-seeing-birds’ part is temporary). However I do get plenty of time to think about birds and wildlife, and their effect on the human condition. Bear with me because what follows is not in the least bit unscientific, based as it is purely on observational data collected by a somewhat perplexed charity fundraiser over an eight week period, but I do wonder how closely the news here in the UK today that “Prescriptions for antidepressants have risen by 43% in the past four years to nearly 23 million a year” is linked to the fact that so many people these days don’t relate to nature and wouldn’t know even a common bird like a Robin if it flew up and pecked them on the nose?

Now, please, I don’t want anyone take umbrage at what might seem like a casual dismissal of depression. I’ve had depression myself and was taking anti-depressants (or more specifically selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs) for eight long years before I gave them up (under medical supervision) this Christmas. No, depression is very real and very debilitating and no-one asks for the ‘black dog’ to turn up at the door looking for somewhere to stay or deserves to feel like they’re drowning in a tar-pit of hopelessness while said ‘black dog’ howls derisively at their efforts to get out.

Having said that, I do wonder whether we are helping ourselves enough – and I’m wondering this based on a tenuous strand of thought that runs out from a second-rate game show, towards frequent rebuffals when fund raising, and on to being thanked for doing a good job by existing charity members.

I’d better explain. I was going to open this post with the question: “We asked 100 celebrities if they were in interested in wildlife conservation or the environment…? And they said ‘No’.” It’s from the format of a show called Family Fortunes which used to be fairly entertaining and was once fronted by the supremely talented Bob Monkhouse (surely the most natural game-show host ever born in these islands) but has been re-branded and is now yet another opportunity for the usual less successful C-listers to show how little they know and is fronted by Vernon Kay, a smiley man who appears to have the depth of a spilt glass of water. (Unless of course I were to ever get C-list enough to get invited on the show, in which case the man Vernon is obviously the UK’s answer to Bob Barker.)

Anyway..so I’ve been busying myself by asking people in shopping centres whether they were interested in wildlife conservation/the environment (or variations on a very similar theme) – and for the first couple of weeks was quite shocked at just how few people said they were. I had actually began to wonder, based on the answers and the gnarly looks I was getting, whether everyone in the UK (a land of animal lovers apparently) was actually a wildlife-hating anti-environmentalist. That’s not true though, based on the facts that a) four million people regularly watch a TV show called ‘Springwatch‘ (which – er, watches the Spring develop live every night during the – er, Spring), b) the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has 1.2million members (which means that around 1 person in every 60 is a member), c) the Wildlife Trusts – a charity made up of 47 local wildlife trusts – has over 800,000 members (yes, there is some overlap with the RSPB but not substantially according to my – ahem – ‘detailed research’), and d) over 3 million people in the UK are vegetarian.

That’s a pretty random list I realise, but it does clearly suggest that a proportion of the population in this once green and pleasant land are interested in wildlife – which is not only a good thing for the birds and tens of thousands of farm animals but for them as well. Why? Because study after study (no, I don’t have proper references to hand but it says so on the internet which is about as scientific as the sampling techniques that triggered this post) suggests that getting out into or just enjoying ‘nature’ is good for your sense of well-being and health. Something so massively obvious shouldn’t need a trendy new name, but someone (with our generation’s typical need to make the everyday sound modern) decided to coin the word ‘ecotherapy’ to describe something most of our great-great-grandparents would have considered a normal part of life – ie being outside.

Now, I don’t normally quote websites on ‘Optimism’ (pah to optimism – I live by the maxim that us pessimists are never disappointed and always get just what we expect and that’s good enough for me) but how about this for an interesting paragraph:

Researchers from the University of Essex compared the effects of a 30 minute walk in a country park with the same amount of time in an indoor shopping centre.

* 71 per cent reported decreased feelings of depression after the walk in the park. 22 per cent reported an increase after walking in the shopping centre and only 45 per cent experienced a decrease.
* 71 per cent felt less tense after walking in the park, while 50 per cent felt more tense after walking in the shopping centre.
* 90 per cent claimed increased self esteem after the walk in the park; 44 per cent experienced lower self esteem after the shopping centre walk.
* 88 per cent reported an improved mood after the walk in the park. This compares with 44.5 per cent for the shopping centre, while another 44.5% per cent experienced lower mood.

Particularly relevant given the shopping-centre scenario I so eloquently created earlier wouldn’t you say?

And can you imagine folks even just two hundred years ago being stressed out by a shopping centre? By plague, rotting teeth, syphilis, pox, and a poor harvest, but not a shopping centre. And saying “Because none had been built”, while true does also reiterate the point: these things are very ‘today’. Like traffic congestion, noise pollution, pesticide residues, and a 24 hour lifestyle. Our ancestors – while smelly, disease-ridden, and dying at forty – did at least know the joys of waking to birdsong, of feeling the sun on their back, and having an intimate connection with the environment all around them.

Okay, I am wandering off the point a little, so let’s get back to the people who bare their teeth at charity fund-raisers while denying – to themselves – that in fact the ‘environment’ they turn their noses up at provides the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the food they eat. That they are in fact as much a part of the environment as, say, the Robin they didn’t notice singing from the tree they passed on their way in or the beautiful Orange Tip butterflies fluttering around the Garlic Mustard growing wild at the edge of the car park. Could they in fact be feeling especially uncharitable largely because they – like so many of people these days – spend their time charging from work to the shops and back again, day in, day out, without allowing themselves a moment to relax and enjoy nature?

Many experts might say that while disconnection with nature may play its part, the rise in anti-depressant prescriptions is mostly because of “money worries and job insecurity” which might just seem to rule out folks who can afford to spend their lunch hours splashing the cash or flashing the plastic (or whatever the phrase is these days – I’m flat broke so I’m a little out of touch these days) and not buying memberships to wildlife charities, but to me the two things seem to go hand in hand: if I spent all my days cooped up under artificial lighting, working to artificial deadlines, and worrying about losing the job that enables me to go shopping so I could forget my worries about losing the job I don’t actually enjoy I’d probably be a bit grumpy too.

I’ve perhaps taken one step too far from the realité for most readers, but tell me this: why is it that of all the people I speak to those who are already members are cheerful and smiley, while those who aren’t are miserable? It’s true: 100% of current members of the [insert wildlife charity of your choice] are delightful people with happiness in their hearts and a ready smile on their cheery faces. Loving wildlife and being proud about it really does seem to turn you into a more relaxed and friendlier person. How great is that? Lesson for the day: support wildlife, get outside more, take a little time to smell the flowers, be nice to fund-raisers, and you (and I) will be far happier.

Thankyou!

(Okay, okay, I know, in reality it’s human nature for us to smile broadly when we find someone who thinks like us and who can’t take any money off us because we’re already signed up to what they’re selling but it’s a theory of sorts and in the absence of any science to disprove my meanderings then I’m sticking with it…)

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  • Rebecca Nason

    Great post Charlie! Damn those black dogs . . . .I am always shocked at how far removed the general public is from nature, what’s around them and what we are all actually fundamentally a part of.

  • Pingback: Talking Naturally Podcast with Charlie Moores | Talking Naturally

  • http://www.birdsonthebrain.com Grant McCreary

    “Scientific”. “Empirical”. Bah, overrated.
    Seriously, though, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if those who spent more time outdoors were indeed happier overall. I know that birding helps calm me and relieve stress.

  • http://www.birdwatch.co.uk Rebecca Armstrong

    Great post, Charlie! I’m sure the RSPB issued a press release some time last year saying that contact with nature helps relieve depression, so you’re spot on.

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