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Losing Eden: How nature affects our well-being

Book review: Lucy Jones moves a little stiffly between enquiry and illustrative prose in this examination of our relationship with the natural world

Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild
Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild
Author: Lucy Jones
ISBN-13: 978-0241441534
Publisher: Allen Lane
Guideline Price: £20

It feels as though we have finally reached a tipping point, or that at least, we are tilting. In recent years we find more and more books confronting what it means to be a human during the anthropocene, with the particular perspective of ourselves within this epoch, and the uncanniness of having caused it.

When I started writing in earnest eight years ago, it still felt fringe to be concerned with looming climate catastrophe, and we didn’t have the words “climate anxiety”, a term defined by the American Psychological Association only in 2017, even as we felt it.

Now, media outlets have ongoing front-page space dedicated to environmental news issues, and sometimes it feels as though there are too many books to keep up with, confronting the barrage of terrible things heading our way and already arrived: freak weather; collapsing food systems; social unrest; the loss of innumerable members of our animal kin.

We are let in on Jones's journey to a deep appreciation for nature during her recovery from addiction

Lucy Jones’s Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild takes an attentive look at a particular iteration of our condition under the anthropocene: our disconnect from the living world, and the effect this has on our mental health. In meticulous detail, Jones quests to bring us an impressive array of answers to the question of whether “nature connection” has a tangible effect on our minds, and how, and why?

Her results are compelling. From microbes in the soil that affect our serotonin, to trees lowering the cytokine that causes inflammations that can lead to depression, this book will convince you that nature is an intrinsic part of ourselves which we will suffer immensely for losing.

Around the accessible and clearly communicated scientific bulk, there are anecdotes that are at times quietly and bathetically beautiful. A prisoner with no access to the outside, who keeps moss in a draw inside his cell.

A shortage of pins during the second World War, which disrupted the work of a fly scientist and turned his line of enquiry, leading him to conceive of “biophilia”, our innate emotional affiliation to nature. And there are some wonderfully intoxicating pieces of “nature writing”, like her description of Bialowieza, a primeval forest of Poland and Belarus, and Svalbard, Longyearbyen.

But I found myself wanting more of the good stuff, wishing the “numinous” Jones finds in nature had suffused the text more. She moves a little stiffly between enquiry and illustrative prose.

Nature is often presented to us in lists: “We choose to bask in screens instead of mirror-calm lakes, burbling streams, and above, starlings, swallows and buzzards,” which is at first charming but seems half-hearted when repeated. Jones is at best when she touches the wonder in the living world that is of crucial importance to her quest, but her astonishment sometimes doesn’t quiver through.

This is detrimental to the overall aim of the book, as it falls into the trap of utilitarian arguments for the preservation of nature solely for its use as a tonic for us. There is markedly little assertion of the living world’s right to exist for itself, which is of course part of the problem of alienation that Jones sets out to counter.

Access issues

The scientific core is framed with the personal. Jones reveals her fear for her young daughter’s mental health as she grows into a world undergoing successive fractures. We are let in on Jones’s journey to a deep appreciation for nature during her recovery from addiction.

She doesn’t make too much of this, leaving the text generously open and humane; it is not a personal journey but one we are all invited into. Connection to the living world is presented as a necessity and a right for every human being.

For those who are already convinced of the urgency of changing the systems that are choking the planet, Losing Eden might seem a little too tentative

Which throws up questions of access. There is a whole chapter, Equigenesis, after the idea that economic inequality shares a causal link with health disparities across social strata. We are presented with several studies that show convincingly the interconnectedness of social issues and public health.

However, aside from commenting on inequalities as “a stain on our society”, these are mostly plated up for us without an explicit ethical framing, or a commitment to any interpretation that might be considered “too-political”. The words “environmental racism” do not appear anywhere in a book that dances so closely to issues of environmental justice. It is a do-it-yourself politics. Whether this is timidity or tactic is up for discussion.

Towards the end we are tantalised by some hints of a distrust of capitalism and dominance of Judeo-Christian ethics and dualisms, but these are glossed over and the sentiment doesn’t integrate as an overarching political stance.

Maybe her intention was to remain convincing to the moderate reader. But for those who are already convinced of the urgency of changing the systems that are choking the planet, Losing Eden might seem a little too tentative.

Perhaps then this is a book for readers who don’t already count themselves among the extremely alarmed: the anxious, or relatively deft with ideas around climate catastrophe and its causes, those without a keen interest in the rest of nature that is already self-assured.

This is a book you read if you still need convincing, although it is so thorough that it is also sure to fill any gaps in anyone’s knowledge, and fix itself as a handy reference compendium for the bookshelf, a doorstop of studies to throw at people telling you time spent in the living world is an indulgence.