January reset: Discover the soul-healing power of trees

Game Changers: Connecting with the living world is good for body and mind

There’s a gauntness to most of our native trees in January. But I love picturing the tiny summer leaves curled in buds, preparing to saturate our world in green again. In writer Matthew Klam’s recent New Yorker short story The Other Party, his narrator encounters a veteran city oak in winter. “I looked into the highest parts and had that sensation where your soul soars up, everything resets, and you feel oneness.”

Are you yearning for a reset? The benefits of reconnecting with the living world are myriad. January is peak gym membership month but free Park Runs and Park Hiit sessions have social and physical benefits. Exercising outdoors burns more calories. Roger Ulrich’s landmark study in 1984 found that a view of trees from one set of hospital windows saw better recoveries than the view of a brick wall unluckier patients on the same ward endured. Trees clean our air, improve our soil and speak to our eyes and brains in ways that can be profoundly healing. Winter trees are not less than but differently beautiful to their summer fullness. Bare branches reveal fractals mirrored in our own organs, the bronchi that branch into bronchioles in our lungs.

Elm off-switch

Dr Sean Owens is a GP based in Castlebellingham, Co Louth. We found much to talk about on a panel at the last Savour Kilkenny food festival and he sent me a piece about a magical “off-switch” they had discovered in the grounds of their practice. It’s a veteran elm tree “so majestic it almost feels as though it is a character from a JRR Tolkien book, ready to step forward and speak wise words in a booming voice.” The elm is rare and special, one of the few mature trees that has survived Dutch elm disease.

“During lockdown we decided to ask patients to consider wandering out to view the tree while waiting. There is accumulating evidence relating to improved mental health and time spent in nature,” Owens writes.


The Louth medical practice has a social prescribing programme in its infancy and green prescribing, or reconnecting patients with nature through gardening or walking or getting to know a special tree, is going to play a part. “We’re trying to use it to find ways to get folk onto the Cooleys.” He was delighted to hear recently that Woodlands for Health is coming to Louth. The 12-week pilot project led by Niamh Ní Chonghaile of Mental Health Ireland started in Wicklow, and enables people accessing mental health services to take regular forest walks as part of their treatment.

We know the natural world needs our attention. The joy is realising the kinship benefits we get back from giving it our gaze.

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a founder of Pocket Forests