I know that working for a National Park is assumed to involve walking around mountains all day, quoting John Muir at passing strangers whilst letting our beards grow ever longer. So to break this stereotype, I am going to quote John Muir: “Come to the woods for here is rest.”
Mental health has become an increasingly important issue in Scotland both politically and in people’s consciousness. We are also learning a great deal about the sorts of things that we can all do as a society to help. In all his books, Muir recognised the healing properties of being in nature and he wasn’t talking about the physical health benefits.
He was talking about the mental or spiritual benefits of lying under a Scots Pine for an afternoon, watching ants busily build a nest or seeing a golden eagle soar in the clouds. He also understood the joy of losing ourselves in the landscape, feeling both small and at the same time connected to everything around us.
There are lots of academic studies which show that Muir was quite correct and that nature can contribute significantly to mental health wellbeing.
Last year, I attended a Europarc conference where the Danish health service described their local teams of community health worker, ranger and physiotherapist. This work brought together lots of different disciplines but used the outdoors as the way to help people with physical or mental health issues.
Different approaches are now used all across Europe. In the Cairngorms National Park we have over 30 Walking to Health groups that are as much about friendship as about walking, a GP referral scheme, and an ever-growing partnership between the health, environment and voluntary sectors called Active Cairngorms. Paths for All and The Ramblers also have groups across Scotland that people can join to enjoy a short walk or something more strenuous.
There are 666 miles of core paths in the Cairngorms alone and thousands more around Scotland for everybody to enjoy. Most are near villages and towns. Across the country there are National Nature Reserves and Forestry Commission managed woodlands that provide paths for all abilities.
The easiest and cheapest way to improve your mental and physical health is to get out into nature. You don’t need to come to the Cairngorms to enjoy nature (though you should, it is amazing) because it is can be found near all our villages, towns and cities. So go and lie down under a tree for an hour, hear it breath and relax. Do the things you did as a child, skim a stone, walk in the woods, listen to the wind in a storm. Make memories to cherish.
I should of course finish with a quote from Muir. He said: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail.”
Grant Moir is CEO, Cairngorms National Park Authority. He tweets at @cairngormsCEO