PAGE 13: Trees Are Our Anchors

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By Dr Rachana Patni

If there is a single piece of research that I feel has contributed to the wellbeing of the world, it is a study on the comparative measurement of wellbeing and quality of life in several countries, which I read over a decade ago. I cannot recall who did this research and which source published it but I will always remember reading that the quality of life of an individual or a family improves significantly “if they can see even a single tree from their house”.

As an academic in the UK, there was a phase of my life when I used to read over 70 journal articles a week. I was doing this not just to read about the exciting things that academics write about, nor to do the literature review for my Ph.D. but mainly to familiarise myself with the rituals of writing for journals and academic audiences. There is a craft to every form of writing and there are conventions in writing for academic journals that I had figured out quite well. One main ploy used in academic writing is referencing. There were many ways in which referring to another published work is used to garner authority for a new bit of writing. Whatever ludicrous claims I wished to make in my writing, provided someone else had made similar claims in the academic printed world before me, I would be able to refer to that heritage and get my claims printed. 

Being in the citation and the reference list of journal articles and books is important for academics. So there are good systems in place whereby junior scholars who begin to write journal articles refer to their supervisors in their articles, thereby creating a respectable number of citations and referencing history for their professors. I had to learn this and became quite dependent on it. It became so bad that unless I could refer to someone else in my usual interactions, I felt that I wasn’t being enough of an intellectual. I used to remember many surnames and the namedropping in the academic world was easy for me.

I experienced a major detox from my identity as an intellectual. It was pretty severe, even though it seems funny to me now. I could no longer read, much less write. I could not remember the names of heavyweights who could open doors for me if I simply referenced them. I realise that this was part of a personal transformation I was going through. Some of those effects are permanent but I am beginning to read a little again. It was important for my own wellbeing to get this kind of detox. It made me connect more to my own experience of life, rather than to making sense of life through the mediation offered by research studies. 

As I sit in Goa today and look out, the sight of trees from my home always reminds me of that bit of research about trees and wellbeing. And when I relate this to films, the film that stands out as a superlative for me is a Studio Ghibli film by Miyazaki, My Neighbour Totoro (1988). The camphor tree in that film has become that tree for me that makes people experience wellbeing. It is a film that is very tender although there are elements of great anxiety for children in it; there is an overworked father, a mother dealing with illness in a hospital and yet this film demonstrates to me the metaphor of ‘the lap of nature’.

In my work, I draw upon the connection that each one of us has with our Earth, in feeling resourced and experiencing wellbeing. The lap of nature provides not just a source of grounding but also a sense of being whole. This has been recognised in Japan with the acceptance of the idea of ‘shinrin-yoku’ or forest baths. It is not about being active outdoors. Rather, it is about the passive-active way of engaging all our senses while being surrounded by nature. This is a practice that can inform our neural pathways into feeling better resourced, connected, and calm. I highly recommend this as an antidote to all that we cannot do in 2020 and beyond. 

There are further claims in the research that an additional 10 trees in public areas can increase the value of the property in most countries. The original mention of this research seemed to suggest that being able to see a tree could challenge the benefits of economic class on wellbeing. This is significant because it also alludes to my other belief that we are all connected in our wellbeing. 

The Peacock has offered me a wonderful opportunity, two years in a row, to reach out to readers who may apply the experiential ideas I share in my writing. I realise how much my writing has changed from the academic style I was committed to before. I write straight from my heart now, reaching out to others with a loving acceptance that my writing may be imperfect but it is good enough for it to be engaged with. The heightened anxiety of being right and honourable in the academic world has left me and I am so grateful for that departure.

This is another departure as it is the final column this year, and what nature teaches us about departures is that what matters, changes form, and continues to exist for us. I hope to have stirred some of you to being responsible and proactive in taking care of your emotional world, and I encourage each one of you to find a tree you can see from your house and thank it today. I will do this with the beautiful trees just outside the International Film Festival Official Venue, the most beautiful tree-canopy street in Panjim, or perhaps anywhere in the world.

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