Review of ‘Losing Eden’ by Lucy Jones

With a title like ‘Losing Eden’, one might be forgiven that this book was going to be filled with religious allusions, where capitalism acts as the serpent deceiving mankind, until we lose that which was most precious to us. Jones goes beyond this simple interpretation and instead offers a cautious, scientific evaluation of our changing relationship with the natural world and the impact of lost knowledge.

She bookends the text cleverly with an imagined conversation across the generations regarding nature, with the warning coming from the older generation that, ‘Why did nature end? We didn’t love it enough and we forgot it could give us peace.’ Jones makes the repeated point that there is a wealth of knowledge retained in older generations about the names of plants, trees and wildlife that is being lost in the modern world with the focus and attention on ‘indoors’. ‘As fewer children connect with nature, it will follow, he argues, that if they become parents, their children will in turn have a more tenuous connection with the natural world.’ This is an early point for readers to engage with, as they may well recognised their inability to answer a child’s question about the type of plant in a park, or flower in a garden, or type of beetle.

Using apps on smartphones to identify species may be useful, but there is a huge gulf between information and knowledge and Jones points to several examples where children are being better equipped to experience the natural world. This is counter-pointed by the statistics on the loss of the natural world in a short time frame, ‘In Britain, half of our ancient woodland has disappeared in the last eighty years…Over just the last fifty years the populations of mammals, birds, reptiles and fish have fallen by 60 per cent worldwide.’

These numbers may be difficult for us to imagine and connect with and process. What follows as our response is also touched on by Jones- do we shrug apathetically, or do we begin anew to protect what remains- whether this is through protest action to protect trees from being felled, or simply by taking a long walk in nature, to refresh and renew. ‘Perhaps we are noticing this all the more now, as we are in danger of losing the living world as we have known it, and with it, potentially part of ourselves.’

Increased urbanisation

Jones begins by exploring the increased urbanisation of humanity and the dangers to self and identity that come with this. ‘What does it mean, then, to live in a city, as the vast majority of us do? By 2050, 68 per cent of the world’s population will live in urban areas.’ The distance that this creates and disconnect that is increased by this, Jones suggests, endangers our identity as natural beings, no higher or greater than other species, but as an inter-connected part. ‘If we lose our relationship with the natural world, we may, in some way, be losing a part of ourselves and a profound psychic experience that we all need.’ Jones makes this point more simply by saying ‘Without contact with the natural world, we become impoverished’ and warnsthat humanity may not notice this loss of nature, as artificiality takes over our lives. ‘Could we be sleepwalking into a time when the natural world is reduced to its bare minimum?’

Simulating nature does not give the same connection to humans and can indeed add to the contamination of the planet. ‘Will plastic trees and simulated virtual reality gardens be enough for future humans? Are we so desensitized that we are losing the thirst for a relationship with the natural world? And is the absence of this connection causing us harm, whether consciously or not?’

What impresses me most about this book, is that Jones openly asks questions and then takes the time to point to academic studies that explore the topic and reveal conclusions- in essence, Jones was prepared to be wrong, but looked at the facts and scientific evaluation and was led by this.

A wonderful moment in this text, is when Jones reminds us of moments that are special to us- when we experience the smell of petrichor- and asks why humans have this level of sensitivity- how it would be useful for us in our modern lives.

Nature is not a luxury

Jones then begins to support her arguments more fully by highlighting that ‘Nature is not a luxury: its presence or absence creates and causes different health outcomes for different groups of people. There is a direct benefit from being near nature on our mental health.’ She notes the 2013 RSPB report which ‘concluded that four out of five children did not have an adequate connection with the natural world.’ The comparison with the time spent outdoors with prison inmates, was particularly shocking for readers, ‘Three-quarters of children (aged five to twelve) in the UK now spend less time outdoors than prison inmates, who require, according to UN guidelines, at least one hour of exercise in the open air every day.’ It is worth expanding this out more that the UN offers the guidance that prisoners should have at least one hour in the open air every day, yet the majority of children in the UK spend less time outdoors than prisoners.

Jones takes the time to explore and evaluate the benefits on ecotherapy projects around the world, perhaps most famously the practice of forest bathing, though she warns that increased biodiversity loss can reduce this opportunity even further. ’Ecotherapy projects are currently on the rise in the West, from wildness therapy and pilgrimage walks to woodland therapy sessions and gardening groups.’

A walk in the woods has never hurt us, but we have so much to gain from it- yet our mythology is filled with horrors lurking in the woods- fear usually comes from a position of ignorance.

‘Biodiversity loss will deplete the natural environments where some humans go to seek restoration and thus the extent and quality of that restorative effect will shrink.’

Time to feel awe

Jones highlights that a means of experiencing awe in our world and indeed our recognition that we are experiencing awe, comes from our connections with nature. ‘Many experiences of awe in the modern world still come from an encounter with nature, despite our disconnection.’ This has a particular resonance with me from a teaching perspective. There is a poem that is taught at GCSE level called ‘Extract from The Prelude’ by Wordsworth that students have to learn and engage with. Every year, this is the hardest poem to teach and learn, as students cannot understand how an individual can experience awe in the face of the power of nature. For me, this is the reason why this poem must be retained, so that this lesson is taught, and not removed owing to its difficulty. It is also encouraging that a new GCSE of Natural History will start to be taught in schools in the next few years. Teaching the knowledge that might otherwise be lost is a huge step in the right direction.

Jones also argues and emphasises that building connections with nature can enhance our connections with other humans. ‘Awe, then, can shift us away from pure self- interest to be interested in others. It can help us bond and relate to each other. It can turn off the self, the day-to-day concerns, to propel us into focusing on something bigger and hard to comprehend.’

Again, Jones warns that in our modern urban environments, we are intentionally reducing our opportunities to allow nature to thrive and as a result, endangering our heath. ‘We choose to bask in screens instead of mirror-calm lakes, burbling streams and above, starlings, swallows and buzzards.’

With light pollution hiding the stars, and artificial light affecting our sleep, the increased popularity of Dark Skies visits and experiences has grown. It does appear that humans are beginning to recognise on an unconscious level perhaps that there is something missing in our lives and that that gap needs to be filled. ‘We are losing the benefit of natural sounds, then, and natural smells and also natural light, which has serious consequences for psychological health.’

Access to nature

Jones then explores the imbalance between access to nature and open spaces. She asks who owns the land who it is used for. She analyses who has access to private gardens and green areas and whether economic deprivation causes health impacts. ‘Children who live in deprived areas are nine times less likely to have access to nature, through green space and places to play, than children in affluent areas, who may also have access to private gardens.’

Jones argues that a connection with the natural world should not be an accident of birth, or a by-product of wealth, but that nature should be recognised as a vital human right. ‘And it makes the case that, no matter the circumstances of birth, a connection with the natural world, the opportunity to walk barefoot on grass, to plant seeds in the soil, to hear birdong or touch the bark of an ancient oak, should be a fundamental human right.’ With more natural elements such as rivers gaining legal protection around the world, it is hoped that the recognition of nature as an individual rather than as an object to be used as a resource, will continue to expand.

The wild places

Jones begins to close the text by passionately arguing that gratitude for the ‘wild places’ will help us connect with our spiritual selves and that spirituality through nature has always helped us cope with life itself. ‘Faith, religion, spirituality have all helped people cope with death. If a connection with nature can offer transcendence, can it also help us at the end of our lives?’

She connects life and death well and points out that we have lost sight of the natural element of these elements of life. ‘It appears that through our disconnection from the natural world, we are also more separated from death and disease, and therefore less able to cope with them.’

She recognises that in the birth of her child that this was the beginning of a journey that would also end in a death and that this understanding enhances the transitory moments in a life. ‘I had given birth to a life, to my great love, but also a death at some point.’ With the Christmas season just finishing and the natural element of the ‘death’ of the dark days and the return of the light, I am reminded of the T.S. Eliot poem ‘The Journey of the Magi’,

‘Were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.’

A new story

Jones finishes by correctly asking how we can change our current behaviour and renew the lost relationship with nature in our daily lives.How can we collectively fall in love again with nature? How can we think about the relationship differently? By knowing and noticing the other beings who live around us for a start.’ I would argue that a return and a reset are needed more than something ‘new’ and this is perhaps my only disagreement with the book.So it is time for a new story, a new myth, a change of mindset, attitude and behaviour. If we feel it, we must be galvanized by our ecological grief.’

Jones closes her arguments by returning to the narrative between the generations, but this time the knowledge has been passed on and lessons have been learned. The disconnect has been bridged and rebuilt and human lives have been enriched. We all have something to learn.

If we are disconnected from the natural world, we are missing out on nourishment for our minds.’

To notice the small world and to choose to create the time in the natural world, will help us see the big picture of the world that is not ours, but which we are living in, along with other species. A reflective moment to recognise that we can lose ourselves in time will help us all.

‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.’



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