The Wild Remedy; How Nature Mends Us

by Emma Mitchell

Book review

Lavishly illustrated with Emma Mitchell’s instantly recognisable sketches, paintings and flatlays of found objects, The Wild Remedy offers a whole year of hedgerow observations, walks among rockpools and country rambles, while demonstrating how the author turns to nature to assist in navigating her mental health.

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I put the book down and find myself wondering again about the distinction between a remedy and a cure. Because, in spite of the subtitle, this isn’t a “nature fixed me” kind of book, but rather more of a “nature enables me to carry on” affair, which is far more interesting. But as usual, I’m jumping in half way through a story…let’s take a step back and look at the book itself. 

The edition 

I can’t abide a dust jacket, although I feel hideously guilty about getting rid of them. This one, though, is rather nicely printed, on a good medium weight, uncoated stock with the title, author’s name and publisher’s logo (on the spine) picked out in copper coloured foil. A part photographic, part illustrated flatlay arrangement of found objects adorns the front cover, while illustrations of a goldcrest and a teasel flank the endorsements on the back. 

Discarding the jacket reveals a sky blue volume, blank – with the exception of same copper foiling on the spine – something less than an inch thick and the barest smidge over A5 in size. It has a pleasing heft to it – not heavy, but capable of being the instrument behind a satisfying thwack over the head should you be placed in a position where such minor violence is called for. Opening the volume reveals beautiful, midnight blue endpapers with a line drawing of meadow flowers - foxglove, scabious, cow parsley – picked out in a similar light blue to that of the cover boards.  

The paper stock for the pages is heavy, uncoated but of a quality that renders the text and illustrations crisp and the photographs bright, while a legible serifed typeface with wide margins and a relatively narrow measure make the reading experience a joy. Photographs are, for the most part, full bleed across either a single page or a whole spread, while the chapters are liberally ornamented with illustrations, from simple pen and ink linework through colour pencil to watercolour. One of my favourite touches are the small linework twigs used to mark section breaks within the copy.  

The contents 

Painfully aware of the exhortation to avoid judging a book by its cover, I remember gazing for long moments at the jacket before ever opening my review copy. The Wild Remedy – How Nature Mends Us…words that speak volumes of wisdom to me, worth a moment’s meditation. The introduction begins with a statement that typifies the honesty with which the whole book is written: 

I’m not going to mince my words: I suffer from depression and have done for twenty-five years 

and the text goes on to acquaint us with the evidence – both anecdotal and scientific (referenced in the bibliography) – of the benefits of exposure to the natural world upon the human mind. We’re introduced to the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoko (forest bathing), the volatile compounds present in the smell of a hedgerow that up our serotonin levels, and the friendly soil bacteria that lift our spirits when we inhale them. And, importantly, we meet The Reverend William Keble Martin, whose painstakingly observed and beautifully rendered colour plates in The Concise British Flora in Colour have been so influential on the author’s own work. 

Past a double page spread that details the key sightings depicted in the book under the heading ‘Flora and Fauna’, and we’re into the first month’s diary pages – rather refreshingly, those belonging to October. The section openers for each month are either photographic or illustrated, or sometimes a mixture of both, each depicting a collection of found objects curated and arranged, in a process described in the November entry 

I am generating smallish temporary displays, short-lived museums curated by and for me, and the making of them soothes, lifts gloom and adds to the satisfaction I felt on finding these small items. 

Two things occur to me as I read Emma Mitchell’s account of of her days. Firstly, the moment she steps out the door of her Cambridgeshire cottage into the surrounding countryside, she sees everything with an astounding level of detail – the plants in the hedgerows, the insects flying about her or, on a visit to the beach, the barnacles on a pebble in a rock pool. And secondly, she presents the workings of her mind to the reader with a similar degree of granularity – no obfuscation or glossing over of awkward daily realities. And there’s no hint of an invitation to some voyeuristic thrill fest, this is a hard read, this is difficult stuff, and if you’d opened the book looking for anodyne stories of blackbird songs and seashells, you’ll be disappointed…although blackbird song and seashells are here. But I think this is what makes this little book stand out, because – to go back to how I began – this isn’t a story of how country walks chased the black dog away. 

There’s a point where Emma goes for a drive in an attempt to clear her head from a particularly bad spell of negative thinking, bombing along an A road in the car, speeding beneath bridges that span the carriageway and beginning to consider their substantial mass in a way that a person crying out internally for a sense of release might find themselves doing. And the zoetrope of sapling trees along the central reservation intrude softly upon her thoughts, and she manages to reign things in again, at least to a state where she’s able to drive safely home, and admit to herself and her family that she needs more help. For this human at least, staring up at the scudding clouds or plunging her hands in the soil doesn’t make it all the dark stuff disappear – it just gets her to a place where she can deal with it, or ask for help to deal with it. And sometimes, there are moments where the joy breaks in; a murmuration of starlings, a barn owl glimpsed out hunting, Annie the dog rolling in what she really oughtn’t, the long-absent painted lady on the buddleia – there are so many examples throughout the text. 

This is a beautiful book, and one that’s not remotely fluffy. I can’t help wondering whether some who buy it might be getting far more than they’d bargained for – though in the very best way. It’s a grown up account of a year in the life of the author, where the riches of the natural world are presented as a toolkit for coping with depression – a realistic approach that views nature as counterpoint, rather than panacea. And that makes it rather wonderful. 

The Wild Remedy: How Nature Mends Us – a diary, by Emma Mitchell, is published by Michael O’Mara books, and is available in hardback in eBook format. 

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Hello! I’m Andrew, gardener, writer, photographer, and owner of a too-loud laugh, and I’m so pleased you’ve found your way to Gardens, weeds & words. You can read a more in-depth profile of me on the About page, or by clicking this image.