As we all adopt a more solitary existence to help curtail the coronavirus pandemic, floral stylist and author Willow Crossley reveals how tapping into the natural world can boost our spirits and health
After the birth of her first child, Willow Crossley experienced postnatal depression. Having quit London, where she worked as a fashion stylist, then a beauty journalist, she enjoyed two years in rural France, living with her now-husband Charlie on a vineyard after the pair abandoned the city rat race in search of a more fulfilling life.
Feeling isolated in such a remote location fuelled the depression but, even at her lowest, Willow understood that the outdoors would be her saviour. She persistently got outside to feel the fresh air on her face, and attempted to heal herself naturally. Then, after the birth of her third son, Kit, in 2015, when her mental health history repeated itself, Willow’s midwife planted a seed of thought that truly changed everything.
“She told me to start walking and ‘look out and up,’” recalls Willow, who now lives in Oxfordshire where she runs a floral design business. “I’d drag myself out every day for a walk, but realised I was looking at the floor as I moved. Looking up at that huge sky suddenly gave me perspective. There’s something about the fact that nature and the world is carrying on, irrelevant of what you’re going through. I found that quite uplifting and comforting.”
Since then, Willow has stuck to a commitment of doing something “kind” for herself every day, and building her relationship with nature. She says this is fuelled by a belief that to flourish as humans, we need to be surrounded and immersed in nature, a concept is known as ‘biophilia’, from the Greek bios, meaning life, and philos, meaning loving, conceived in the 1960s by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm.
Indeed, research in January 2018 by King’s College London reported improvement to mental wellbeing lasting several hours after humans were exposed to trees, the sky, and birdsong. New studies also show that connecting with nature could improve memory and concentration, reduce blood pressure, and boost the immune system, largely because of essential oils released by trees and plants, called phytoncides.
“It’s why some doctors recommend going outside as a prescription. Being outside improves cognitive function, creativity, and brain power as well,” says Willow.
At a time when the government has put a lockdown in place in order to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 – at the time of print – we still have the opportunity to go outside once a day, providing a two metre distance between people is maintained. So although our time outside may be limited for now, here Willow shares her favourite ideas for reaping the rewards from nature, whether in a public space, a garden, using a window box, or even indoors.
Sowing seeds feels like magic. You’re growing a living thing from a tiny seed and nurturing it. If you manage to make the flowers or plants live, it’s rewarding and gives you confidence to grow more. Spring is the perfect time to get started, and beginners should start with something simple like sweet peas and sunflowers. Start with small pots on your window sill, then transfer to plant pots as they grow. The cosmos flower is brilliant for children. It flowers within three days so little patience is necessary!
Get handy with herbs
In these uncertain times, I want to be as self-sufficient as possible, and herbs are a great place to start, whether you’ve got a garden patch or are using a window box. As long as you’ve got enough light, water, and good drainage, they’ll thrive. Herbs add flavour to food and drinks, and have medicinal qualities. Rosemary is good for brain power, memory, and digestion. Boil the kettle and chuck a couple of sprigs into your mug. Just like chamomile, valerian is a good for promoting sleep. It’s very calming, which is useful right now.
Setting yourself a time to start the day will provide much-needed structure and schedule, and help you stay emotionally balanced
Flower arranging is so mindful. Right now, because of financial strain, you might not think that flowers are a necessity, but they are uplifting, and bring life to a house. Take care of your flowers. First trim the strem bottoms, which will be sealed shut. Keep the flowers out of direct sunlight and drafts, and clean the water every couple of days. Also don’t forget presentation. Pop some chicken wire in the bottom of a vase, poke in the stems, and build your arrangement.
Moonlight is a mix of sunlight, starlight, and Earthlight and, according to Ayurvedic beliefs, is very healing. While sunlight gives us light energy, moonlight is said to be calming and anxiety-reducing. If it’s warm enough at night, lie on the grass in your garden for 30 minutes, or fling open your window and face the moon.
Dare to bare
Taking your shoes and socks off and going barefoot on natural ground – grass, sand or soil – is said to help improve circulation, reduce inflammation, and normalise blood pressure. Just like the Earth, we’re made of ions and electrical currents, so think of the Earth as a giant battery powering life. By directly connecting with it, we can charge and rebalance our energy systems.
Early bird catches the worm
I set my alarm to go off before my kids wake, to give myself 20 minutes just for me. Whether you’ve got kids or not, making time in the morning for yourself makes the day less panicked and rushed. If you’re now working from home, or can’t work because of the health pandemic, setting yourself a time to start the day will provide much-needed structure and schedule, and help you stay emotionally balanced.
Stars in your eyes
Watching the night sky is a brilliant way to switch off. Although stars are more easily-seen in the countryside because there’s less light pollution, you can stargaze in urban spaces if you choose a clear night, and sit with your back to any source of light. The fact that star constellations are the same all over the world is very grounding. Try downloading star-gazing apps like Star Walk and Google Sky to understand the formations you’re seeing.
Indoor air can be up to five times as polluted as outdoor air, which for people with allergies and asthma can be very damaging. Start to reduce air pollution in your home by choosing non-scented candles (go for beeswax, vegetable and soy), opening the windows in every room for 15 minutes daily to help air circulation (even when it’s raining outside), and invest in plants like bamboo palm, spider plant, and Barbados aloe vera, which draw chemicals from the air, and stop inside air from getting too dry.
Get well oiled
A bath is always a cherished luxury, and adding natural bath oils, which are said to help the body release toxins, brings nature into your home. Many of us have got a bit more time on our hands right now, so experiment with concoctions. Try bergamot for moments of self-doubt, neroli for uplifting the spirits, and lavender for soothing tension.
Eat from the earth
To achieve instant nourishment from nature, eat as healthily as you can. When I eat processed and sugar-laden food, I feel sluggish and lacking in energy. Treat yourself with the same kindness as the herbs and seeds you’re nurturing, and reach for plenty of fruit and vegetables. I recently realised the direct effect of sugar on my body function, the state of my skin, and my mood. Munch on nuts and dried fruits instead of that chocolate bar!
‘The Wild Journal: A Year of Nurturing Yourself Through Nature’ by Willow Crossley (Pan Macmillan, £10.99) is out now.