“Nature makes it a bit better” - an interview with Isabel Hardman

Each week during the period of social distancing, we will be delving into the Wild Cornwall magazine archives to bring you our favourite articles from past and present Wild Cornwall magazine issues.

This week’s highlight, from Issue 135, features an interview with top political journalist and wildflower enthusiast, Isabel Hardman, who used her love of nature to recover from mental illness.

Over to Isabel…

Where did your love for wildflowers come from?

As a kid I learnt the different garden plants. It was only this year that I got really into botany. I was on sick leave. I have post-traumatic stress disorder, and the symptoms are depression and anxiety, and lots of flashbacks. Focusing on nature makes you attend to the now, rather than what has happened or might happen. It helps take me away from the flashbacks, as well as the depression and the anxiety. It doesn’t solve it, but it makes it a bit better.

How exactly does that work?

When I was very sick, I started to go for lots of walks and write down and photograph every wildflower that I found. I didn’t know as many as I thought, so I started to learn more. It wasn’t a cure, but I just felt a little bit better about the world.

Then someone posted a picture of a fly orchid and I didn’t even know they existed! The next day I went to the reserve and found it, and the greater butterfly orchid, and twayblade, and all these beautiful flowers. I was still really sick and I had lots of bad thoughts as I was walking around, but it was much better than spending my day lying in bed. It became a way of treating myself. If you’re trying to find a fly orchid, which is so tiny, you can’t focus on the mad stuff, because you’re having to keep looking the whole time.

How have you found the online nature social networks?

The natural history network online is so good. The amount of abuse you get as a woman working in politics is awful. I’m quite a thick-skinned person, but the cumulative affect does wear you down. When I sign in to my nature Twitter account, there’s people sharing pictures of mushrooms I’ve never seen before. Last year, I tweeted asking if anyone had any tips for spotting wildflowers in a bit of Sussex, and my inbox was flooded with messages from lovely botany people who I’d never even met before.

You started #wildflowerhour on Twitter on Sunday nights. Why?

I noticed on Sunday evenings that people shared photos of the different wildflowers they had seen, so I decided to try and focus it in an hour. I wanted everyone to join in and just make the internet lovely.

When I got ill, I wasn’t really involved in it. I came back a year later and it was trending every Sunday night! I thought, ‘How has this happened?’ It was set up on a whim!

People say it makes their Sunday lovely, or it’s helped them with their mental health problems. It’s encouraged them to explore nature reserves that they’ve never been to before. Lots of people are nervous about joining in, but there is so much enthusiasm that they feel really welcome really quickly.

You do a 15-minute nature fix every day. How do you find the time?

It’s about saying ‘no’ to stuff and prioritising my 15 minutes in nature. I’d love to do everything I get offered, but I’d rather be mentally well and those 15 minutes outside are just more important. Even in Westminster, there’s always a random member of the daisy family flowering somewhere, like sow thistle in a pavement crack.

How have your friends reacted to your wildflower obsession?

I really struggle with people who don’t have hobbies. I don’t understand how you can make your life that intentionally boring! There’s so much to learn about. Who doesn’t think it’s interesting that there’s a plant that’s evolved to make bees have sex with it? Most of my friends are never going to climb around looking for a dune helleborine, but they can see how much it means to me. It’s a really satisfying pursuit, and you’re surrounded by beauty the whole time.

Why are some people not so enthusiastic about nature?

I think the biggest problem is that we’re really disconnected from it. Some people think you have to go 30 miles in a car to see nature, but we don’t even notice nature at our feet. Once in Glasgow, I was in a car park and I noticed a scrubby patch of land with birch trees, and I could see some shapes that looked like broad-leaved helleborines. So I crept into the undergrowth – getting some pretty weird looks – and there were hundreds of these beautiful plants growing under people’s noses.

People think that when they’ve finished school that’s it for learning, that curiosity isn’t something to cultivate. There’s a fear of curiosity and a fear of nature; people seem to be scared of going outdoors and letting their kids roam around.

There’s such a tiny perimeter for children where they can play on their own. But you can’t be scared of a child falling over in a wood. It’s just a grazed knee. People say, ‘Don’t climb a tree’. I spent my childhood climbing trees! Yeah, I fell out of a few of them. But I also learned not to climb right out onto the twigs.

Why do you think we’re becoming disconnected?

We chase things that we think will make us happy, rather than the things we know will make us happy. When someone’s old and looks back, they think of family; but the things we get het-up about on a daily basis are nothing like that.

It’s the same for nature. I think we all know that when we go outside in nature we feel better. But now we just download an app and make things a bit more complicated for ourselves. I think this is a millennial thing, too – we think we have to have things that are organised and personalised for us, rather than going out and discovering things for ourselves. People aren’t very good at being bored!

When I was young, my mum would send me into the garden. I’d think, ‘What should I do now?’ and it’s that gap between asking the question and no one answering that your imagination starts, and you actually have your childhood.

How do you think nature and mental health are connected?

Loving nature and being involved in nature gives people a way of talking about mental health, in a way that they might not have been able to before. People have wanted to share their stories with me online about their own mental health problems. It was someone online who gave me the idea for a 15-minute nature fix. It helps to build something we’ve lost, too – community. We’re all so lonely nowadays. That shared passion for nature helps you to find your kindred spirits, and that’s where real friendships happen.

You can follow Isabel on Instagram and Twitter.


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