UniteLive's stories of the year - nature and mental health

On the sixth day of Christmas: farmworker John Burbidge tells us the importance of treasuring ‘time and space’

Reading time: 7 min

Every day for the ‘twelve days of Christmas’ this year, UniteLive is running a different story from our top stories of 2021. Today, we look back at a feature from Mental Health Awareness Week back in May, when we spoke to Unite Tolpuddle branch rep and farm worker John Burbidge, who told of the healing power of nature.

Working with the grain of nature’

While the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns may have suddenly and mercilessly separated us all from our normal lives, it brought many closer to the one thing that couldn’t be taken from us – nature.

And at a time when huge swathes of the country lost loved ones, or their jobs, or even simply a sense of normality, this collective reconnection with nature happened just when we needed it most.

For the Mental Health Foundation’s Mental Health Awareness Week this week, the theme this year – connecting with nature – couldn’t be more apt.

Research from the Mental Health Foundation found that people’s top coping strategy in lockdown was going for a walk outside; 45 per cent of those surveyed in a poll said being in green spaces during the pandemic was vital for their mental health.

Unite Tolpuddle branch rep and farm worker John Burbidge, who’s spent the vast majority of his life living and working in nature, is a case in point.

He spoke to UNITElive about his experiences.

He said, “When you’ve lost your bearings – with all the pressures all of us face like childcare, love or family relationships, work – that’s where I think nature can really help. The sky, the wind, the rain – just the world as it is – it’s really affirming.

“Having long horizons, and seeing the change in the seasons and the weather is a brilliant counter for all the pressures that are thrown on people.”

John believes that what’s so comforting and compelling about nature is that it’s the polar opposite of modern life.

 Nature’s vital lesson

“People are all the time under so much pressure – you’re working faster, working more efficiently, it’s always rushing, with the boss demanding if you’ve finished yet. All those pressures are not of the natural world – that’s something for us to challenge. We should be enjoying life as opposed to being overwhelmed by it – this the vital lesson that nature has to teach us.”

 John described how many of the processes involved in farm work have brought him closer to nature.

 “Just feeling the soil and looking at the soil, looking at plants, their health or their diseases, those kind of elemental things require time and consideration; it requires a peaceful situation to evaluate. That’s again the alternative to how our modern lives are – all of the time our normal lives drive us away from that considered, natural approach to the world and to people.”

 Although he is passionate about his work and countryside life, he believes farm work and rural living in and of themselves aren’t always conducive to having a strong connection with nature.

 “As we know, poor mental health and ill health are very much connected with low-incomes and insecurity – and in the countryside there’s a lot of insecurity in work,” he explained. “Much of it is low-paid and seasonal.

Being part of Unite is key

“Many of us farm workers suffer the same alienation from the natural world that we should be part of,” he added. “We’re removed from it because of the work that’s not balanced with nature and ourselves. That’s why being part of Unite is so important – because respecting others and being respected in work and in life is an elementary part of feeling okay with the world and all that’s in it.

 Despite the fact that his work did not change much in lockdown, like so many of us, John felt upended by the sudden disconnection with his normal life.

 “Lockdown didn’t alter things a great deal for me,” John explained. “But what it did alter for me was the social side of life which underlined just how important people are to us all – the interaction between us is so fundamental.”

 “Yes, the natural world became much more apparent in lockdown for many of us – it was as if birdsong was everywhere – but it also served to highlight how important other people are. Connecting with nature and with other people aren’t opposites – they’re two sides of the same coin and we need both.”

 The importance of properly engaging with nature is in fact backed up by scientific research.

“Evidence shows us that the quality of our relationship with nature is part of the reason for its positive impact on our wellbeing,” the Mental Health Foundation noted. “Researchers use the term ‘connectedness’ to describe the ideal relationship.

 “A strong connection with nature means feeling a close relationship or an emotional attachment to our natural surroundings. Quality counts.”

The Mental Health Foundation highlighted that those who have higher levels of connectedness to nature report higher levels of overall happiness and also have lower levels of depression and anxiety. Unsurprisingly, they’re also more likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviours like recycling and buying seasonal food.

 For John, developing this respect for nature is key to our overall wellbeing. Above all, he says, connecting with nature means meeting it on its own terms.

 “We need to work with the grain of nature and treasure time and space. Going into nature we have to realise that the natural world is there and it’s not to be dominated; it’s not to be battled with. As we ourselves learn to respect nature, we learn to be kind to ourselves and to others.”


You can find out more about the Mental Health Awareness Week and tips on connecting with nature on the Mental Health Foundation’s website here.

 Also don’t miss our forthcoming feature and exclusive film, where freelance worker Colin tells us how his connection to the natural world has helped him improve his mental health.

 Stay tuned to UNITElive

 By Hajera Blagg

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