Read the Introduction to Think like a Tree: the natural principles guide to life by Sarah Spencer for free

Part 1 – Woodland wisdom

Thinking like a tree

You’ve probably picked up this book with a certain curiosity about the title. Maybe your first response is “but trees don’t think”, or perhaps you are curious about whether trees have intelligence and what form that intelligence might take. First I need to make it clear – trees don’t think (sorry to burst your bubble). They don’t have a brain and they are very different from humans in that regard. But they are aware, and can sense their surroundings in a variety of different ways. They can remember, and can even pass memories between generations.[1] They may even have a sort of ‘heartbeat’ – (they have been shown to contract and expand as they pump water through their systems).[2] Amazingly, we know that plants even have an imagination – to be able to react to something that isn’t actually there.[3] This last talent has been demonstrated in the humble pea, and it seems likely that trees react in the same way. These many abilities have been demonstrated in research, but plant biologists are only just out of the starting blocks in terms of what there is still to learn. Watching the science unfold is exciting, and new discoveries are turning on their head many of the myths traditionally surrounding seemingly passive plants. Many more examples of the amazing lives of trees (and other plants) will be revealed throughout the book, with references to the relevant research.

While we know that trees lack consciousness, they possess the ability to know what they are supposed to be doing, and how to do it in the most effective way possible. In that regard I believe trees may have the upper hand over humans. They may not be able to write the Complete Works of Shakespeare, or create a beautiful symphony, but they are highly effective, adaptable, resilient and can pass on what they’ve learned to future generations. And they don’t come with the downsides of human behaviour – the capacity for self-destruction that we have on individual, societal and planetary levels.

So if trees can’t think, what is this all about? Well this book asks you to do the thinking – so brace yourself for the challenge of seeing trees, and yourself, in a different light. I would like to explore with you the wisdom that trees can share with us about living a better life.

Common ancestors

Several hundred million generations ago, you and the tree in your local park shared a common ancestor. Of course that ancestor did not look like a woody plant with a trunk, nor like an ape as you are; but they were made of carbon, and cells and chromosomes, just like us. Our modern versions share some of the same DNA, although many trees have more DNA than us. One species of birch, for example, has 112 chromosomes to our 46. Surprisingly, some of the genes implicated in human diseases have been found in plants. The genome of Arabidopsis thaliana (a plant in the brassica family) contains the BRCA breast cancer gene, for example.

Animals split from plants early in the history of life – around 1.5 billion years ago – and since then plants and animals (and later humans) have taken very different evolutionary paths. Over hundreds of millions of generations, we have moved further and further from knowing that we are all related. When Charles Darwin published On The Origin Of Species in 1859,[4] this knowledge began to be brought into scientific certainty, and the biochemical basis of our evolutionary relatedness was revealed by the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA in the 1950s.

By that time, we were very much rooted in the idea that humans are separate from the natural world. This was compounded by religious and philosophical teachings going back millennia, which promoted the world view that humans are at the top of the pile, with all other living things relegated to inferior bit-parts, and valued only by their usefulness to people. Of course that view still persists today. Humans are in fact just one of the branches on the tree of life and it could be argued that that we evolved into Homo sapiens so recently that we have not yet had time to prove our long-term resilience.

Even the language we use to describe the natural world is loaded with cultural and historical meaning. Anthropomorphism (attributing human characteristics to non-human entities, such as animals or plants) is widespread, and may be considered as one factor in our problematic relationship with the natural world by assigning higher value to beings that share human characteristics. When describing the natural world it is difficult to avoid some human-centred vocabulary creeping in. I realise, now that I’m writing, that we have much better language for describing humans than for describing the living world, and the temptation to fill the vast gaps in our knowledge with our own views and feelings is inevitable. Many writers on the natural world, including Darwin, struggled with this. “I have often personified the word Nature for I have found it difficult to avoid this ambiguity.

During these millennia we also lost sight of the fact that everything that sustains us originates as a plant. Plants convert the Sun’s energy into nutrients, and we eat those nutrients, or we eat animals or fungi that consume plants. It’s also interesting to consider that animals (including humans) developed the ability to move (seen as one of our superior characteristics as compared to trees), due to a fundamental design flaw – we can’t synthesise our own food. The seemingly passive oak tree down your street, that you ignore every day on the way to work, can stand still and turn carbon dioxide from the air into matter – trunks, branches and leaves. You can’t do the same to make arms and legs and fingers, so you have to go and look for your food in your lunch hour – food that originated with plants.

All this leads me to believe that it’s not a bad idea to get to know the hand (the leaf) that feeds us in a bit more detail.

Problem solving

We share with all plants problem-solving abilities that deal with surprisingly similar fundamental issues. Until relatively recently, humans and plants shared the same environments, subject to the same pressures and external influences. Despite many of us now living in centrally heated homes, with TVs and the internet, we still have the same very basic needs, such as food, water, security and connection. However, humans have the addition of a brain, which complicates things and often takes us away from these core requirements. While trees evolved around 280 million years ago, modern humans have been around just a few hundred thousand years, so it seems likely we could learn a thing or two from them.

Janine Benyus[5] is an innovation consultant and author of books on biomimicry,[6] which aims to solve complex human problems using inspiration from models, systems and elements in nature. She believes that we should be apprentices of all living things, learning all we can from them to improve every aspect of our lives. As humans, when we want to solve problems we turn to experts – teachers, scientists, craftspeople and engineers – but we have been ignoring the artists, builders, artisans, engineers, biologists and chemists that are living all around us in the natural world. They can build materials stronger than steel and tougher than ceramics, and do this without heat or toxic chemicals. They can withstand pressure, heat, drought, drying out, flooding and more. Trees can create colour without pigment – for example, the blue quandong tree in Australia creates cobalt blue using a submicroscopic surface structure that reflects blue light. To do this, it must be constructed with a precision of a few millionths of a millimetre. Some human scientists, farmers and product engineers already learn from, and copy, plants. Take Velcro, inspired by burrs that stick to animal fur; or more recently, desalination processes based on the ingenious ways in which mangroves remove salt from sea water. Take a look at www.AskNature.org[7] to see how nature solves design and engineering problems that biomimetic designers are now emulating.

Permaculture, an earlier nature-inspired design system, originated in the 1970s when its founders Bill Mollison and David Holmgren observed that the same principles that apply to nature could be used to design sustainable and productive agricultural systems.[8] There are now permaculture associations, projects, farms and communities around the world, following a set of ethics and principles that address many of the agricultural problems that have led to high chemical fertiliser and pesticide use, plant resistance, erosion and destruction of native forests for agriculture. In addition, regenerative agriculture, agroforestry and holistic grazing are food production systems that regenerate land, build healthy soil, and lock in carbon, while producing abundant food. These systems pave the way to produce healthy food for billions of people, with many fewer harmful impacts on natural ecosystems.

The Transition movement,[9] regenerative culture, systems- based management practices and economic models that take into account environmental and social factors all take the learning into the social and economic spheres, stressing that we cannot have unlimited growth on a finite planet.

These disciplines look at the practical agricultural, engineering and economic benefits of learning from nature, but practitioners have now logically expanded into exploring the social and personal benefits of learning from the natural world. Ecopsychologists, permaculture practitioners, holistic thinkers, biomimetic designers and natural therapists are leading the way.

This is where Think like a Tree enters the party, following in the footsteps of pioneers and established practitioners, and learning from the significant and expanding body of research that examines the concept of nature-inspired problem solving.

But of course learning from nature has been around for millennia. Early humans absorbed knowledge by being perpetually immersed in nature, and adapting it for their own use – for example, when they took the idea of sitting under the shade of a tree, and used it to fabricate their own sunshades. We are born mimics, copying each other’s behaviour. So it is only logical that people connected with their ecosystems would emulate the behaviour of those around them, human or non-human – whether it be copying a pack of wolves as they corner their prey, or mimicking the ways beavers modify rivers.

Leonardo da Vinci stated “If you do not rest on the good foundations of nature you will labour with little honour and less profit ”. He studied and recorded the behaviour of birds extensively before designing his flying machines. Charles Darwin and subsequent plant biologists and geneticists opened our eyes to the wonderful problem-solving abilities of plants. And more recently Sir David Attenborough shared his wisdom that “There are some four million different kinds of animals and plants in the world. Four million different solutions to the problems of staying alive ”.

Today many indigenous peoples around the world have deeply intimate relationships with the environments that sustain every aspect of their lives.

The trouble with brains

We’ve established that trees and humans share fundamental common ground, but we can’t ignore the fact that we are very different. Our brain is unique and adds a vast layer of complexity. People have the ability to decide what to do, but we can also decide not to do things. When an anorexic teenager doesn’t eat, a desperate person self-harms, an addict damages their body, or a business-person stays up all night for a deadline, they ‘choose’ (sometimes in the loosest sense of the word) not to follow a basic instinct. Conscious thought is a wonderful thing that gives us all sorts of advantages and benefits. However, it also allows us to go against the fundamental drivers that we all have within us, but that trees can’t fail to follow. Humans have to think about doing the right thing, rather than just doing it.

Until 70 thousand years ago, humans lived in very similar ways to other animals, but around that time a cognitive revolution began. We developed the ability to think about, and communicate, ideas that weren’t based in the concrete realities of daily life – i.e. theories, beliefs and myths. This made us fundamentally different from the rest of the living world. We could now accelerate human evolution, facilitated by the more advanced ways of communicating and the ability to transfer adaptive advantages by packets of learned information, rather than purely by genetics (DNA). This incredible evolution has makes us the most complex single organism on the planet. However, added complexity leads to added problems, such as self-destructive behaviours, and these can even take us away from the most basic needs, such as the desire to survive, to live, to belong, and to grow. Our brains give us the option to procrastinate, to knowingly make ourselves ill, to consciously hurt others, to go to war, to destroy our own surroundings, and lead some people to make a conscious decision to end their own life.

With regard to our relationship with other people and other species, humans have developed to the extent that we are divorced from the surroundings that we rely on for life (for example, plants for food, clean air, clean water). Around 12,000 years ago the agricultural revolution began, and people gradually settled down to have control over the plants and herds of animals around them. Somewhat surprisingly, this led to humans having a more limited and unhealthier diet (mostly grain- based), they worked harder, had more children (and more mouths to feed), they destroyed more forests to set aside for agriculture, had more wars, and created an elite that forced them to work harder for less food. People took on the backbreaking jobs that plants had been doing for them for free, such as irrigation, pest control, soil stabilisation, adding fertility to the earth and feeding animals. From then on, there was no going back and, now that we are people living in the twenty-first century, neither would we want to. However, we now find ourselves in a situation where we have very little direct relationship to the natural world, and because we don’t immediately feel the consequences of our actions, we have few of the natural feedback mechanisms that would bring our behaviour back to a healthy equilibrium for us and for the other living things with whom we share our planet. We are currently living in the ‘anthropocene’[10] era, characterised by humans’ overwhelming impact on the entire planet, and we are the cause of only the sixth mass extinction the world has ever seen. Of course, this is not a modern phenomenon – humans have been hunting animals and destroying plants to extinction for tens of thousands of years. Homo sapiens was also responsible for the demise of the other Homo species. However, in modern times our impact has accelerated to the extent that, according to a 2018 report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), wildlife populations have plummeted by 60% in less than 50 years.[11] A broken industrial growth system has fuelled a society that is trashing planetary resources at an unprecedented rate.

But what worries me is not simply the loss of wondrous plant and animal life, but the harm it is doing to us as people. I consider myself unlucky and lucky in equal measure. I live with an immune-related illness that was triggered by – and is made worse by – contact with any number of stimuli encountered in the modern world. This has given me insight into the harm that we, as individuals and as a society, are doing to ourselves. Non- communicable diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, auto-immune disease, dementia, diabetes, allergies and obesity- related illness, are on the rise.[12] In developed countries these illnesses have become more prevalent during the last 100 years, but developing countries are now seeing the same transition from communicable and infectious diseases, to non- communicable disease.

Our brains are being subjected to similar levels of ill- health, with resulting mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, neuropsychiatric disease, self-harm, substance abuse and suicide. A recent study estimated that 1.1 billion people around the world had a mental or substance-misuse disorder in 2016, with the rates in developed countries estimated, on average, higher than elsewhere. In the UK in 2016 around 18% of the population were estimated to have a mental disorder, and in the USA 21.5%.[13]

Our conscious brains are in overdrive, trying to cope with too many competing choices and stimuli. I have always had a brain without an off-switch, something I considered a benefit when in education, but which came back to bite me when it contributed to my health problems. Our unconscious minds are overworked too. Short-term stress responses (fight, flight or freeze) are essential if you encounter an angry bear, but the constant stresses of modern life cause hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to be pumped into the bloodstream, without the release valves, such as exercise and rest, that allow them to be brought back down to baseline levels. In the 2016 study mentioned above, 6% of people in the USA were estimated to be suffering specifically from anxiety disorders, with a rate of 5% in the UK.

Children and young people are particularly affected. In the UK, anxiety disorders are highest in the 15–19 age group (an estimated 6.35% of 15–19-year-olds in 2016), with children aged 10–14 only marginally behind at 5.83%. In the USA, the figures are 6.51% for 15–19 years, and 4.65% for 10–14 years.[14]

A 2017 UK study conducted by NHS Digital stated that a whopping 12.8% of 5–19-year-olds met the criteria for at least one mental disorder.[15]

To be a successful human in the twenty-first century it is no longer an option to simply follow basic instincts. Instead we must actively use our minds to make positive decisions that come naturally elsewhere in nature. This involves effort, engagement and developing a conscious way of living.

Modern man talks of the battle with nature, forgetting that if he ever won the battle he would find himself on the losing side.

E.F. Schumacher           

Living consciously

You will probably see the irony in looking at trees, which are unconscious, in order to learn how to live more consciously – to choose to live in a way that is healthy and that regenerates our lives and our surroundings for us and future generations. But we can improve our minds by dialling back the levels of complexity in our lives. We can reconnect with the basic needs of comfort, security, self-esteem, belonging, human interaction and a relationship with the natural world, in order to make our lives more fulfilled. Once we have developed firm roots, it becomes much easier to build the top growth.

But to do this you must decide to be in the driving seat, take an active part, and get your head in the game. Alternatively, you can decide to do nothing and be a passenger, a victim, or be used or exploited by someone else. The sad fact is if you don’t make a decision to design your life then someone else will do it for you. There is no neutral approach. That person might be someone you know, like a partner, family member or boss; or it might be an advertising executive, company CEO or media mogul. Unless we delve more deeply, the choices that we think we have, like choosing a shampoo or a variety of apple, become smokescreens, obscuring the things that could fundamentally make a difference, like the pursuit of fulfilment and belonging. Having many different, insignificant choices is paralysing, not empowering. Encouraging people to always want more is also a very good tactic for keeping them quiet. There is nothing so problematic for marketers than people saying “I’m OK thanks without that extra consumer item ”.

Modern human definitions of success include income, financial wealth, material goods, fame and out-competing others – which leads to damaging consumption, wasteful use of resources and increasing inequality. In my workshops I ask participants how they think nature defines success and they come up with words like growth, co-operation, harmony, supportive relationships, resilience, vitality, new life, regeneration, lack of waste, and diversity. Every group comes up with very similar suggestions – I’m sure the same ideas would come out of workshops all over the world. I then ask who wants to live like that – and everyone says “yes please!”.

Don’t be put off by the critics who say that if we try and change our broken system we would all be back living in caves and wearing hair shirts – that’s just an excuse for inaction and to keep people consuming. This is about creating something better for us, together, for which there are already solutions. It’s time for us to write our own stories, with the natural world as our guide. Every tree that has ever lived has changed the planet and left it a better place than when it started out. It has pulled carbon dioxide from thin air to create soil; it has given out life-sustaining oxygen, regulating the atmosphere; it has contributed to creating rain; and it has hosted other species that have produced a wondrous diversity of life on a planet that was once bare rock and gas. It hasn’t done that without effort, and neither will you, but if you think you can’t change the world then remember those trees and think again.

The benefits of being in nature

When I was little I kept falling in ponds. Not just one pond but six in one year! None of my tumbles were life-threatening but my mother despaired and started to bring a change of clothes whenever we went out. I was clearly fascinated with what was in the water, and was later grateful that my nature-loving mum wasn’t a risk-averse parent who might have sat me in front of a screen instead, for fear of me drowning. Now that I am an adult, and my balance is a little better, I still love ponds. I’ve created two largish ones in my woodland and love to spend time sitting near them watching the pond skaters, swallows and dragonflies. I feel my blood pressure lower, my (normally erratic) heart rate slow, and I have the strong urge to breathe deeply. I feel a connection.

That connection was clearly activated at an early age, but it has kept me coming back for more over the years, and even when I lived in London in my early twenties I would regularly seek out the local park or head for the countryside. Connection gives a hit of pleasure as powerful as any drug, and without any negative side-effects. It helps to balance the dysfunctional mix of chemicals and hormones swirling around my body.

Research has subsequently proved right my early instincts about the benefits of being in nature. Here’s what the UK Government’s 25-year environment plan, published in 2018, has to say:

Spending time in the natural environment – as a resident or a visitor – improves our mental health and feelings of wellbeing. It can reduce stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression. It can help boost immune systems, encourage physical activity and may reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as asthma. It can combat loneliness and bind communities together.[16]

Studies show that contact with nature lowers stress. Links are similarly made to a lower incidence of cardiovascular and respiratory tract illness, lower levels of hypertension, better recovery times, better mood, improved sleep, increased levels of wellbeing and vitality, better self-regulation, and to a positive overall effect on mental health.[17] Nature will also help you concentrate. There are even proven benefits from looking at pictures of nature while stuck indoors – for example, when recovering in hospital (although pictures are, unsurprisingly, less effective than actually being in nature).

A discipline of Ecotherapy, or Nature Therapy, has grown up, covering a wide range of beneficial activities. Green gyms provide outdoor exercise with a purpose, such as conservation or tree-planting. Even running in the outdoors has been shown to be more beneficial than the equivalent amount of exercise in the gym.[18] Horticultural therapy has similar beneficial effects, with participants feeling the positive emotions from watching the fruits of their labour grow, combined with fresh air and moderate exercise (gardening involves a lot of bending and stretching, and is good for flexibility too).

Talking therapy that takes place in the outdoors (sometimes also confusingly called Ecotherapy) is another growing discipline. In my view all therapists should try and get their clients outdoors, where the forest would do some of the work for them. Doctors could prescribe a range of outdoor activities for patients (known as ‘Green Prescribing’ and already taking place in some areas). Being outdoors also facilitates a shift from the traditional inward-looking focus, to looking at oneself in the wider environmental context. Depression and anxiety often lead a sufferer to turn inwards, and my (admittedly unprofessional) experience is that traditional therapy, talking and medical, can compound feelings of guilt (“It’s my fault, I’ll only feel better if I can change myself ”), rather than focusing on the environment you live in (“I’ll feel better if I change where and how I spend my time ”).

Forest Bathing has been receiving lots of publicity recently. Originating in Japan, and called Shinrin-yoku, it involves organised groups walking and sitting in the forest, using all the senses and often undertaking guided meditation. A study of 24 Shinrin-yoku forest areas in Japan showed that participants had lower stress levels, blood pressure and pulse than the equivalent participation in city environments.[19]

For those who don’t have much time, the good news is that you can feel some improvement in your mood after just 10 minutes of exposure (for example touching a tree, or even a piece of wood).

Connecting with nature and the Think like a Tree principles also sit firmly within the UK Government’s Five Ways to Mental Wellbeing.[20] These five ways, in the context of the outdoors, are:

  • Connecting – with the natural world and each other
  • Being active – in the outdoors regularly and repeatedly in different ways
  • Noticing – each other, the changing seasons, our own growth and development, the natural world
  • Learning – about each other and the natural world, learning new skills
  • Giving – time and attention to each other as well as giving something back to the natural spaces used, through caring, planting, managing and understanding them.

As you can see, simply being in the outdoors does not give the full picture when it comes to wellbeing – to reap the maximum benefit it is vital to go beyond that to make a connection with nature. Research from the University of Derby[21] has revealed that there are five pathways to nature connection:

  • Senses – engaging all the senses
  • Emotions – connecting with feelings of joy, wonder, calm and so on
  • Beauty – appreciating landscapes or small details, and then being able to express those feelings
  • Meaning – exploring what nature means: metaphor, symbolism and language. This is a thinking process.
  • Compassion – extending our sense of who we are to include nature, and to care for living things.

My own view is that nature connection shouldn’t involve stand-alone activities (“I’m going outside to get my hit of nature connection today”), but should be woven into other parts of your life, like walking to the shops or to work, gardening, or joining a conservation group. For example, a friend of mine has taken up horse logging on the weekend (timber extraction with horses is a method of maintaining forests that is less damaging than using modern machinery). Another chooses a cafe that is half an hour away to meet friends for coffee, so she has to walk through the countryside to get there. A third walks to the local shops rather than driving, and although this is through the town, there are still a number of trees and urban green spaces that she purposefully notices on the way, observing how they change with the seasons. Weaving nature connection into your routine means it becomes embedded in your life. Our ancient and our recent ancestors would have obtained their nature fix (‘Vitamin N’)[22] from meaningful activity.

However, it might be worth remarking that your relationship with nature will not necessarily be a pleasant one every day, just as your human relationships (however close) have good days and bad days. Being soaked by an unexpected downpour or tripping over a fallen log come with the territory, but the benefits far outweigh the occasional irritation. When it comes to weather I like to live by the saying, “there is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing ”.

Passing through natural environments without engaging with them won’t give you the greatest benefits. Using the outdoors simply as a venue for exercise with your headphones on, or walking the dog while thinking about work is not enough. You have to engage.

However, the good news is that once you start, it feels entirely natural – because that’s what we evolved to do.

Note that none of these pathways to connection involve being able to name 50 different species of plant or animal (phew, that lets me off the hook!). Neither do we need to know the uses for plants or trees, nor feel that we must have dominance over, or fear, nature. These ways of looking at the world may even have contributed to the destruction of living things that we have been witnessing for the last few centuries.

Past relationships with nature haven’t worked, but there is a blueprint for a new relationship, based on connection. This nature–connection model gives us free rein to express our emotions, unleash our inner poet, and – dare I say it – free that tree hugger who has been in there waiting to get out.

And, as if that wasn’t enough, increased nature connection has been shown to increase positive environmental behaviours too. So it’s a win–win: for you, your descendants and the planet.[23]

So how does Think like a Tree relate to the benefits of being in nature and the five pathways to connection? Well, it involves all five, with a particular focus on meaning – what we can learn from living beings. It’s an active thinking process – one that takes effort, and requires reflection, both inward and outward. It will potentially throw up uncomfortable emotions, but it will be worth it, I promise. Start by reconnecting with that one moment in your childhood where you fell in a pond, marvelled at a landscape or studied the bark of a tree – where did you first make that connection?

So now you know the benefits – what are you waiting for?


Three Good Things in Nature

Every day notice three good things in nature. Write a sentence for each of the three good things. You might note the beauty of small things at any one moment, like sights, sounds or patterns. Or it might be recording feelings or wider aspects that arise from attending to the diversity and wonder of the natural world around you. For example, it could be as seemingly trivial as noticing the song of a robin or the movement of a tree in the breeze. Set yourself a reminder to record three things every day. If you use Twitter, you can use the hashtag #3naturethings

The Three Good Things in Nature exercise was devised by Dr Miles Richardson from the University of Derby, and has proven benefits for wellbeing.[24]

Why learn from trees?

This book could have been called Think like an Ecosystem or Think like an Ocean, but for various reasons I settled on trees. Firstly it will not surprise you that I love trees. It may surprise you that I can’t name that many outside of our British natives (to my shame and thanks to my very poor memory) – but I love being in woodlands and everything they represent.

Most people, all round the globe, live within easy reach of forests, woodlands or trees. Even in our most densely populated cities there are parks and other open spaces where they thrive, and this gives opportunities for learning from these gentle giants directly. Humans have traditionally had deep cultural relationships with trees, creating books, poems and celebrations about these wise cousins of ours. From the Ents in Lord of the Rings or Grandmother Willow in Pocahontas to the Whomping Willow in the Harry Potter series (and many, more literary, examples), trees are loved and are a source of inspiration. Many of our towns and cities are named after trees, like Hollywood, Sevenoaks, Ashbourne, York and New York (the latter two are named after the yew).

I know of very few people who dislike trees – other than perhaps council officials determined to tidy obsessively or eliminate risk, or developers who want to cut them down to build shopping centres. But even they are likely to appreciate a tree somewhere in their environment and find joy in the bird song that emanates from it. So, with trees, there is an opportunity for connection and for direct learning, and this book encourages you to learn just as much from the single tree in the middle of a city street as from the giant forests that sweep across our world. Don’t feel that you have to travel for miles to ‘get out into nature’ – nature is all around you; you won’t have to go far to find it. When you see a buddleia pushing its way through a crack in urban tarmac, you are witnessing an example of resilience and the overwhelming urge to keep growing whatever life’s struggles. That said, the same principles outlined in this book apply to other ecosystems – natural grasslands, wetlands, shorelines and oceans, so if those are in reach I encourage you to go outside and learn from them too.

You might ask why not compare animals instead? Scientists have spent decades (and centuries) studying animal behaviour and comparing it to humans, looking at intelligence and conducting experiments on creatures to ascertain their responses to pain and other stimuli. The vast majority of nature programmes on TV focus on animals. Plants have received much less attention, beyond their agricultural value. But animals, and especially mammals, are our close evolutionary cousins. If we only study human or animal behaviour, we see a fraction of the diversity life has to offer. The further back in the evolutionary tree we go, the more the fundamental similarities, common to all life, start to emerge. When we get back to the principles that all living things have in common we are really down to the bare necessities of life. Of course not every tree will exhibit these principles in the same way, just as there are people with different preferences, needs and strengths, but as you get to know the different trees and people within the book, you will see that we have more in common than you might initially think possible.

I hope that the book will encourage you to get out and learn from nature directly and that you will have a few light-bulb moments, as I have, during my exploration of these natural principles.

Part 2 – Introducing the natural principles

“The big artist keeps an eye on nature and steals her tools”

Thomas Eakins

There are patterns common to all living things. These have been developed into a set of principles. I’ve gathered some from permaculture, some from biomimicry, and others I have simply observed myself in nature, when walking in forests, woodlands, gardens, moors, seashores, mountains and grasslands. These patterns and principles are all around us, hiding in plain sight.

Some of the principles overlap and some contain paradoxes. They are not definitive. This book is about my own interpretation of them – I make suggestions and I hope you will take from them what you need. I encourage you to discover your own interpretations and your own principles while reading the book and during your wanderings outdoors.

Something that has intrigued me, while undertaking the research for this book, is how many studies into better ways to experience life as a human being support (without realising it) the learning explicit in these principles. These include studies on psychology, neurology, longevity, communication, human behaviour, management, economics and social networks. The more we find out, the more we see how similar we are to trees and vice versa. What works for them works for us at a fundamental level. For example, longevity studies reveal that people with a supportive network of friends live much longer than those who are lonely, and we see this in trees that are alone versus trees in forests. Giant redwoods were brought to England in Victorian times but each tree has grown only a fraction of the height of its American cousins – the principal reason being that in California they live in forests that support and nurture them. Their fellow trees provide shade, protection, ideal soil conditions, and many other benefits. Our own support networks provide us with similar advantages. More comparisons with research can be found throughout the book.

Many of the principles can also be found in old proverbs and ancient wisdom – for example, “slow and steady wins the race ”, “make hay when the sun shines ”, “your efforts will bear fruit ”. These principles are not mere analogies, they are evolutionary success stories, tried and tested over hundreds of millions of years.

Each principle applies to living matter, but can also apply to thought patterns and human activities. For example, the principle Slow and small solutions applies to:

  • the slow growth of trees and woods
  • growth of all living tissue (each cell division creating two new cells on the same blueprint as the original, using recognised building blocks)
  • planning for success (like aiming to integrate healthy eating into your daily life rather than attempting a crash diet)
  • thought patterns (slow and small solutions are less likely to result in frustration, feelings of failure and burn-out).

By mimicking life’s patterns we can fast-track success, avoid failure and build resilience.

Six groups of principles have emerged

Group 1     Observation

– principles about looking, learning and being

Group 2     Purpose

– principles about doing and growing

Group 3     Surroundings

– principles about needs, wellbeing, health and place

Group 4     Connection

– principles about belonging, connecting, communicating and sharing

Group 5     Resilience

– principles about surviving, healing, adapting and rejuvenation

Group 6     Future

– principles about regeneration, creating and celebrating

You will also find additional principles highlighted in bold throughout the book.

How to use the principles

The principles can be used in many different ways – for example, as:

  • a guide to living a happy, healthy and fulfilled life
  • an everyday reference to keep you on track
  • a roadmap for going where you want to go
  • a source of tools to help solve problems
  • a way to make choices and decisions
  • uplifting inspiration to know that you are not alone in life’s ups and downs
  • a way of seeing yourself in the context of the wonder of life on our unique planet.

Many people have already used this wisdom. Anne Frank’s Diary has an entry about the horse chestnut tree that she could see from the window of the attic where she was in hiding. She wrote that she was inspired with hope when she saw its bare branches and knew that they would burst into life in spring. Writers, poets, artists, indigenous peoples and nature-lovers have been observing nature’s principles for hundreds or thousands of years – it’s time to open up their beauty and power to everyone.

Case studies

There are millions of ordinary people already learning from nature, so I set out to find just some of them. They are applying their learning in many different areas of life:

  • mental health
  • psychological wellbeing
  • physical health
  • overcoming a life challenge
  • relationship issues
  • employment
  • leisure
  • business management
  • community, and more.

Basically, the natural principles apply to everything! People have been generous in sharing their stories and I have woven some of these into the book as case studies, in addition to my own experiences.

Part 3 – The natural principles


Group 1 Principles –  Observation

Observe and interact

“There are always flowers for those that want to see them” Henri Matisse

People often look at me as if I’m bonkers when I say that trees can see. But when you think about it, it’s obvious that trees and plants can ‘see’ because we can observe them angling their leaves towards the light and moving to track the Sun through the day. This is easier to notice with sunflowers, but time-lapse photography of trees shows they do the same.

Trees and plants also use light to know when to flower. Gardeners often take advantage of this. At the Chelsea Flower Show in London each May, exhibitors trick plants into flowering out of season by subjecting them to artificial dark and light regimes, and then bring them out ready for a final flourish. Amazingly, plants and humans share the same genes for sensing night and day – yet more proof that we are related in more ways than you might think.

Plants can even differentiate between colours (blue is the colour that they prefer bending towards) and, unlike us, they can detect ultraviolet and infrared light. They can ‘smell’ too – ethylene causes apples to ripen in sequence after one fruit detects a waft from another. They can recognise the saliva of insects and can remember things such as day length. To learn more about how trees perceive what’s around them I recommend the book What A Plant Knows by biologist Daniel Chamovitz,[1] a fascinating analysis of the full range of plant senses, along with the relevant scientific research. Our human senses may not be exactly the same, but this group of principles is all about how we can employ them to our full advantage, just like trees do. When we learn how to harness the powers…


UK paperback – signed copy direct from the author

Ebook and paperback worldwide via Amazon

Ebook also available on all major ebook platforms

Audiobook via Amazon UK

Audiobook via Amazon USA

Audiobook also available on Apple itunes

* paperback also available via bookshops worldwide, but please note if you order from bookshops the author gets a teeny, tiny percentage of the sales cost, so we’d prefer you to order direct from the author or via Amazon if you can (totally understand if you’re boycotting Amazon though). More income for the author means more books in the future and more trees planted.

[1] Chamovitz, Daniel (2017) What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses. Updated and expanded edition. Macmillan, USA.

[2] Zlinszky, A., Molnár, B. and Barfod, A.S. (2017) ‘Not all trees sleep the same: high temporal resolution terrestrial laser scanning shows differences in nocturnal plant movement.’ Frontiers in Plant Science 8: 1814. doi: 10.3389/fpls.2017.01814. See also: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2167003-trees-may-have-a-heartbeat-that-is-so-slow-we-never-noticed-it/

[3] Gagliano, M. et al. (2016) ‘Learning by association in plants.’ Scientific Reports 6: 38427. doi: 10.1038/srep38427. For a comprehensive list of fascinating research on plant behaviour and cognition, see: www.monicagagliano.com

[4] Darwin, Charles (1859) On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

[5] Janine Benyus’ most celebrated work is Benyus, Janine (2002) Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. 2nd edition. HarperCollins.

[6] The Biomimicry Institutes defines biomimicry as “an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies”. See: https://biomimicry.org

[7] For a wide range of nature-inspired solutions, see: https://asknature.org/

[8] Many of the principles in this book are borrowed from David Holmgren and Bill Mollisons’ permaculture principles. Their original work is Mollison, Bill and Holmgren, David (1978) Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements Transworld

[9] For more information on the Transition movement, see: https://transitionnetwork.org

[10] The term ‘anthropocene’ was popularised by atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen as a new geological epoch. Various dates for the commencement of the anthropocene have been proposed, from the start of the agricultural revolution (circa 12,000 years ago) up to 1945, the detonation of the first atomic bomb.

[11] Grooten, M. and Almond, R.E.A. (Eds) (2018) Living Planet Report – 2018: Aiming Higher. WWF, Gland, Switzerland.

[12] For sources of the information on global health contained in this chapter, please see: https://ourworldindata.org

[13] Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) (1990– 2016) Global Burden of Disease (GBD). Available at: http://ghdx.healthdata.org/gbd-results-tool

[14] Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) (1990– 2016) Global Burden of Disease (GBD). Available at: http://ghdx.healthdata.org/gbd-results-tool

[15] NHS Digital (2018) Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2017.

[16] HM Government (2018) A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment.

[17] A comprehensive outline of the health benefits of being in nature are contained in the papers: Twohig-Bennett, C. and Jones, A, (2018) ‘The health benefits of the great outdoors: A systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes’ Environmental Research Vol 166, and Richardson, M. et al. (2016) ‘Nature: a new paradigm for well-being and ergonomics.’ Ergonomics 60(2), 292–305.

[18] Pretty, J., Peacock, J., Sellens, M. and Griffin, M. (2005) ‘The mental and physical health outcomes of green exercise.’ International Journal of Environmental Health Research 15: 5.

[19] Park, B.J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T., and Miyazaki, Y. (2010) ‘The physiological effects of Shinrin- yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan.’ Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine 15(1): 18– 26.

[20] See: Five ways to mental wellbeing:  https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/five-ways-to-mental-wellbeing

[21] Lumber, R., Richardson, M., and Sheffield, D. (2017) ‘Beyond knowing nature: contact, emotion, compassion, meaning, and beauty are pathways to nature connection.’ PLoS ONE 12(5): e0177186.

[22] https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0177186

[23] Richard Louv coined the term ‘Vitamin N’, and has written three books on the subject: Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life (2017) Atlantic Books; The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age (2012) Algonquin; and Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (2010) Atlantic Books.

[24] Richardson, Miles and Sheffield, David (2017) ‘Three good things in nature: noticing nearby nature brings sustained increases in connection with nature.’ Psyecology 8(1): 1–32. doi: 10.1080/21711976.2016.1267136.

[1] Chamovitz, Daniel (2017) What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses. Updated and expanded edition. Macmillan, USA.

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