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North by Northeast: Blowing Away Mental Angst


The UK is in lockdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but fortunately one outside exercise is permitted per day as long as we keep at least 6.0 feet apart from one another, and remain in walking distance to our homes. This past weekend, I was lucky to have been able to use my exercise time to take two long walks along the shorefront where I live. On regular weekends, the town is crowded with people taking day or weekend trips from London and the surrounding area. However, the beaches were practically empty. This was a welcome relief because the many uncertainties related to the virus were making me anxious, and I did not want to face the usual cacophony of the crowds on top of my concerns. When I am nervous I feel entirely detached and alone in the world, as if I live in a remote place where there is no help on offer. So, I have found that taking part in outdoor activities such as long walks, sailing, windsurfing, cycling, or skiing significantly helps my mental wellbeing.

Both of my walks were invigorating. The air was icy cold with high winds blowing over 35 miles per hour from a north by northeast direction. As I began to breathe deeply and calm down, I started to think about why these conditions made me feel far less anxious, happy, and hopeful. After some reflection, I realized it was for two reasons. First, I was reminded that nature is changeable, and being an avid dinghy sailor, I know that there will be calm days and stormy days. Sometimes storms will come up so quickly on the water that there is little time to prepare; yet, there are survival strategies to weather them when they happen. Nature’s changes, therefore, act as a metaphor to remind me that it is possible to get through life’s difficulties.

It was the second realization, however, that was more profound. Walking in the winds was a full sensory experience that ultimately relieved my sense of isolation. I could feel the wind on my face when I walked into it (unwisely planned on the first day when I had to walk for two miles into the wind on my return home); the scent of the briny sea air was particularly strong; the spray from the sea left a salty taste in my mouth; the rhythmic sounds of the crashing waves and the lonely cries of the seabirds were soothing; and it was beautiful to see the whitecaps on the turbulent sea and the clouds blowing by rapidly. I was fully absorbed by my senses into something much larger than my anxieties.

Two other thoughts came to mind once I recognized my reasons for feeling better outside. Since I was walking into winds that were blowing from the northeast, a funny image came to mind. I associated my experience with the Hitchcock film North by Northwest, and I likened the image of Cary Grant running away from a crop dusting plane to me trying to outrun the Novel Coronavirus. Second, and less superficially, it reminded me of a passage from the Roman writer Varro’s (c. 116-27 BC) work on farming where he mentioned a story about the Roman army and navy coming across people who were suffering from an illness on the island of Corfu, Greece. There, they found houses crowded with the sick and the dead. To rid the city of the petulance, they decided to purge the houses of the foul air inside of them by cutting new windows in the structures that admitted the north winds to blow it away.[1]

In accordance to ancient perceptions, one of the causes of disease was inhaling stagnant and putrid air. Numerous Greco-Roman writers described the importance of placing farmland, buildings, and fortifications away from marshy, still, and rancid spaces because they were detrimental to both physical and mental health. On the other hand, they described salubrious spaces as having healthy air. This was identified because the air was clear as opposed to misty or hazy; it had movement, with gentle breezes being particularly favourable; and it had pleasant or little to no smells.[2] Hence, the troops that Varro mentioned would have likely encountered houses that were hot, stuffy, and fetid; so it is understandable why the soldiers would have thought it best to cut open new windows and doors that faced the north.

Although I am definitely not saying that the northeasterly winds, or any windy fresh air, will cure the Covid-19 virus, taking some time outside can contribute to our mental wellness during this period of great uncertainty and stress. Even the Romans were aware that being outdoors in healthy environments calmed their minds. Pliny the Younger (late first AD), for example, wrote that his mountain villa in Tusculum had clear skies and pure air, which gave him the best mental and physical health. There he was able to rest his mind by reading and exercise his body by hunting.[3]

Today, there is a specialist field of scholarship—environmental psychology—that explores the impact of different environments on mental wellness. One of the questions that concern these scholars explores why spending time in nature has beneficial effects. To discover the reasons that lie behind this phenomenon, they undertake studies on the brain when people are in nature and found that it raises endorphin levels.[4] Although they explained the reasons for this differently from modern psychologists, the Greeks and Romans were aware that spending time outdoors was good for mental wellbeing, which evidences the fact that this idea is nothing new.

Rather than the frantic escape made by Cary Grant’s character, I believe that we can follow the advice of Pliny the Younger, and take some time in the fresh air, even if it is only for a short period. Perhaps, being part of something much greater than ourselves will help to alleviate some of the anxieties that we have during this episode in our existence. So, may the wind clear your mind much like it cleared the petulance from Corfu.

[1] Varro On Agriculture. 1.4. 4-5. Varro. On Agriculture. Translated by W. D. Hooper, Harrison Boyd Ash. Loeb Classical Library 283. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934. [2] Baker, Patricia 2018. “Identifying the Connection between Roman Conceptions of ‘Pure Air’ and Physical and Mental Health in Pompeian Gardens (c.150 BC–AD 79): a Multi-sensory Approach to Ancient Medicine.” World Archaeology 50 (3): 404-17. [3] Pliny the Younger, Letters 5.6, 45. Pliny the Younger. Letters, Volume I: Books 1-7. Translated by Betty Radice. Loeb Classical Library 55. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969. [4] For a readable and interesting overview of these studies see, Florence Williams 2017. The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company.

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