Angela Tilby: Why green is good for us

08 March 2019

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A STUDY by Danish researchers, published last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, analysed the effect on the future mental health of those who had been brought up in green surroundings. It was an observational report based on an analysis of satellite images of where almost a million Danes lived from birth to the age of ten, between 1985 and 2013.

It showed that those who grew up surrounded by green and leafy spaces were much less likely to develop addictions and stress-related illnesses. The green space did not have to be in the countryside: urban spaces with plenty of greenery were just as effective.

The report confirms what many instinctively understand: that our mental and emotional well-being is enhanced if we are lucky enough to have daily contact with things that grow — and this is particularly true for children.

The authors of the report did not attempt to explain precisely why this might be so, although others have suggested that a green environment invites children to play outside, which strengthens the immune system and encourages social-connectivity support outside the home. So, green is good. We need to go green, think green, and, of course, eat our greens.

In the northern hemisphere, Lent coincides with nature recovering its greenness. Removing flowers and greenery from church helps us to appreciate the return of spring outside. Green is, of course, the liturgical colour of ordinary time: neither festive nor penitential, but simply sustaining. Green represents God’s grace in creation. Hildegard of Bingen wrote of the viriditas: the greenness, fecundity, or abundance of God.

If being around green spaces brings physical and mental health, immersing ourselves in wonder for the life all around us is spiritually transformative. It lifts our spirits to bless God for all that he has made. In the church which I attended as a child, the Te Deum was replaced by the Benedicite at matins in Lent, “O all ye Green Things upon the earth, bless ye the Lord: praise him, and magnify him for ever.”

Urban planners should take account of the Danish report’s findings. Machines can cope with a black-and-white environment, but we are meaning-making animals with senses that respond to what is around us. We should ensure that greenness is imprinted on our children in their early years, not least because green helps us to live in time and to cope with living fruitfully in the present moment.

We cannot escape nature’s cycle of living and dying, and the greenness of spring anticipates the paschal mystery of life out of death. “Who would have thought my withered heart could have recovered greenness?” the poet George Herbert asked. The answer is that the heart knew instinctively that the cycle can be trusted because it comes from God. That is why green matters.

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