Tuesday 20 August 2019

Bird Therapy: A bird's-eye view of our quest to de-stress


Bird Therapy

Joe Harkness 

Unbound, hardback, 290 pages, €15.99

Twitter: birdsong can boost mental well-being for several hours
Twitter: birdsong can boost mental well-being for several hours
Bird Therapy

Hilary A White

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the US godfather of mindfulness, defines the practice as "paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally". Lots of activities have been grafted on to this template in order to de-stress an increasingly fried society, everything from a walk in the park to adult colouring books.

In this much-discussed memoir/how-to volume about managing mental-health ailments through birdwatching, Joe Harkness touches now and again on the teachings of mindfulness. But anyone allergic to the word need not worry that Bird Therapy is going to get all "sock-and-sandals" on you. What he does do is make a granite-strength case for birdwatching being one of the most therapeutic pursuits one can do in the great age of depression and anxiety that we are currently living through.

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The correlations are multiple, this relative newcomer to birding argues: "You pay attention in a particular and focused manner, not just on birds but also on the wider environment. It's very much a purposeful pastime, as it can be accessed almost everywhere. It grounds us in the present moment - there and then, and unless you have heavily entrenched motivations… it's a wholly non-judgmental hobby."

The "entrenched motivations" he references are the zealot birders who obsess over ticking-off rare species on their sweatily clutched lists (and who thought nothing of attacking Harkness on an online forum when he misidentified a species) before speeding off to the next rumoured sighting.

This comical blueprint of the lesser-spotted twitcher, elbowing others out of the way to jab their spotter scope at a Dartford warbler, is not what Harkness is about, something he makes painfully clear in what can at times be a searingly honest and unmannered voice. For him, birdwatching and taking care of your head are reliant on an interplay of connection, fresh air, giving, learning and noticing.

In 2013, a breakdown resulted in the special needs teacher suffering a mental breakdown that culminated in a suicide attempt (he hits the ground running with an account of this in the opening paragraphs). There is much self-awareness throughout (he even brings up the anxiety of writing the thing in our hands), but he is quick to assure us that this is a positive tale, one of coming back from the brink of substance abuse and mental disorder to find a joyous turnaround.

It's the kind of story we keep coming back to time and time again, and one nature writing is becoming increasingly associated with. Indeed, you wonder if the genre is at risk of burning itself out by giving licence to every wounded soul with a pair of binoculars and a thesaurus. Bird Therapy feels slightly different, however, because of its detached, process-focused voice and workmanlike approach. Harkness comes from a working-class background and while his love for birds is sensual, he has no time for romantic ideas about birdwatching fixing him (counselling, medication, and human interactions are thanked). It has, however, become a fundamental part of keeping him upright.

Pragmatism is the word of the day. Harkness has done his research and backs up every one of his feathered revelations about mental health with studies and data. To illustrate: In a chapter dealing with birdsong entitled 'A pipit, a woodlark and an evening concerto', he cites a study by King's College London that found birdsong was able to boost mental well-being for several hours. He then goes from the scientific to the personal by exploring how birdsong is tied up in memory (newsflash - Ireland does not have the monopoly on finding the call of the curlew precious and haunting). And from here, he transitions to the language of art and romance by quoting Percy Bysshe Shelley's 'To a Skylark' ("Pourest thy full heart / In profuse strains of unpremeditated art") or the solace WWI poets took from skylarks singing above the frontline.

It is a potent and rounded take on the subject that is difficult to refute. Other observations get to the heart of the matter in a similarly thorough fashion. Regarding birdlife in springtime, Harkness riffs about the arrival of migrants and the comfort that comes in seeing the world continue to turn as it should. One swallow does not a summer make but there is still that "they came back" assurance when the first of these annual visitors are suddenly noticed swooping overhead in bluer skies, rubber-stamping the banishment of darkness and cold.

This theme of nature offering us the consistency that the human world cannot is rife in nature writing. "Birds and nature are my anchor to the present. They're constant and reliable, in a way that people rarely are… Even when the world around us is a dark place, the birds still sing, they still migrate." As a sufferer of OCD, birdwatching has also allowed Harkness to exercise "ultimate focus" and "transcend into a state of being… with and being in tune with the land".

A curious title, then, one likely to stand out on the natural-history bookshelves. You read Harkness's practical advice and lessons, metred and steady-handed in their delivery, and it doesn't seem like rocket science (get outdoors, get distracted, clear the head). But that is to fall into the trap of assuming mental health is as readily identifiable or habitual as a wild bird. Embracing the empirical evidence underlying nature's role in our mental well-being might sound like demystification to some, but to others could offer a lifeline. That is its worth.

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