Hot House Mood
When I first moved to London I quickly realised I would need to spend A LOT of time outdoors. I’d rented a tiny attic room only a stone’s throw from Greenwich park. It was a grand old house, full of beautiful old printmaking machines, but only the bathroom and kitchen were communal. My room, right at the top of the house, was in some ways a little bit of an ivory tower....it was the only place I could go.
I missed having a garden, but I didn’t even realise it straight away. It's much harder to see the seasons changing in the city, but it was so full of other exciting things that it was easy not to notice. Before I moved I had been given some sage advice about making sure I didn’t end up tucked away in my room all the time (I have a slightly unfair reputation as an 'indoor' girl, what my dad calls a ‘reader’) but the truth is I almost immediately ignored it.
The most important thing, I thought, is FRESH AIR, right? As long as I’m getting some of that I'll be fine. And I made a big deal about getting it. At least half an hour a day come rain, snow or shine (although there is a lot less of the shine going on, it is London after all). I invested in snow boots for January, wellies for April, and in the summer I had my flip flops out before you could say lobster. I committed.
However, in spite of my good intentions, fairly quickly I started to get down. And I mean all the time.....I couldn’t shake the feeling off. I became physically and mentally grey.
At first, I didn’t quite understand what was happening. I guessed I must be tired, or stressed? Moving is pretty stressful, and so is being in a big city. But, knowing that the situation could be a one-way ticket to depression, I decided to get right on it. I joined the local pool and went swimming, and took free meditation classes across the other side of London (which would have been relaxing except for the constant drama-rama of London transport. There was an ‘incident’ with a pram and a yoghurt that still makes me shudder to this day….).
It was all good adulting, but it didn’t take the edge off - in fact, I maybe even felt worse. My evening walks, the only bit of nature time I had actually been giving myself, had now been replaced with emergency ‘activities’ in the hope of shoo-ing off my growing gloom.
The lightbulb moment came on a trip up to Lincoln. Lincoln is Ye Olde. Roman walls, cobbled streets and medieval cafes. It’s a great place to escape from big city problems. I decided to re-visit one of my favourite secret hangouts, which is tucked away around the back of the castle, and the sort of place that I only know about if someone cooler-than-me showed me where it is.
This particular treasure is the Joseph Banks Conservatory, and as a student I would spend hours there. It is a Victorian glass-dome conservatory, full of exotic plants collected by the dashing explorer (Mr Banks) from his adventures through far-flung lands. It is a whole other world of lacy palms and tangy bright flowers, and has that beautiful milky-warm air that you only find in tropical hothouses - or if you’re a bit more exciting than me - along the equator. A little stream runs through the middle of it with colossal koi fish lazily floating past. Best of all, right in the centre, with the trickly water chiming all around you….. there are giant beanbags. To me the beanbag is a magical piece of furniture, the moment you sit on it you instantly feel exactly the same way that it looks. Like a happy, slouchy potato. I slumped down into one and spent an hour just breathing it all in.
Finally, I felt good.
So, what was going on? What was it about this giant bubble full of weird plants that had given me the first easy moment I’d had in weeks? Was it just that I needed a beanbag? It took me a while, but eventually I put my finger on it. It was being surrounded by so many living things. I know that it might sound like a random spiritual awakening, and perhaps I needed to go off to 'find myself' in a remote South American jungle (I wish!), but I decided to look into it further.
What I discovered is that plant-keeping has a lot of verifiable benefits apart from just looking pretty. Plants have a real physical effect on us. They impact your mood, boost your immune system and reduce loneliness......pretty powerful stuff. The thing that felt so surprising to me was how quickly it had changed the way I felt, just being near them. It had taken a matter of minutes.
Thinking about it all afterwards the whole thing started to make a lot of sense.
After all, humans did not evolve in London house shares. We are homo sapiens, not homo suburbians. We evolved in places like rainforests, wild jungles, hanging out way up in the canopy. We are meant to be surrounded by life and growing things. And lots of sweets. Well, fruit, but it’s essentially the same thing.
What happened to me in the conservatory was that my brain was getting a taste of something it needed but didn’t know how to ask for. After all, you don’t crave plants in the same way that you get hungry, or thirsty. And what was I supposed to do with this new revelation anyway? I couldn’t very well move into the Joseph Banks Conservatory (although if I could, I might).
I also had a different but equally perplexing problem, which is that under my careful ministrations, plants inevitably FAILED.
I don’t want to be unfair to my green frondy friends but it’s just a fact.They bail. They might come out of the garden centre looking as if they'd survive a stint at Jurassic park, but within days they are FReAKinG OuT. A plant only had to sit on my windowsill for 10 minutes before it started to wilt. My room had the same effect on plants that it had on me.
I needed a way to cheat both myself and plants into thinking that where I lived was actually some sort of beautiful jungle paradise, when it was definitely not.
It was time for some emergency-greenery. On the way home I made a decision that has ultimately changed my whole way of living. I would buy myself a plant, some hardy little nuclear plant, and I would find a way to keep it alive…..no matter what.